Q/A: Using Dashes in Your Screenplay

Q: I have a question about punctuation in scripts, specifically the dash. I understand it is used in dialogue for interruptions, and also when a thought changes suddenly. I have even seen it used in action and description as well. It always seems to consist of two hyphen marks with a space before and after. From what I’ve read it should be used for emphasis or when several related items need to stand apart from one another. But I’m still a bit confused. Can you identify and show examples of how the dash is most commonly used in dialogue, action, and description? -- Robert Hosking

Thanks for your question Robert. 

Generally, punctuation rules are the same for any type of writing (you may see a few variations based on which manual an editor uses, for example the Associated Press or The Chicago Manual of Style).

When it comes to the dash, there are two types of dashes, the em-dash and the en-dash. The en-dash is the width of the letter “n” and the em-dash is the width of the letter “m”. The em-dash can be written as one long extended dash (–) or two single dashes (--), always with a space before and after.

The en-dash is used to designate a range or when one part of an open compound is made up of two words, such as:

I work from 8-5 every day.”

“The score was 3-1 at halftime.”

“Robert is an Academy Award-winning screenwriter
.” (Note that the en-dash signifies the inclusion of Academy in the open compound, whereas a hyphen only includes the joined words.)

The em-dash is used most often to indicate emphasis or interruption. Commas and parenthesis are also used to enclose parenthetical elements. The difference is em-dashes mark a sharper disruption than commas and parenthesis indicate a still sharper one than em-dashes. The em-dash is also used for attribution (such as the usage above attributing Robert Hosking to today’s question) and as part of each slugline. Writing a well-structured, compelling script is the goal -- so don’t get too hung up on em-dashes.

Some screenwriters use em-dashes more than others. Shane Black may be the king of em-dashes when it comes to using them in description and action lines. You can view numerous examples in his script for Lethal Weapon (which you can download here).

Screenwriter David Marconi also likes the em-dash, as noted in this scene from Enemy of the State:

INT. CRYSTAL CITY, VIRGINIA, TALL OFFICE BLDG. - DAY

A well-appointed big-city law office filled with citations of merit and pictures of a wife and child. ROBERT DEAN, a likable young lawyer, sits behind his desk with his back to an OLDER MAN. He stares at a commanding view of Washington, D.C. as he listens to a tired, smoke and whiskey voice.

OLDER MAN (L.T.)
I don't know how much longer we can hold out, Mr. Dean.

DEAN
I don't know, either, L.T. Maybe you guys should get yourself a labor lawyer. 

L.T.
Well that's why I'm here, Mr. Dean. 'Cause you're a labor lawyer.

DEAN
Good point.

L.T.
Last night, Larry Spinks, he works the Steel Press, he goes to a bar with his wife Rosalie to have a glass of chianti 'cause it's his birthday, and these two guys, these Guido mother-fuckers, they jump him when he goes to the bathroom.

DEAN
L.T., in this office I'd prefer you say Italian-Americans.

L.T.
I'm sorry, Mr. Dean. But Larry's in St. Lukes now, so I'm a little -- I'm not myself. The Union bosses say unless we take Bellmoth's offer, it'll only get worse.

DEAN
That's because your Union bosses are those Guido mother-fuckers.

L.T.
I don't under -- 

DEAN
The Union's trying to railroad you into accepting terms worse than what you have now.

L.T.
Why would the Union --

Dean swivels around in his chair and faces L.T.

DEAN
Because they've been paid off by Bellmoth.

L.T.
Mr. Dean --

DEAN
My name's Bobby. I'm your lawyer. Don't do anything 'till I talk to you.

Dean gets up and walks a grateful L.T. to the door, calling to his secretary as they go --

DEAN (CONT'D)
(calling)
Martha! Larry Spinks, St. Lukes. Send him a case of chianti from the firm. And send his wife Rosalie some flowers.