Getting to grips with simple punctuation – Part 2

Following on from part 1, we’ll take a look at the remainder of simple punctuation, such as Semi Colons, Colons, Question and Exclamation Marks, and Dashes, and how to use them effectively in fiction writing.

These are useful little things, and often underused. There are those who argue against their use, however, when used correctly, they add so much to the readability of a story and can alter a sentence dramatically.
They can separate two independent clauses that are too closely linked for a full stop to interrupt the flow and pace, for example:

He barely had time to digest her news; she broke it to him, gleeful.
The light flickered; she knew she was in trouble.
Semi colons can be used to introduce an independent clause preceded by an adverb, such as then, so or however. For example:

John thought she’d forgotten, as always; so he left it.
He wondered why she hadn’t showed; then he remembered.

While they are very useful, try not to overdo them. One thing to remember, however, is that semi colons should never be used where a comma will suffice. 

These are not used as much as commas and semi colons, but they still have their uses.  And, surprisingly, they still cause writers problems, because they’re never quite sure if they should use them or where they should be used.
Colons can be used in place of commas when introducing speech that suggests directness, for example:

She said: ‘Get out.’
He knew what followed: Death.
You will also notice I have used colons to express examples…for example:

Colons, on the whole, don’t make too many appearances in narrative, but like all other punctuation, they should be used correctly and in moderation.
Question and Exclamation Marks

This is another area that can confuse writers.  Firstly, any direct question must be followed by a question mark.
Are you coming with us?
Do you like the colour blue?
What time is it?
What do I care?

These examples are all direct questions, so if your characters are asking direct questions, they must have question marks.  In narrative, if the author is asking an open question, that must also be followed by a question mark.
John watched from the window.  What was he supposed to do?

Indirect questions don’t need questions, even if they sound as though they might:
Now where could it be, you’ve hidden it so well.
I don’t suppose you care much.
I wonder if he’s bringing Dave with him.

Something else that writers struggle with is where to place a question mark if the when using interior dialogue or character thoughts. For example:
Now what, he wondered.
Now what? he wondered.

The first example reads more like a statement, and doesn’t look right, however, it’s perfectly acceptable to place the question mark directly after the question being asked, as per the second example. 

The other thing to remember is not to place a full stop or a comma after a question mark after question marks or exclamation marks because they already include the full stop.
So what about exclamation marks? (Notice this is a direct question, therefore it needs the question mark).

Exclamation marks are always overused by writers. Beginners pepper their fiction with them, thinking that they will add drama or emotion, when in fact the narrative should do that work for them. 
The following examples are exclamation uses that are not required.

‘Oh, you sill thing!’
‘That’s not fair!’
‘I love this!’
The rule of thumb is this: use exclamation marks for genuine exclamations.
He saw the danger. ‘Stop!’
Terror rose up her throat. ‘Help!’

The dash is another one of those little punctuation marks that should be used effectively and in moderation. They can be used singularly or as a pair to parenthesise a phrase.

Pairs are often used in place of commas to separate parts of the narrative, for instance:
The fact that she lied – and she knew this – made Jane angry.

The separated part ‘and she knew this’ is informing the reader, like a little aside.  The sentence still makes sense without it. The same is true of this example:
The part she’d dreaded – the climb – made her stomach bunch.

Always make sure that when you separate narrative with dashes, it makes sense when you read it, otherwise you lose the effect you are trying to achieve and it loses readability.
Singular dashes are often used to add dramatic tone to a surprising end to a sentence.

He tripped over his feet – by then it was too late, and he fell down the slope.
He swung the pole – angry at the intruder...

Dashes can also be placed at the end of a sentence to show a speaker has been interrupted or someone else has cut in with dialogue, for example:

‘I could always take the dog for a w--’
‘Don’t bother,’ she said.

All punctuation has a place in writing, but it’s how writers use it that matters.  Correct usage is paramount if writers want the right effect within their narrative. Knowing when and where to place punctuation is key.

Next week: Creating dramatic dialogue


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