Punctuation is one of those things that writers pay less attention, mainly because they’re too busy worrying about the more technical aspects of writing, like descriptions, plot twists, subplots and so on.
But punctuation is important.
Whether it’s full stops, commas, quote marks, exclamations, question marks, dashes, semicolons, apostrophes or ellipsis – they should all be presented correctly, otherwise reading and understanding the narrative might become difficult and not worth the reader’s time. The moment a reader has to stop and re-read something to figure out what the writer is trying to say is the moment the storytelling breaks.
Writing relies on the right punctuation to make it effective. It shouldn’t distract or render the writing ambiguous or unclear, but instead it should emphasise, create attention and help bring the fiction to life. More importantly, it should make the writing clear and understandable.
Perfect punctuation requires a broad knowledge of how writing works. That means using full stops (periods), commas, exclamation marks, dashes and other punctuation marks in the right manner, so, of course, there are some obvious mistakes writers make with punctuation.
The most common mistake is the overuse of exclamation marks, which can prove distracting. While they are useful to exclaim and express surprise or fear in certain situations, writers rely too heavily on these when trying to create various emotions or when creating tension. Rather than showing this through description, character actions or dialogue, they use exclamation marks, for example:
‘John! Get out of the way! The car is out of control!’
If this seems familiar – there is a way around it. Look at how description and actions could show the reader that sense of fear (or indeed sadness or joy), rather than placing an exclamation mark in an attempt to create the drama.
Jessica’s eyes shot wide and her voice sliced through the air. She raised her hands. ‘John, get out of the way…the car is out of control.’
The combination of description and dialogue in this example helps create the emotion, without the need for any exclamation mark. While there is no rule, per se, one exclamation mark every now and then is sufficient to express reactions and create the right impact. It’s quite possible to have less than ten exclamations in an entire 90,000 word novel. It’s one of those things that the adage, “less is more” really is true. Don’t rely too much on them.
Semicolons; often thought of as the same as commas, but they are not the same and both have different functions. They work to link two similar independent clauses, or two independent clauses without the need for conjunctions. But it’s not as complicated as it sounds. For example, at the start of the paragraph above, the semi colon separates the subject (semicolons) from the independent clause. The following examples show how useful semicolons can be:
They could travel during the break in the weather; Monday especially.
She glimpsed the rainbow; beautiful and colourful against the darkened sky.
They change the way we look at narrative; stronger than commas and less definite than full stops.
Semi colons can also be used to separate items in a list, for instance:
He packed shirts, boots, waterproofs, a hat; those necessary for unpredictable weather.
If anything, semicolons are not used enough in writing, as most writers avoid using them, or simply think commas will do the job. But writers should learn about them and use them in their writing to their advantage. A well placed semicolon is much better than a badly placed comma.
One punctuation mark that often baffles writers is the em-dash. This is the long dash – rather than the short one -. It’s used to emphasise a longer pause between sentences, or a subtle aside. Sometimes it’s a good way to show dialogue ending abruptly, for example:
John – unable to show his fear – scanned the eager faces before him.
‘I was told to call. I had no idea you were—’
But – and she could have been mistaken – she was sure she had seen him.
The first example creates a longer pause before continuing with the narrative. The second one shows the dialogue ending abruptly, and the third one shows an aside – that the character could have been mistaken in her thoughts, which is done without interrupting the flow of the narrative.
While commas hint at very brief pauses, the em-dash deliberately slows the reader and creates that longer pause, which is why they are such effective punctuation marks. But as with all of them, use them correctly.
Ellipses…those three full stops (periods), are simple visual prompts to the reader that there is a sense of tension, drama or even expectation. It’s a Greek term, meaning “omission”, or in laymen’s terms, something missed out. And in fictional writing, it’s that sense of something missing that writers create the effect, for example:
She turned the key and waited. Then, somewhere beyond the door, she thought she heard a curdled voice...
He thought he heard...something...anything beyond his senses.’
John...you did say you would do this.’
But what if there is a new sentence that follows ellipses? Should it be three dots, four, or maybe a space? The answer is that a full stop (period) should still be placed after the ellipses, to show complete sentences, so it looks like four dots in a row, for example:
They knew his name....They had seen it on the letter.
They knew his name is a complete sentence, followed by ellipses. This is followed by another complete sentence, They had seen it on the letter, so a full stop is required after the ellipses to show the complete sentences.
Question marks are for questions, not statements. If there is a question, either in the narrative or from a character in dialogue, then it must have a question mark. Writers sometimes confuse statements with questions and vice versa.
John peered at Jessica. ‘Do you suppose he knew that?’
John peered at Jessica. ‘You don’t suppose he knew that?’
John peered at Jessica. ‘Don’t suppose he knew that.’
The first two examples are questions. The third example sounds like it’s a question, but it’s a statement and doesn’t require a question mark. Knowing the difference between a direct question, declaration or statement makes punctuation clear to the reader.
What if the question mark comes in the middle of the sentence of multiple questions? Is there supposed to be one, or should it be omitted? The answer is that a question mark should be used, even though the sentence might look a little awkward, for example:
‘Where are Jane’s keys? and where’s the car?’
There is one thing writers should avoid when using questions marks - never use an exclamation point and the question mark together. It’s not necessary and it looks amateurish.
Next week we’ll look at things like commas, quote marks, hyphens and apostrophes.