12 Tips for Punctuating Sentences in Your Novel
Chapter 7 “Editing” – Section 5 “Punctuation”
“No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a period put just at the right place.” ~Isaac Babel
At the beginning stages of writing, presenting punctuation often seems like the enforcement of an arbitrary set of rules by which the man can judge us and assign value to our writing, as opposed to looking at the quality of what we are saying. Perhaps this is because of how grammar is taught in schools—not as a useful tool for enhancing our writing and making it powerful but as a set of grammar laws to be enforced whether we like it or not. So today we are going to be looking at the power in every given form of punctuation, as well as how to use is to strengthen your sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and novel as a whole.
The Period ( . )
The period is the most basic and most underrated punctuation mark. We use a period at the end of any sentence which is not a question or exclamation. I've already used three of them in this paragraph alone. I say that it is underrated because writers often do not see the beauty and simplicity within a sentence which requires no exclamation point or other form of punctuation. Our goal as writers is to rely as little as possible on the emphasis created by punctuation; and to use our words choice and sentence composition to carry the emotion and pace within a sentence. So, whenever possible, always use the period in favor of anything else. Also, remember that a complete sentence requires both a subject and a predicate (like we talked about in the tutorial on sentences).
After driving off the road, into the heart of the Narrator, Blake opened his eyes.
The Question Mark ( ? )
When our sentences are written in the form of a question, we communicate this to our readers by using a question mark. In novel writing, this is usually done in one of three ways: a question asked by a character, a question thought by the character and communicated by the narrator, and a question posed by the narrator to the audience.
“Where am I?” Blake asked, speaking to nobody in particular as he looked around at the empty blackness.
This is an example of a question being asked by the character. This can, of course, be used to address another character. But, in the above example, Blake is talking to himself. This fits within the context of the narrative because Blake is the eccentric sort of character who talks to himself. But if our character is not prone to this type of dialogue, we made need to use the narrator to pose the question in the character's mind.
There was nobody around to answer Blake's question. Was this a dream? Had Blake died in the car crash? These and a thousand other thoughts filled his head.
This form of questioning is also much more suited to when the character has questions but is surrounded by people he/she doesn't want to hear those questions, or if the protagonist is not prone to talking to him/herself aloud. Now, the last common usage for the question mark comes only in novels with a very present narrator—that is a narrator who is a character with a very obvious personality and who is telling the story. In these cases, the narrator can actually ask the audience a question; though you'll do best to make most of those rhetorical questions as you can't count on most readers to answer questions aloud. Unless they are children, answering questions aloud would break the flow of their reading.
Blake vaguely remembered what had happened before awaking in this place. He had been driving a truck to Virginia to find and kill the Narrator … who is me. Let me tell you, it does not feel particularly good when your character drives a truck into your heart, whether literal or metaphorical (as any tragedy writer will attest to). Also, what sort of stupid plot convenience puts the antagonist's heart off the side of a bridge for the hero to luckily find and drive into? I'll tell you what kind of plot: a lazy one.
The Exclamation Point ( ! )
The infamous exclamation point is the punctuation mark used to create emphasis and loud emotions. So why do many writers hate it so? The answer is that many, if not most, readers interpret a sentence with a an exclamation mark as yelling or screaming. So while you may want your character to say “Oh!” with a tone of minor surprise, many of your readers are going to be imagining a Gerard Butler level death cry; the exclamation mark is that potent. So unless your protagonist is screaming at the top of his/her lungs at a Persian messenger that this messenger is indeed in Sparta before kicking said Persian in the chest down a well, the best option is to stick with the period and let the emotion in your text speak for itself.
“Totodile! Ivysaur!” Blake screamed into the darkness, searching frantically to see if his two cats had made it to the dark realm.
Oh, and before we leave the exclamation point in in its tool-case to be sparingly used, I want to address an age-old question that writing students have been asking since the famous caveman novels were around. Is it alright to double up on the exclamation mark and question mark if a question is screamed at a dramatic moment? No, it is never alright. When you do that, you make your novel read like a badly punctuated text messages from your mom asking where on god's earth you are out at so late at night. In these cases, simply use an exclamation point and lose the question mark; your readers will get it. And by the way, mom, I was at my friend's bar mitzvah and yes they served drinks and yes they were delicious! (I can use the exclamation mark here because I am a theatrical person by nature. Sorry, I don't make the rules, I just follow them … or not, as the case merits.)
“We're here. Why are you yelling!” Totodile screamed back at Blake, wrinkling her forehead irritably at all the noise he was making as she stepped from behind him, alongside Ivysaur.
The Comma ( , )
Now we move to the most common and perhaps most confusing punctuation mark, the comma. The comma is used for listing items, for separating clauses and phrases from the main sentence, and for creating clarifications in sentences. If you don't know what a clause or phrase is, please go back to the tutorial on sentences where I explain them at length. For this tutorial I'm going to stick to the of listing items and creating clarifications. As for its application to writing, it is as useful as the period but also as taken for granted. There are many fancy ways of joining sentences, clauses, and phrases together, and most of the time the comma is the man/woman for the job (depending, of course, on which gender you feel your comma identifies as).
Darkness surrounded Blake and all he could see were Ivysaur, Totodile, and a formless figure who emerged from the shadows.
Note that in the above list of “Ivysaur, Totodile, and a formless figure” I have put a comma in front of Totodile. This is called an Oxford comma and is somewhat debated during uppity dinners where English teachers get together and rant about “lay vs lie” and how “irregardless” isn't a word. All you need to know is that it is optional, that some people think that it makes lists more clear, that you can choose the one you like, that my opinion is the best opinion, that I like the Oxford comma, and that your immortal soul will be judged based on whether or not you used it in this life. (You see how I talked about using commas to list things in the form of a list with commas? That's called a “meta-comma” TM Blake's visionary ideas.) Now, the second major use for a comma is to create a clarification or to give additional information.
Blake, the unfortunate hero of this story, felt a chill go down his spine.
What we've done above is to create a small pocket of information that is unessential to the structure of the sentence. Of course, this can be taken further and other punctuation used for a similar effect (so remember this point for later) but for now just remember that it can be used to clarify and to give added information. We then use the two commas to mark the place where the additional info starts and ends; you can judge whether you've done this correctly by whether the core of sentence still makes sense without that segment. (e.g. “Blake felt a chill go down his spine.) Last, we use commas to separate clauses (basically a mini-sentence within a sentence) and phrases (incomplete mini-sentences within a sentence) from the core of a sentence, particularly when the clause or phrase is not an essential component to the core of the sentence. I'll give an example of each, even though I said I wasn't going to, because the compulsive grammar demon I am possessed by demands it.
Blake pointed at the shadow, but he was unable to say anything.
Note that each of these two clauses have both a subject “Blake” and “he” and a predicate “pointed” and “was”. We separate these two clauses by a comma to clarify to the reader that these are two almost completely separate sentence that could stand on their own, were in not for the conjunction “but”. Doing so makes the sentence just a little easier to read and, in occasional cases, drastically changes the meaning of the sentence. Now, if we were dealing with two clauses that depended on one another, we would not need a comma (as with the sentence below).
This was a surprise to all who knew that Blake always had something to say. (Again, we have two subjects “this” and “Blake” and two predicates “was” and “had”. But in this case, the core of the sentence “This was a surprise to all who knew that” is a clause that is dependent on the second clause in order to be a complete sentence. Hence, no comma.)
Seeing the ghostly specter, Blake simply couldn't get the words to come out.
Note that the phrase “Seeing the ghostly specter” has a predicate but no subject, making it a phrase instead of a clause. (It would also be a phrase if it had a subject but no predicate.) We separate them with a comma because the phrase is not essential. If the phrase were essential, there would be no comma like in the prepositional phrase below: “into the specter's eyes”.
Blake tried to look into the specter's eyes.
The Semicolon ( ; )
The semicolon, as what its appearance suggests, is the love-child of a comma and a period. In writing we use these when we have two full sentences, complete with subject and predicate, but feel very strongly that those two sentences belong together. It's a bit tricky to use without creating run-on sentences; but I have faith that you can figure it out (again, that was a meta-semicolon). Just think of the semi-colon as the Matchmaker (or Celestina, depending on how much you like classical Spanish Lit) of sentences. Use them only as needed—not necessarily with rarity but also not constantly.
“What is this place?” Blake asked the shadow, when he was finally able to speak.
The shadow looked at him and replied, “This is limbo, the world between worlds; it's where you go if you kill the narrator of your own story, who also happens to be you.”
The secondary purpose of a semicolon is to serve as a comma when listing very long items that may have commas of their own. In writing, we sometimes use these to list characters and their descriptions within a single sentence. This is important if your protagonist suddenly meets a bunch of characters that the reader is familiar with but has not seen in a while, in order give them a quick refresher on what the returning characters look like.
Blake, the pale-skinned fellow with long tangled hair; Totodile, the small and slightly chunky little white kitty with gray spots; and Ivysaur, the small brown kitty with black stripes and a miniature lion's mane; all looked at the shadow figure in confusion.
The Colon ( : )
The colon is a tricky little pair of stacked boogers that serve a very specific purpose: they punctuate a clause that is designed to knowingly and very obviously introduce a word, clause, phrase, or list. In other words, when you write part of a sentence that is meant to introduce the main point or a list of items, and you do not want to be subtle in the least, you use a colon. I'll demonstrate examples of both, below. Note that the colon should be used with the utmost rarity, and only when you are throwing all forms of subtle sentence-building out the window, as a comma or no punctuation at all will serve this purpose better in most situations.
Blake lifted an index finer and said, “So you're telling me that there is a place that is meant specifically for people who kill the narrator version of themselves through the fourth wall: limbo.” (Note how the entire sentence is very obviously serving to introduce a main point.
“That seems awfully specific,” Totodile said, also seeing the problem with the idea.
“That's not the only way you get here,” the shadow added, holding up his hands defensively. “It's also where you go for the following reasons: if you manage to eat yourself feet-first, if you suck up the cord to the same vacuum cleaner that you're using, or if you make a phone call to and from yourself from the same phone. That's why jaws are small, vacuum cords are thick, and phones no longer allow you to call yourself. Limbo was a bit of a nightmare before that was fixed.”
Parentheses and Brackets [ ( ) ]
Parentheses work a lot like the commas for giving additional information. The difference is that they can be much longer and span entire sentences while still being part of the core sentence (I mean, you don't want to make them too long or too often. Otherwise, your readers may forget what you were originally talking about as you go on and on withing the parentheses. Now … what was I talking about?) Oh yes! The parentheses can be a writer's best friend or his/her worst enemy. When you use parentheses, you make your narrator sound like he/she is whispering (similarly to how an exclamation mark makes you sound like you're shouting). More specifically, you make your audience feel like the narrator is putting an arm around your reader's shoulder in a friendly way, taking them aside, and whispering something in secret (yep, that's what I'm doing right now. Don't you feel like we're really bonding here?). This is a fantastic tool if your narrator is a friendly and very present sort but exactly the opposite of what you want if you want your narrator to be invisible so that the focus of the reader is fully on the story.
Blake (who wasn't too sure about this whole explanation of limbo) nodded agreeably and began to look around for an exit.
Brackets are use when you want to create parentheses inside of parentheses. I highly recommend against doing this, unless you are writing extremely farcical [that is absurd and cartoonish (not that I have a problem with absurd or cartoonish. I'm actually a very big fan)] humor. The reason? It's a bit silly to go that meta in most cases, and there are much better ways of giving extra information within you first set of parentheses, given a little thought and creativity.
Totodile and Ivysaur [who (as you probably remember) had tried to murder Blake a few months back] lined up behind him and also started searching. None of them trusted this shadow monster.
ANN - Chapter 9 - Our Terrifying Descent
A Writer's Guide: Naming Characters
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Honestly, I can't tell you what my opinion is on the matter, yet. (also for words apart like 'honestly' in the last sentence.) According to everything I've ever learned, using a comma in those instances is the correct thing to do. However, there are countless cases I've encountered where the commas did not add to the pace or understanding of those sentences, but actually made them more confusing with the other internal punctuation. So I have not really decided what the correct solution is. I imagine I'll have a better thought out answer by the time I've done a little bit more thinking, had a little more practice in editing, and feel better equipped to drastically improve this tutorial. In as far as what to do nine time out of ten, when it doesn't cause any problem to the pace and understanding of my story, I generally use them.
But it is an excellent question. Do you have any insight or opinion on the matter?
I'd be interested to learn a bit more about different styles of comma usage, similar to the variation that surrounds the Oxford comma. Which I think should be used, but I will also admit to being old fashioned.
I consider parenthesis aesthetically unpleasing to the reader and can be considered a hard interruption in the story flow.
Joe(who was a double agent) snuck into the senator's office.
Joe, who was a double agent, snuck into the senator's office.
Which looks aesthetically better and which causes the least interruption?
I found a minor typo in your discussion of the period. You spelled 'exclamation' as 'excalamation'. I thought I'd let you know. I always hate it when I make typos. XD
I know what you meant, but omg...creaming fit so well in those few words XD you might change it now, but I say leave it lol