Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Punctuation and Fiction

Everyone had English classes throughout their schooling. You learned how to write a complete sentence, and how to make them compound, how to handle phrases, and how to punctuate it all. But you began to notice a difference as you began to read fiction and then write it. You know a period ends a sentence if it’s a statement or a question mark is used if the is a sentence question. But what about an exclamation point? How can you show excitement in your statement if you don’t use one? Sorry to tell you, but it’s time to toss out the exclamation point.

An exclamation point is appropriate after an exclamation: Ouch! Wow! Whew! or Stop!, but it’s not preferred at the end of a sentence, because it signals weak writing to an editor and often to a reader. When you create a novel, your work should be so exciting that the reader knows it is without your pointing it out with an exclamation point. If you can’t make the excitement vivid and understood, then it’s time to rework the sentence and read a book on good writing. When critiquing for newer writers, I have witnessed the overuse of exclamation points—sometimes multiple!!!!—and sometimes with other punctuation—What do you think!? Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. One is enough and in the later case, use a question mark.

The idea of writing this article on punctuation when an author asked the question on a writers’ loop. Her question involved the use of the em dash. She asked:
I have enjoyed using dashes in my dialogue to show action in the midst of dialogue and for an abrupt change of thought in dialogue. I'm trying to figure out if I overuse this technique.

This is how I responded:
An em dash, which is three short dashes that in most software become one long dash, is used to set apart intervening information that's not part of the sentence, but an insight or comment about what's being said. I use them in writing but I don't overdo it since publishers discourage them when they become a prop. They serve a specific purpose and are affective when used correctly.
Example: (coming from one woman's POV about another woman)
She laughed---the laugh that turns my stomach---and batted her eyes.

If you removed the thought set within the dashes and put it in a sentence of it's own, it would lose its effect and the drama of the words.

Another difference between fiction and non-fiction is the use of the colon and semicolon Although they are very common in business letters and non-fiction, they are less common in fiction. A semicolon is used to attach two sentences with connecting ideas rather than using a conjunction. That is a proper usage, but you will rarely find this in fiction. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find a sentence beginning with But or And which is considered inappropriate in non-fiction. It’s use for effect as an added thought. For example, I want to go with him. She rubbed her temples and lowered her head. But did she really?

Although commas are as common as the period in any form of writing, various publishers use commas differently. Most have you delete them in sentence likes Today, she wanted to find the answer to her question. The comma after today is not longer needed. Even longer phrases such as At the end of the day she’d be home. The attitude seems to be if it’s not needed for clarification don’t use it. When making a list of items, many publishers delete the comma in front of and. She rinsed the plates, cups and bowls before placing them in the dishwasher. Although these are editor's decisions, it's helpful if you know what the publisher prefers.

When it comes to punctuation, notice how its used when you read fiction and you can always check The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. They often have the answers. It’s a excellent resource book.


bigguysmama said...

I was so glad to read about commas. I have been adding them, in my mind, to books I read for quite some time now and wondered what was going on. It's good to know. I'm also an exclamation point user. Whenever I read/hear about exclamation points, I always think of Elaine from Seinfeld and her opinion of the use of exclamation point. Cracks me up!!! Thanks for these wonderful tips.

Mimi...a beginning writer

Gail Gaymer Martin said...

I love Seinfeld, too, Mimi. Thanks so much. I'm happy to hear this helped. The comma is a publishing thing as much as anything but the exclamation point is a no-no. Your words have to bring the sentences to life, not the punctuation. (grinning) Use them rarely.

Never apologize for being a beginning writer. We all started there and then we grew. You will do the same, and I see you're studying how to write since you're reading this blog. Naturally my book, Writing the Christian Romance has so much more in it, and actually can work for most any genre and secular, too, when it comes to the basic techniques in writing well-written fiction.
Thanks and blessings,