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Use Words, Not Punctuation, To Tell Your Story

on September 25th, 2011 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on September 25, 2011

I’m not dissing punctuation, and I certainly know that the right punctuation can bring not only clarity but shading and drama to a scene, but I want to remind writers not to overly rely on punctuation to drive a story.

Punctuation marks—comma, exclamation point, question mark, dash, semicolon, colon, ellipsis, slash, quotation marks, parentheses, and period—have their places in our writing. Beyond doing the necessary, they can also be used to steer attention toward a word or phrase, add emphasis, or distract. Punctuation choices can be used to change pace and manipulate tension.

But when a writer uses weak words and instead relies on punctuation to both create and sustain the drama, the story suffers.

An exclamation point in every sentence of a scene does not create an exciting scene. It does create a visual on the page. A distracting visual that can annoy the reader as well as proclaim that the writer had no idea how to make words work the story.

Punctuation used beyond the expected purposes can slow the reader’s progress. Any time a reader has to stop to figure out what’s going on, has to re-read or backtrack, that reader is pulled away from the fiction.

We all hate when it happens to us. We’re rolling along with Pete Martini, dodging bullets and wisecracks and wise guys, when suddenly we’re pulled up short by a phrase that makes no sense. It could be the words, a typo, or an odd sentence structure. It could be a wacky piece of punctuation that draws the eye and causes us to mentally shake our head and think, “Huh?”

As readers, we don’t like it, and as writers, we shouldn’t do it. Put yourself in your reader’s shoes, especially when you’re rewriting or editing, and take out anything that would slow the reader’s journey through your tale. 

If it’s distracting or unclear, fix it or take it out.

The Nitty-gritty

Use exclamation points sparingly. They have their place in children’s stories and for select moments in adult fiction, but they lose their punch when overused. Instead of the exclamation point, use words to convey excitement or menace.  Shorten sentences to add snap or tension. Insert a one- or two-word paragraph into a free-flowing passage for impact.

Never use both the exclamation point and the question mark together. Choose one. Is it more important to show the question or the exclamation? If you’ve included evocative or powerful or pinpoint-accurate words, your choice should be obvious.

Don’t be a lazy writer. You’re the author; you get to do the work. Don’t make readers decide a passage is frightening because you’ve thrown in an exclamation point at the end. Choose words that convey fright and make that fright clear throughout the passage.

Don’t tell readers what to feel via punctuation. Do introduce emotion through word choice and the unfolding of the action.

Don’t overuse any punctuation mark. Even used correctly, some punctuation just jumps out at the reader. The exclamation point, of course, can be quite noticeable. So are dashes, the ellipsis, quotation marks, and parentheses. Use them, yes. But don’t use them in every paragraph or even on every page.

Substitute italics for quotation marks where possible. Use commas rather than parentheses, if you can.

Consider the visual effect of punctuation. Look at your pages without reading the words. What do you see? If you’re relying on the visuals to snare the reader, reconsider what you’ve written. Readers are expecting fiction in novels, not a layout of words and punctuation that reminds them of business reports. Tell the story as you have to, but don’t forget what it looks like, on the surface, to readers unfamiliar with it.

Change sentence format and structure. If all your sentences meander, with many, many commas and semicolons, change up your format every once in a while. Those many commas will start to jump out at the reader, especially over the length of a novel. And they’ll bother him. And no one wants readers too annoyed to finish a book.

Consider your approach to character asides. Some writers use parentheses exclusively to indicate a character’s side revelation to the reader. Yet, if you’re using first-person narration, you’ve already given readers access to a character’s thoughts. Determine if it’s necessary to add the visual of parentheses to highlight those thoughts.

I strolled on the south side of the First Avenue (a cheap way to up my tanning time) and prepared to meet Gus Costanza, Mr. Remington’s enforcer.

I strolled on the south side of First Avenue, a cheap way to up my tanning time, and prepared to meet Gus Costanza, Mr. Remington’s enforcer.

Limit uses of unusual punctuation in a sentence or paragraph. Unusual punctuation marks do stand out, so don’t overburden any single section of writing with too many of one kind (or even too many of a mix of marks).

The em dash is often used in pairs. Does a sentence really need more than one pair? It could use them, but is it necessary and does the use hinder the flow or does it enhance the drama?

Barry—head held high and chest pressed forward—raced toward his sister while she—equally proud and stubborn—ran the other direction.

Personally, I think this sentence works well. But would I like to see a lot of this? Not in every sentence. And I wouldn’t like to see the dash combined with parentheses.

Barry—head held high and chest pressed forward—raced toward his sister while she—equally proud and stubborn—ran (or more accurately, jogged) the other direction.

Can you break the punctuation rules? You know my answer to that—of course you can. But choose your rule-breaking opportunities for maximum impact. And play by the rules when doing so enhances the story.

Always remember the reader. Make the experience of reading your fiction one of satisfaction, even if your story is intended to rile the reader. Let the plot or a character drive readers mad rather than leaving that to a poor use of punctuation.

Let the story—words and action, dialogue and character and emotion and conflict—draw the reader’s focus. Push punctuation to the background, where it can work without pulling attention away from the plot and impinging on your characters’ lives.

Use words to tell your story. Use punctuation to frame it.

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Tags:     Posted in: Grammar & Punctuation, Writing Tips

4 Responses to “Use Words, Not Punctuation, To Tell Your Story”

  1. Kai says:

    Thanks again for a great post, Beth.

    I’m currently just over 6000 words into my first manuscript, and this has come at a great time to remind me of my punctuation usage before I establish a bad habit.

    In regards to exclamation marks, I have used them sparingly (perhaps only twice or three times so far) and I always pause to consider whether it is okay to use, for example:

    “You’re so slow,” she shouted.
    or
    “You’re so slow!”
    or perhaps a combination (though it looks to be repeating itself), such as:
    “You’re so slow!” she shouted.

    It is both faux pas to overuse words other than “he/she said” and punctuation (which this post has outlined). This sometimes leaves me wondering how I should approach dialogue during scenes with conflict, especially between more than two characters.

    I would appreciate any thoughts you have on this. :)

  2. Great questions, Kai.

    I’d almost always reserve the exclamation point for dialogue or a character’s thought, otherwise it’s melodramatic. He fell down the stairs, with the ghost chasing him! And a little goes a long way, so I would definitely not overdo.

    All of your examples would work, depending on what else was used around those sentences and the feel you were going for. That said, I do like “You’re so slow!” It’s compact and gets the job done.

    I’m not sure what you’re looking for in your approach to dialogue between multiple characters. All scenes should have conflict, and that includes scenes of dialogue.

    With multiple characters, you can have shifting alliances or two characters could gang up on a third. They could agree and disagree and then disagree some more.

    As for the dialogue tags, you do have to use them to identify speakers, so if you have multiple characters speaking, either use the tags or use action beats to identify them. And remember that each character doesn’t always have to offer a verbal response. Someone can flounce onto a chair and another can roll his eyes.

    Characters can also speak over one another, as people often do. They can ignore each other and deliberately misunderstand. Writing dialogue is fun. You get to drop characters into hot water and yet all they’re doing is talking. But miscommunication is great for building fictional conflict.

    Did I touch on the issue you were wondering about?

  3. Kai says:

    Thank you for your reply, Beth.

    Yes, you have cleared up those issues I had about exclamation usage. As you mentioned, verbal responses are not always necessary. It really is great advice because it is easy to get lost writing down a volley of dialogue and forget that people don’t stand completely still as they do so, and may choose to ignore, interrupt, talk over, and so on.

    My story is centred on two sisters who discover their family’s secret. I was incorrect in saying “dialogue during scenes with conflict” because the whole plot is moved along through conflict involving parents, strangers and each other. But thank you for pointing that out.

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