Fiction Style Guide: Punctuation
The more you get right in your manuscript before submitting to editors, the less work they'll have to do on mechanical issues—and the more time they can spend on making your writing shine. Plus, learning the conventions of fiction style* can save you money.
*This is Articulate Editing house style, which is based on The Chicago Manual of Style (the style guide most often used with book publishing), generally accepted fiction conventions, and a pinch of personal opinion. Most of what is written here will apply across the board. If a guideline has wiggle room, I'll let you know. And if you're working with a publisher, make sure you follow their specifications, as their house style may differ slightly. (This style guide also applies to creative nonfiction.)
Commas will soon have their own blog post
Whole books have been written about punctuation—a really good one is The Best Punctuation Book, Period by June Casagrande—so it would be pretty difficult to cover every punctuation rule in a blog post. But if you're a writer, you probably know to put periods at the end of sentences without me telling you anyway. This post, therefore, will mostly concern itself with those style issues and punctuation rules that are most relevant to fiction manuscripts.
→ Only one space follows a period. No matter what your (my) typing teacher taught you in 1987. Times change.
→ If a sentence ends with an abbreviation that takes a period, the sentence ending period is omitted.
Today I awoke at 4:30 a.m. Tomorrow I'll sleep in.
→ All other punctuation marks can follow a period that is part of an abbreviation.
You really woke up at 4:30 a.m.?
This is the only situation where a question mark or exclamation point will follow a period.
→ A question mark or exclamation point will take the place of an ending period, even if the exclamation point or question mark belong to a title.
I read Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? It was excellent.
→ In US English, periods always go inside closing quotation marks, whether double or single.
I just love the word "literally". X
"Oh dear," Gladys said. "I forgot to read 'The Raven.' " ✓
→ Periods can be used between words to show staccato speech or frustration. This effect has become popular in some genres, but can become annoying if overused.
"Worst. Day. Ever."
But ... this can look awkward mid-sentence.
It was the worst. Day. Ever. X
→ Sentence fragments are okay for dramatic effect. Just don't overdo.
Yup. That's how it happened. Exactly like that.
Exclamation points and question marks
→ Only one at a time, please! Unless you're writing a comic book.
Who could it be?? X
→ Avoid using a question mark and an exclamation point together. There may be times when an exception can be made for creative purposes, but in general, this is considered an amateur move. If more emphasis is needed, consider italics.
→ Keep exclamation points to a minimum! Too many exclamation points creates melodrama! Which undermines rather than increases reader excitement!
→ Don't overcorrect by banning all exclamation points. Sometimes they're necessary, especially in dialogue.
"Stop this instant," he shouted. X
"Stop this instant!" he shouted. ✓
→ Both exclamation points and question marks can occur mid-sentence when used parenthetically.
So Mary came over to me—does she think I'm stupid or something?—and grabbed it right out of my hands.
He kissed me (!) before he left.
→ Indirect questions never take question marks.
The question is why she thought it was a good idea in the first place.
He wondered if it was a good idea.
Is it a good idea? he wondered.
The question is, Why did she think it was a good idea in the first place?
→ You can sometimes use a period with what would ordinarily be a question to change the inflection.
Will everyone please take your seat.
Why don't you just die.
→ When dialogue ends with a question mark or an exclamation point, the first word of the tag still needs to be lowercase.
"Well, that just stinks!" He bellowed. X
"Well, that just stinks!" he bellowed. ✓
"Well, that just stinks, doesn't it?" he asked. ✓
Colons have lots of uses, but only a few for fiction writing. Some writers of genre fiction find them too formal, but writers of literary fiction use them more frequently. A dash can often be used in place of a colon.
→ Use the colon to introduce a list. Many writers don't like to use colons in dialogue, so a dash can be a good substitute. Another option that works well in dialogue is to use a period and make the list a sentence fragment.
We have three different proteins that you can add to your salad: chicken, ham, or hard-boiled egg.
We have three different proteins you can add to your salad—chicken, ham, or hard-boiled egg.
We have three different proteins you can add to your salad. Chicken, ham, or hard-boiled egg.
→ The colon can connect two independent clauses, or connect a word or phrase to the end of an independent clause. Use it where you want to create a sense of expectancy. Think of the sentence before the colon as rising tension, and what comes after the colon as resolution of that tension. When the reader arrives at the colon, they should anticipate additional information that explains or expands on what came before. Don't leave them hanging!
He had only two choices: concede now or fight to the death.
→ What precedes a colon must be a complete sentence.
The word of the day is: patriotism. X
There's a word I would like to discuss today: patriotism. ✓
→ A colon can introduce dialogue or quotations. Used in place of a comma in otherwise conventionally styled dialogue, it can feel old-fashioned and formal in fiction, so in general, save it for when there's a reason to emphasize the dialogue.
Some authors use colons to give their dialogue the style of a screenplay.
Mary: Oh, John.
John: Oh Mary!
→ If the text after a colon is not a complete sentence or is only one complete sentence, lowercase the first letter (unless it starts with a proper noun).
→ If the text after a colon is a quotation, dialogue, a direct unquoted question, or consists of two or more complete sentences, capitalize the first letter.
But she couldn't get the question out of her mind: Why had he washed all the bedding if he had nothing to hide?
She knew what came next: First she'd have to do all the shopping. Then she'd have to clean, organize, and decorate the house. And finally, she'd have to prepare a seven-course meal.
→ Colons can't precede closing quotation marks or parentheses, only follow.
Poor semicolons get a lot of flack, but they're useful little guys. While sometimes a sentence will work with either a colon or a semicolon, they're not usually interchangeable. Colons create anticipation of something to come; semicolons connect related, equally weighted ideas. They can also be used as "strong commas."
→ Use semicolons to connect two independent clauses that are closely related. They create a closer connection than a period, but give more separation than the comma.
I really love pizza; melted cheese and tomato sauce are delicious together.
He left immediately; he didn't even say goodbye.
→ Use semicolons in place of commas in a wordy and complex series or a list of items that themselves contain commas.
I sent letters to friends from Portland, Oregon; Bangor, Maine; and Austin, Texas.
→ Use semicolons when joining two independent clauses with conjunctive adverbs. Unlike coordinating conjunctions like and or but, conjunctive adverbs aren't strong enough connect independent clauses with only a comma. For more on this, check out my blog article "Is 'of course' always followed by a comma? Of course not!"
I love to oil paint; however, the fumes are too much for me.
I don't really want to go; besides, I don't think their invitation was sincere.
→ Then doesn't require a semicolon when it's used as shorthand for "and then."
Drive straight for three blocks, then take a right on Waterfront Street.
→ Like colons, semicolons shouldn't precede closing quotation marks and parentheses, only follow.
Creative use of semicolons
Historically, creative writers have used semicolons as "strong commas" wherever they wanted a longer pause, not just for complicated lists. This was especially common in the nineteenth century. Here's an example from Louis May Alcott's Little Women (1868), which averages six semicolons a page.
“I keep turning over new leaves, and spoiling them, as I used to spoil my copybooks; and I make so many beginnings there never will be an end."
Most modern writers would use a comma, a dash, or a period instead, but a semicolon isn't wrong. While liberal semicolon use has mostly fallen out of favor, there's still room for creative writers to go beyond the strict usage prescribed for formal writing, especially in literary fiction. For more on this topic, Russell Harper has a great article at CMOS Shop Talk, Fiction+, called "Semicolons in Fiction."
Commas are the trickiest punctuation mark and have lots of guidelines (that have lots of exceptions), so they have their own separate blog article.
→ Parentheses are useful in fiction to show the narrator speaking directly to the reader, particularly for humorous asides. This effect should be used sparingly, however, and only if it's appropriate for the chosen point of view.
→ Avoid using parentheses in dialogue, though, as it may be difficult for the reader to tell if the speaker is giving an aside, or if the author is inserting a comment into the dialogue.
→ If a separate sentence is inside the parentheses, the terminal punctuation is inside the closing parenthesis.
I am obsessed with shoes. (I am, after all, a woman.)
→ If the parentheses are inside a sentence, end punctuation follows the closing parenthesis. This is also true if the parentheses are at the end of phrase that requires a comma, semicolon, or dash.
I am obsessed with shoes (but only fabulous shoes).
I loved him (of course I did!), but he had no idea.
→ Dashes in US English are usually em dashes with no space on either side. (Exceptions are made when styling e-books. See my Fiction Style Guide on Dialogue.) British English uses spaced en dashes instead (except for interruption of dialogue, which is also an em dash.)
→ Dashes are the chameleons of punctuation. They can be used in place of colons and semicolons when those punctuation marks feel too formal—or an author dislikes them—and in place of commas and parentheses when setting off non-essential phrases/sentences. Because of this versatility, they're easy to overuse. Also, pay attention to how they can change the quality of the pause in the example. Dashes are speedier than colons.
He knew the rules: do what you're told, do it immediately, and don't complain.
He knew the rules----do what you're told, do it immediately, and don't complain.
→ Like commas and parentheses, dashes can be used for parenthetical elements, but tend to emphasize what they surround rather than de-emphasize as parentheses do.
I loved him—of course I did!—but he had no idea.
→ Use dashes instead of commas to set off a parenthetical element that's a complete sentence or contains internal commas.
He knew the rules—do what you're told, do it immediately, and don't complain—better than anyone. ✓
He knew the rules, do what you're told, do it immediately, and don't complain, better than anyone. X
→ Dashes show an abrupt change in direction.
"I'll pick up the—wait a minute, I forgot I have an appointment scheduled."
→ Use dashes, not ellipses, for interrupted dialogue. For more detail, see my Fiction Style Guide: Dialogue.
The en dash is longer than a hyphen, but shorter than an em dash. In the US, en dashes have only two (uncommon) uses in fiction. (Unless you're using them in place of em dashes in an e-book. See my Fiction Style Guide: Dialogue for more info).
→ Use an en dash, not a hyphen, for number ranges.
Here are the records for 1995---2005.
→ Don't use the en dash for a range that follows from or between. Instead, use to, through, or until with from, and and with between.
I worked there from 1995 to 2005.
I worked there between 1995 and 2005.
→ Use the en dash as a "strong hyphen" when connecting open compounds to another word, or connecting two hyphenated adjectives
Vincent van Gogh–style painting
pre–World War I fashions