Tuesday, March 13, 2007

BJH: Fun with Punctuation

This is a lightweight entry, and I hesitate to sneak it in among so many others that go much deeper. "Sneak" is the operative word, especially since it's about--punctuation. Who wants to read a blog entry about that? Who wants to read anything about punctuation? It's one of those writing basics that guarantees a big yawn just by its very nature: it belongs to what some think of as the "boring details" category.

But--whether we like it or not, we can't do justice to the more interesting and fun elements of the craft if we don't have a substantial command of most of those "boring details." So allow yourself the big yawn, but let me just insert this: this is about a fiction writer's use of punctuation which, because of the nature of our work, will ... and should ... vary at times from what we learned in college English courses and, in many cases, creative writing courses.

Were you taught, and do you perhaps still deal with the mindset that sentence fragments are forbidden? They're not in fiction. They're widely used by many, if not most, of our best novelists. But they're used in the right places, at the right times, and punctuated correctly. They're used for effect, for emphasis, for "punch" and for other reasons. Repeat this: sentence fragments are not bad.

What about semicolons? Have you been told not to use them, that they're archaic, unnecessary, and superfluous? Not. Check out some of the finest authors writing fiction, and you'll find that they use semicolons. (They may use them sparingly, and some may use them against their editors' wishes--but they're using them.) It's all right. Trust me. Semicolons are okay in their place. Just don't use them for the sake of decoration.

And there's the matter of long sentences. Remember your high school English teacher warning you against them? "Keep your sentences short and to the point." That's exactly what you want to do if you're a journalist--and sometimes as a novelist as well. However, there's a place ... and a need ... for the longer, flowing sentence. You can't make music with all staccato quarter notes, just as you can't sustain rhythm with all legato phrases and cadences sans rests. On the other hand, if you're an academic, you might be accustomed to dealing with mostly long, complex sentences, seldom the short, simple variety. As a novelist, however, you'll need the variety of being competent with both kinds. Remember, Faulkner did not write only long, winding sentences. And the more contemporary Dean Koontz--a master in the many and varied uses of punctuation who clearly enjoys the wave-building stream of consciousness style of writing and employs it with great finesse--is just as masterful with the short, "gunshot" sentences that ratchet tension up and over the edge.

Writing fiction requires both short and long, simple and complex, "breathless" and serene sentences. Paragraphs. Scenes. Chapters. Beginnings and endings. All this demands a certain expertise and facility in handling punctuation. We need commas, not only periods. Semicolons and colons. Dashes and those elusive ellipses. And--sometimes--even parentheses. (Tread lightly, very lightly, with those.)

Which still goes back, of course, to what you've heard way too many times from writing instructors and editors: don't try to break (or even bend) the rules until you know what the rules are. Heed that advice.

And let me be clear that I'm not advocating breaking the rules. Far from it, we need to master those rules. But a novelist can't--or shouldn't--always use the periods and the commas and the dashes, and all those other little squiggles in exactly the same way as a journalist or an academic does.

This is a huge subject, so broad that entire books have been written about it and will continue to be written about it. Writing workshops and online courses teach it. A blog isn't the place to try. But I promise you that no matter how deeply you're inclined to delve into it you won't lack for instruction. My point with this entry is a simple one: there are myriad resources available that claim authority in the use of punctuation and the other mechanics of writing, so choose your resources wisely. And as you do, think like the novelist you are (or hope to be).

If you know that you're weak in the basics, not to worry. You'll find an excess of help: handbooks, articles, workbooks, conferences featuring at least one class on the subject, and more conflicting advice than you'll ever be able to use.

If you consider yourself a writer with a good grasp of the basics, then you already know that those basics don't always supply all your needs where fiction is concerned. If you want to advance your knowledge of the different shades and uses of punctuation for novelists, look for the resources that will enable you to do just that.

Among some of the excellent books on this subject, here are a few I favor for fiction writers, (but please don't throw away your Chicago Manual, your Strunk and White, or your Fowler's): A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner. A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, by Noah Lukeman. The Careful Writer, by Theodore M. Bernstein. And Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.



At 12:51 AM, Blogger Karen said...

Good reminder!

At 1:16 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen! Fiction done "by the book(s)" of punctuation is borrrinnngg. We need variety and imagination. But I do agree it can't be done effectively if you don't have the basics down. Same with grammar. If it's incorrect because one doesn't know the difference, it always shows up . . . embarrassingly.

At 3:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post!

At 5:31 AM, Blogger Deborah Raney said...

This post was anything but a yawn! Wonderful stuff!

At 8:11 AM, Blogger Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

This was by no means a lightweight posting. Thanks for the extremely timely reminder.
By the time Dr. Dennis Hensley finished line-editing my first novel, he'd removed so many commas that I considered selling the excess on eBay to finance my next trip to a writers' conference.
Looking forward to the return of your regular posting on Grace Notes.

At 8:35 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Great post, BJ; except for the semi-colons are OK in fiction part; yuck! Look at it! It can't even decide if it's a colon or a comma!

At 8:48 AM, Blogger Angela said...

LOL! JSB's entitled to his opinion; I like semicolons fine.

Now--what do we do about the :-) s that have begun to make their way into our writing? I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to put one into a WIP!

In ten years, do you think they'll be part of our punctuation?


8:46 AM

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Great post! Great stuff. Thanks.

At 10:37 PM, Blogger batgirl said...

Thank you. I'm GLAD you wrote this post. I'm going to send a link to my crit partners. Good stuff. Ha! And some of them told me semi-colons are no good because they are too high-falootin' for fiction. I wasn't even sure what that meant, but I saw plenty of semi-colons when I read Peace Like a River last week! I appreciate the book recommendations as well.


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