Fundamentals: Punctuation

Punctuation is invisible to a reader, up until it strays from the standards of the English language. At best, poor punctuation will confuse your readers; at worst, it will annoy and frustrate them.

In the same way that you need to know traffic rules to successfully drive a car, or you need to understand music notation to be a successful composer, you need to understand punctuation to be a successful writer—no matter what your definition of success is!

Dialogue punctuation

This is by far the most common punctuation issue in fiction writing. English has standard methods for punctuating dialogue.

In nearly all of the world, dialogue is set off with double quotes “like so” and not with single quotes.

You should always create a new line (hit enter on your keyboard) for each new speaker or actor. This helps prevent the reader from getting confused as to what is happening or who is speaking.

If you have a speaker tag (“he said” or similar) then you need to end the dialogue line with a comma. Don’t capitalize the speaker tag—it’s all one sentence.

Don’t: “Put down the rocket launcher.” He said.
Do: “Put down the rocket launcher,” he said.

Even when ending with an exclamation point or question mark, don’t capitalize the speaker tag.

Don’t: “You put yours down first!” She replied.
Do: “You put yours down first!” she replied.

If you don’t have a speaker tag, then use a period (or !/? mark) and capitalize the next line.

Don’t: “I want a divorce. To the max,” she pulled the trigger.
Do:
“I want a divorce. To the max.” She pulled the trigger.

If you have a speaker tag in the middle of a line (as often happens), don’t break it into three sentences.

Don’t: “Once I find my organs.” He muttered. “you’re gonna be sorry.”
Do: “Once I find my organs,” he muttered, “you’re gonna be sorry.”

If you’ve got a long paragraph of dialogue, put the speaker tag as close to the beginning as possible so that the reader knows who is speaking.

Don’t: “You see, there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>,” Goldmember said.
Do: “You see,” Goldmember said, “there’s no way out. Now let me explain my villainous plan. <several more lines of dialogue>.”

The modern convention is to write dialogue tags with the speaker first.

Don’t: “Ahoy,” said Jim.
Don’t: “Ahoy,” said he.
Do: “Ahoy,” Jim said.
Do: “Ahoy,” he said.

More on dialogue punctuation.

Overuse of exclamation points

One exclamation or question mark per sentence is enough, and exclamation points should be saved for when they are truly necessary.

Don’t: “You lost the launch codes?!!?! Dammit!! We’ve got to nuke them first!!!!”
Do: “You lost the launch codes? Dammit! We’ve got to nuke them first.”

In general, exclamation points should only be used for exclamations, which are sudden cries or remarks that express a feeling or reaction (e.g. “Hey!” and “Stop!” and “Get him out of there!” and “Dang it!”)

More on this subject.

Comma splices (run-on sentences)

When you have two complete sentences that can stand on their own, they must be joined in one of three ways: a new sentence (1), a coordinating conjunction with a comma (2), or a semicolon (3).

Don’t: “That dog is viscous, he bit my grandma.”
Do (1): “That dog is viscous. He bit my grandma.”
Do (2):
“That dog is viscous, and he bit my grandma.”
Do (3): “That dog is viscous; he bit my grandma.”

(1) Usually splitting into separate sentences is the best approach.

(2) Coordinating conjunctions you can use include the “FANBOYS” – for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so. For example, “That dog is viscous, so he bit my grandma.” Note that these can change the meaning of your sentence.

(3) In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons (and colons) in contemporary fiction writing. Unless the reader can parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, they will break the reader’s immersion in the story.

More on run-on sentences.

Too many commas, or not enough

Use commas only when needed to make the meaning clear. Comma use is a broad topic, but in general use commas for the following purposes: to separate items in a list, to join a dependent clause to an independent clause, and to separate absolute phrases.

Don’t use too many commas
Don’t:
“I put on my black, wool, ski mask, and walked, into the bank.”
Do: “I put on my black wool ski mask and walked into the bank.”

Use commas to separate items in a list
Don’t:
“I robbed the bank with a gun a knife and a T-shirt cannon.”
Do:
“I robbed the bank with a gun, a knife, and a T-shirt cannon.”

Use commas with introductions or endings
Don’t:
“Well I don’t believe you.”
Do: “Well, I don’t believe you.”
Don’t: “That bank story is a joke Billy-bob.”
Do: “That bank story is a joke, Billy-bob.”

Use commas for interjections and non-essential bits of info
Don’t: Billy-bob who was rather tired today sighed heavily.”
Do: Billy-bob, who was rather tired today, sighed heavily.”

These are the most common issues, but there are many more rules on comma use.

Hyphens versus dashes

Fiction writing typically uses three sizes of dashes and they all do different things:

Hyphen (-) is used for certain compound words, such as compound adjectives and compound adverbs. When in doubt, use a dictionary to look up the compound word to see if it’s hyphenated. More details here.

Don’t: I am twenty one years old today, and my stupid ass friends are coming over to party
Do: I am twenty-one years old today, and my stupid-ass friends are coming over to party.

En-dash (–) is wider than a hyphen (the width of the letter N) and is used in specific situations: separating numbers, and showing opposing sides. You can make an En-dash with Alt+0150 on your keyboard (Option+0150 on a Mac). More details here.

Don’t: The score of the Brazil-Germany soccer game was 7-1.
Do: The score of the Brazil–Germany soccer game was 7–1.

Em-dash (—) is very wide (the width of the letter M) and is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. You can make an Em-dash with Alt+0151 on your keyboard (Option+0151 on a Mac). They are typically used with no spaces on either side, as shown below. More details here.

Em-dash in place of a colon
Option 1: My family only eats one thing: stale beans.
Option 2: My family only eats one thing—stale beans.

Em-dash in place of parentheses for emphasis
Option 1: Ronald lit a cigarette (the one I had poisoned) and took a deep drag.
Option 2: Ronald lit a cigarette—the one I had poisoned—and took a deep drag.

Em-dash in place of commas for emphasis
Option 1: I returned to the scene of the crime, ten years later, and dug up the jewels.
Option 2: I returned to the scene of the crime—ten years later—and dug up the jewels.

Em-dash to show someone being cut off by another speaker
Option 1:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I…”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”
Option 2:
He got down on his knees. “But honey, I’m sorry, I—”
She cocked the revolver. “Shut your face!”

Note how the use of the em-dash changes the effect of each sentence.  Also, while em-dashes are fun, make sure not to over-do it. Like exclamation points, make sure to use them sparingly so that their impact isn’t diluted.

Colons versus semicolons

In general, you should avoid the use of semicolons and colons in contemporary writing unless you absolutely have to. Many readers can’t parse these esoteric punctuation marks automatically, so a colon or semicolon risks breaking the reader’s immersion in the story. Writing is often stronger and easier to read if it’s broken up into separate sentences instead of joined with colons and semicolons.

That said, here’s how to use them correctly.

Use semicolons to link together related ideas.

Join two related sentences (independent clauses):
Don’t: Clifford bent down the branch, he wanted to launch the trapped cat.
Do: Clifford bent down the branch; he wanted to launch the trapped cat.

Connect list items that contain commas to avoid confusion:
Don’t: Watch out for hazards, namely, potholes, children, pets, and animals, zombies and ghosts, and angry police officers.
Do:
Watch out for hazards: potholes; children, pets, and animals; zombies and ghosts; and angry police officers.

Use colons only after a complete sentence to define an example or a list.

Don’t: I dislike: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: The things I dislike all rhyme: dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.
Do: I dislike dogs, frogs, logs, and bogs.

More on semicolon and colon use.