Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Part One:
Common Uses of the
Comma, Colon, and Em Dash
in Fiction

     A writer died, and St. Peter offered her the option of going to either heaven or hell. First he showed her other writers in hell: as she descended into the fiery pits, she saw row upon row of writers chained to their desks in a steaming sweatshop. As they worked, they were beaten with thorny whips.
     "Sweet mother of pearl!" she said. "Let me see heaven now."
     A few moments later, as she ascended into heaven, she saw more rows of writers, likewise chained to their desks in a steam-filled room where they, too, were whipped continuously as they worked.
     "Wait a minute, wait a minute!" the writer said. "This is just as bad as hell!"
     "Not so," replied St. Peter. "Here, your work gets published."

     You should observe the conventions of the language unless you have a reason not to—there's no point in using nonstandard English toward no literary purpose whatsoever, right? You wouldn't make a run-on sentence or a comma splice or omit the quotation marks in dialogue unless you had some perceived good reason, would you? Of course not. When you write with nonstandard English for no discernible good reason at all, editors and readers are left to infer that you're using it for the only remaining reason: that you just don't know any better.

     With that said, I'm not going to even try to tell you to do something the “right” way every time according to some punctuation rule as if you were writing an academic research paper or a refrigerator manual. In your trade of fiction writing, you might not always use standard punctuation—in fact, you might use hardly any punctuation at all if it doesn't fit your creative plan (Cormac McCarthy, anyone?). However, you do need to know what some standard applications of punctuation are in fiction so that when you depart from them in your writing you'll know it. You'll understand what you've done and why you've done it.

The Comma
Use a Comma and a Conjunction to Separate Two Independent Clauses
     When two clauses that could each stand as a complete sentence are joined by a coordinating conjunction (and, or, but, and, less often, yet, for, and nor), use a comma before the conjunction.
     We arrived on time, but Jamie wasn't there.
     The cliffs prevented any forward movement, and the pursuing bears made going back impossible.
Use a Pair of Commas to Enclose Internal Parenthetical Content
     A nonrestrictive clause or phrase, meaning that the sentence would still be grammatically correct if it were removed, takes a comma before and after.
     My father, whom I never met, had a tremendous impact on our family.
     Amos, a devout Calvinist, wouldn't have a radio in his home.
Use a Comma After Introductory Elements and Before Ending Elements
     Participial modifiers, interjections, and other nonessential elements at the beginning or end of a sentence are distinguished by a comma.
     Leaning against a lamppost, Raddich coughed and gasped.
     Timmy was a brown mummy from head to feet, a muddy mess.
     Well, I guess so.
Use a Comma Between Items in a Series
     When a sentence has three or more items in series order, separate them with commas; this includes placing a comma after the next-to-last item, before the “and” or “or” conjunction that precedes the final item.

     I want pancakes, sausage, eggs, and coffee.
     He had to leave by either the back window, the door, or the fire escape.

 The Colon and Em Dash
     In setting off material from what comes before it in creative writing, colons and dashes are mostly the same in use; the colon has a more formal, measured look, while the em dash is the “drama queen” of the two. Since fiction is usually informal or even colloquial in tone most of the time, and since fiction writers usually want set-off matter to have a more dramatic presentation, the em dash is probably the better choice in most cases. Your call, of course.
Use a Colon or an Em Dash to Set Off an Idea From What Precedes It
     Notice below that either works, but the em dash makes a more abrupt and emphatic lead-in to the information that follows it.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up: somebody else was in the house.
     Mina heard a click on the phone line and realized the downstairs extension had been picked up—somebody else was in the house.
Use a Pair of Em Dashes to Set Off Internal Material
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson, the only person we considered to be above suspicion, called to confess.
     I nearly dropped my teeth when Harvey Jackson—the only person we considered to be above suspicion—called to confess.
     Above, we've replaced the commas around a nonrestrictive clause with em dashes to direct more attention to the clause. However, what you can put between a pair of em dashes is certainly not limited to this. It's important to bear in mind that anything inside a pair of em dashes is grammatically insulated from the larger sentence around it. It can be just about anything you want it to be—a word, a phrase, a sentence fragment, or even, as we see below, an entire independent clause that could stand on its own as a sentence, but is here used as emphasized internal content.
     The Ames brothers had deserted him when things got tough—he was disgusted with himself now for not having seen that coming—and now he was alone.
     A pair of em dashes is also handy to clarify the distinction between internally punctuated items.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team, and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     The example above has series items separated by commas. Are “Jim and Bobby Thomas” and “the new bobsledding team” two separate series items separated by a comma, or is “Jim and Bobby Thomas, the new bobsledding team” a single item with an internal comma? There's no way at all for us to know.
     Jim and Bobby Thomas—the new bobsledding team—and the TV crew were all opposed to the location.
     Above, we've changed “the new bobsledding team” from just another item in a series list of separate items into emphatic apposed matter that amplifies on what comes immediately before it, in effect giving it the weight of a nonrestrictive clause. It's now crystal clear that Jim and Bobby Thomas are the bobsledding team.

Excerpted from
The Grammar and Usage Guide for Fiction Writers
$4.99 at the Amazon Kindle Store
Don't Have a Kindle Reader? Get a
Free Kindle Reader App From Amazon:
Kindle for PC, Mac, Android, iPad, and Blackberry


  1. Terrific post with very clear explanations. Keep up the good work. :-)

  2. As usual, such helpful examples and info! Thanks.

  3. I agree with Kaye; this is all very helpful to fellow writers.


Comments are always welcome and never moderated. You don't have to be a member or sign up for anything or eat Froot Loops for breakfast to post your observations.