Have you ever wondered how to punctuate dialogue that’s interrupted by an action? If so, you’re in good company. Many have the same questions about punctuating interrupted dialogue.
I’ve seen the topic addressed multiple times, without conclusion, in both writing forums and editing groups. There’s confusion about how to format sentences and which punctuation to use when action interrupts dialogue.
Yet many style and grammar resources show the same way to punctuate dialogue interruptions—mark off the interruption with a pair of dashes.
The recommendation in The Chicago Manual of Style is quite clear.
In the seventeenth edition, 6.87, we find:
Em dashes for sudden breaks or interruptions. An em dash or a pair of em dashes may indicate a sudden break in thought or sentence structure or an interruption in dialogue. [Emphasis mine.]
There’s even more explanation:
If the break belongs to the surrounding sentence rather than to the quoted material, the em dashes must appear outside the quotation marks.
And an example:
“Someday he’s going to hit one of those long shots, and”—his voice turned huffy—“I won’t be there to see it.”
There’s not much doubt regarding CMOS‘s recommendation for interruption of dialogue; use dashes.
If CMOS isn’t enough to convince you, let’s look at more information.
We can disrupt a sentence by adding an interruptor, a nonessential word, phrase, or dependent clause. In some cases we can even interrupt with an independent clause. We use a pair of commas, a pair of em dashes, or a pair of parentheses to set off the interruption midsentence. (See Dealing With Interruptions for more on interruptors.)
Interruptions set off by commas and dashes are quite common in fiction. Those set off with parentheses are not as common in fiction as in nonfiction, but you can use parentheses for interruptors. Think of a snarky aside delivered by a first-person narrator.
There’s one drawback, however, to using commas with interruptors—they can’t be used to set off an independent clause inside another independent clause. A pair of commas simply isn’t sufficient for that purpose. Dashes (or parentheses) are needed.
From Words into Type (3rd ed.):
“Commas are not strong enough to set off a complete sentence interpolated within another; dashes or parentheses are required.
Ace—people who don’t know him well call him “Goody”—is aided by a natural sense of humor.
The Writer’s Digest Grammar Desk Reference puts it this way:
“A pair of commas cannot be used to set off an interruptive element that is the equivalent of a grammatically complete sentence. Choose either a pair of dashes or a pair of parentheses instead.”
Their example (they show the same example with parentheses in place of the dashes):
Her brother—he’s an intern at MTV—wants to move to California.
A few more examples (mine)—
Waldo chased after the car, I heard all the details later, until the Mazda reached the cross street. X
Waldo chased after the car—I heard all the details later—until the Mazda reached the highway.
Tara cried dramatically, her poodle joined in with a howl, for exactly three minutes. X
Tara cried dramatically—her poodle joined in with a howl—for exactly three minutes.
The scarf was white, blue, it was a lovely robin’s egg blue, and yellow. X
The scarf was white, blue—it was a lovely robin’s egg blue—and yellow.
Bree helped her husband, he’s a doctor, break out of jail. X
Bree helped her husband—he’s a doctor—break out of jail.
For the same reason we don’t interrupt independent clauses with other independent clauses using only a pair of commas, we don’t set off an action or thought that interrupts a sentence of dialogue (in lieu of a dialogue tag) with commas. The setup is exactly the same.
“She told me she did it,” Aurora pounded the table, “smiling the whole time.” X
“She told me she did it”—Aurora pounded the table—“smiling the whole time.”
“I need to get to him before the police do,” at least I thought I did, “so he doesn’t think I abandoned him.” X
“I need to get to him before the police do”—at least I thought I did—“so he doesn’t think I abandoned him.”
This is the same format used in the examples of an independent clause interrupting another independent clause. One sentence can’t nest inside another when separated solely by a pair of commas. The comma separation isn’t a strong enough separator for this condition.
Just as a comma on its own isn’t enough to stand between independent clauses without causing a comma splice, a comma isn’t the right punctuation to interrupt dialogue.
Use a pair of dashes. And when you do, place them around the interruption and outside the quotation marks of the dialogue.
Now, not to confuse you but to show a true exception to the rule, a dialogue tag can interrupt a sentence of dialogue. By convention we allow dialogue tags preceded and followed by a comma to interrupt an independent clause in dialogue.
“She told me she did it,” Aurora said, “smiling the whole time.”
Dialogue tags are something other. Like a question tag—you picked up the pizza, didn’t you?—they’re allowed special privileges. We don’t consider dialogue, thought, and question tags to be comma splices, even though they actually are. Their use is a convention somebody decided on, one that serves writers well. But the rules of that convention don’t translate to other situations.
Commas are versatile and in many ways, quite common. We find them everywhere, use them everywhere. They break up long bits of text into smaller units that are more easily comprehended. They separate related words and phrases, units of text, from other words and phrases. Commas are also used to group sections of text. Key words and purposes are group and separate.
But commas can’t do it all. And they’re not suitable for every need and circumstance.
We use a period to definitively end a sentence, to bring a unit of words to a halt. We use semicolons and colons, dashes and parentheses to corral other units of text. And each punctuation mark has its purposes and limitations.
Most writers know that commas aren’t suited to stand alone between two independent clauses, not without a conjunction there to bear some of the load. When a comma is used alone between independent clauses, the result is a comma splice.
The boy dreamed of being a fireman, his mother wanted him to be a chef. X
There are a handful of ways to rewrite to eliminate the comma splice.
The boy dreamed of being a fireman, but his mother wanted him to be a chef. (add a coordinating conjunction after the comma)
The boy dreamed of being a fireman; his mother wanted him to be a chef. (substitute a semicolon for the comma)
Although the boy dreamed of being a fireman, his mother wanted him to be a chef. (change one of the independent clauses to a dependent one)
The boy dreamed of being a fireman. His mother wanted him to be a chef. (substitute a period for the comma and create two sentences)
A comma splice is one type of run-on sentence. A run-on sentence isn’t one that goes on and on, seemingly without an end. A run-on sentence is created when two independent clauses, two complete sentences, are fused in a way that independent clauses shouldn’t be joined.
Some run-ons have neither commas nor conjunctions. They’re simply independent clauses that have been allowed to crash into one another, with no hint to show where one clause ends and the second begins.
Tracy peered into the deep hole a pair of blinking eyes peered back at her. X
We can bring clarity to this bit of confusion the same ways we did with the comma splice sentence.
Tracy peered into the deep hole, and a pair of blinking eyes peered back at her.
Tracy peered into the deep hole; a pair of blinking eyes peered back at her.
When Tracy peered into the deep hole, a pair of blinking eyes peered back at her.
Tracy peered into the deep hole. A pair of blinking eyes peered back at her.
Something must separate the independent clauses. Most of the time, that is.
We may purposely use run-ons to convey a fast-moving feel or a lyric style. And run-ons are definitely used in fiction and in poetry. Yet when used without consideration, they can easily create confusion for the reader.
We know that to communicate clearly and easily, we can’t simply throw words together. We put words into a particular order and join or separate the component parts so that others can make sense of what we write or say. And sometimes the smallest detail in the arrangement or presentation of the different units can make a big difference in what is communicated.
The thief who stole the car made a safe getaway. The thief who stole the jewels was caught down the street.
The thief, who stole the car, made a safe getaway.
In the first example, there are multiple thieves. In the second, there is only one thief. I used the same words, but the placement of a comma between thief and who makes a big difference to our meaning.
The beagle bit the rat.
The rat bit the beagle.
The same words in a different order allow us to create different scenarios. Or even nonsensical sentences, like this next one.
Rubbing the magic lamp, the genie appeared in front of Bobby. X
Rubbing the magic lamp, Bobby waited for the genie to appear.
In the first genie sentence, I created a dangling modifier that has the genie rather than Bobby rubbing the lamp.
Word order matters. Punctuation matters. Verb forms matter.
We call our ways of ordering words and placing punctuation rules. And, yes, there are always exceptions to rules. But when we’re trying to communicate clearly, the rules help us set up that clear communication quickly and easily. We know what the rules accomplish; so do readers. Through the few examples I included here, we can clearly see how failing to follow rules can cause communication errors.
I’m all for experimenting and creating novel effects when clarity and communication don’t suffer as a result. But when an effect or experimentation causes problems, I suggest that a writer or editor re-examine the experiment. If readers are confused and are pulled out of the fiction by the creation of an effect, that effect needs another look or two.
A Few Additional Considerations
• We don’t have to interrupt dialogue with an action or thought. In fact, doing so may not be the best idea. Yet interrupting is a possibility, so knowing how to format the interruption is a necessity.
However, we could report a concurrent action with a different format.
“She told me she did it.” Aurora pounded the table. “And she smiled the whole time.”
• The interruption we’ve been looking at is an interruption of syntax, an interruption of the sentence structure. This is not the way to show that the dialogue itself has been interrupted. To show an interruption of the spoken words, include an em dash inside the quotation marks, at the point where the dialogue is interrupted.
“The mirror fell and—”
“I knew you’d drop it.”
• And to give you one more component to consider, I’ll add that we can even interrupt an action with dialogue. The format is the same as interrupting the dialogue; the dialogue goes between the quotation marks and dashes separate the action from the dialogue.
Conrad reached for the cookie jar—“I can get it, Mommy”—and knocked the coffee mug off the counter.
This isn’t a common setup, but it’s not totally unheard of either.
I hope the information presented here helps settle this issue for you. Most style, grammar, and punctuation books cover interrupters and will advise you when to use commas, parentheses, and dashes. But you can safely use dashes for interruptors in dialogue. Commas? They’re not up to the task. Not unless the interruption is a dialogue tag.
When the topic of gerunds comes up, it’s usually in the context of writing advice about using or not using them to begin sentences (more on that below). But gerunds came up in a couple of FB groups this week, and I realized I’ve never covered them here at the blog.
So let’s talk gerunds.
A gerund is a nominal. A nominal is a word (or phrase) that functions as a noun but isn’t actually a noun. Gerunds act like nouns, but they look like verbs. A gerund is the -ing form of a verb—the present participle—operating as a noun.
Those -ing words have a lot of functions and can show up all over a sentence.
She was running down the road.
Running in this sentence is a present participle used, with was, as the continuous or progressive form of the verb run.
Running down the road, she was happy.
Running in this sentence is a present participle, part of a participial phrase. The participial phrase is used as an adjective.
The running water had turned cold.
Running in this sentence is an adjective.
Running is her favorite form of exercise.
Running in this sentence is a gerund—it’s operating as a noun. Here it serves as the subject of the sentence.
When a present participle operates as a gerund, it, like nouns, names something. But being in the form of a verb, a gerund names or identifies actions, states of being, and states of mind rather than people, places, things, and ideas.
A gerund isn’t a verb showing what someone or something is doing; it is the thing itself that’s doing something or being something or having something done to it.
Gerunds—plus the words attached to them—can operate as subjects, subject complements (they follow linking verbs and rename the subject), objects—direct object, indirect object, and object of a preposition—and as appositives.
Thinking in French slows me down. (subject)
Skating gracefully is her goal. (subject)
Not being happy has made him ill. (subject)
Today’s goal is jumping the fence. (subject complement)
Note the difference between this and something such as He is jumping the fence, where is jumping is the verb.
Sal’s one desire was eliminating her rival. (subject complement)
Waldo practiced marching. (direct object)
Winifred studied acting at college. (direct object)
Lee made running for the bus a daily practice. (indirect object)
She gave sitting for the bar one more try. (indirect object)
Without writing, life would be dull. (object of a preposition)
His disdain for telecommuting was widely known. (object of a preposition)
Despite delivering results, he was fired. (object of a preposition)
He did his job, tuning the car for his boss. (appositive)
His favorite sport, fencing, was an expensive one. (appositive)
Very rarely, gerunds can even function as object complements. But I’m talking rarely. Yet you can find them as object complements after the verbs call and consider (and maybe a few others). No comma is needed before the gerund.
She considers her life’s work editing.
Our family calls two Ds and an F failing.
Gerunds can be used in a variety of ways to enhance your writing. I encourage you to explore the possibilities of gerund use.
Infinitives—the word to plus the basic form of a verb—can also function as nominals, which means that they can be used in most of the same places gerunds are used. (We don’t usually use infinitives as the object of a preposition, yet they can be used after but and except.)
In some instances you’ll have a choice between a gerund and an infinitive. One option may work or sound better given the meaning of the sentence, the personality of the speaker, the genre, the rhythm, or the intended mood, tone, effect, or impact. And though I won’t go into detail here, some verbs take only the infinitive and not a gerund as a direct object, and some verbs can’t be followed by a gerund.
The two options aren’t necessarily exact substitutes, so choose the option that best fits your needs.
To beat the record is her goal
Beating the record is her goal.
Sal’s one desire was to eliminate her rival.
Sal’s one desire was eliminating her rival.
He hates to lie.
He hates lying.
He agreed to finish the project.
He agreed finishing the project. X
Tony spoke to his boss about leaving the firm.
Tony spoke to his boss about to leave the firm. X
He had no option but to leave the firm.
I’ve seen a lot of advice in writing forums that mentions gerunds—don’t use gerunds to begin sentences, don’t start too many sentences with gerunds. Yet it’s typically not gerunds at the beginning of sentences that cause problems; those giving the advice often confuse gerunds with participial phrases, which also begin with words ending in -ing. More often it’s present participles and participial phrases that create difficulties. Yes, the form of gerunds and present participles is the same. But the meaning and use are different.
Feel free to use gerunds as subjects. You wouldn’t want to start three sentences in a row with a gerund, and you wouldn’t want to alternate sentences to begin one with a participial phrase, the next with a gerund, the next with a participial phrase and so on, but you can certainly use gerunds as subjects without worrying that you’re doing something wrong.
The blog has seen a lot of visitors and new subscribers since the print version of The Magic of Fiction was published two years ago, so I thought it time to let new blog readers know more about this fiction resource.
Writer or editor, if you’re looking for a comprehensive reference book on fiction, The Magic of Fiction is for you. Whether you’re just starting your first manuscript or you’re ready to rewrite and edit, this book has what you need to put a piece of long fiction together and refine it.
In it, you’ll find information on point of view, narrative tense, plot, setting, characters, conflict, dialogue, and the other fiction elements.
The book provides tip after tip for rewriting and editing, necessities whether you plan to self-publish or intend to pursue a traditional path to publication through an agent or publisher.
There are do’s* and don’ts, practical fixes, lots of checklists, and loads of examples.
I’m not impartial. I wrote the book, so I think it’s a good one. A necessary one. But the point isn’t that I wrote it but that I wrote it with fiction writers and editors—with their needs—in mind. A whole lot goes into a novel, into writing of any kind. But with practice, knowledge, and help, you’ll be able to rework shaky areas and head off problems before they become hopelessly entangled in your stories. My intention is for this book to become one of your go-to sources for some of that knowledge and help.
My intent is to help you become a stronger writer and editor.
Check out The Magic of Fiction, the comprehensive guide to writing and editing fiction.
Ever struggle over the inclusion of an apostrophe when two nouns appear next to one another? Maybe you’ve written something like writing group to save yourself the hassle of figuring out which option is correct.
It’s likely that at some point we’ve all asked whether or not an apostrophe was appropriate for the first noun when two nouns are paired. And the uncertainty is often greatest when the first word is a plural ending in S.
We know that we add an apostrophe to show possession or ownership with nouns: John’s dog, the school’s mascot, her parents’ mistakes. But if a word isn’t possessive, does it sometimes get an apostrophe anyway?
Short answer: Yes. The genitive case uses apostrophes to show relationships or associations between words. Showing possession or ownership is just one use of the genitive.
So are there times when an apostrophe isn’t needed for paired nouns?
Short answer: Yes. When the first noun is operating as an adjective.
Attributive vs. Possessive Nouns
The choice between apostrophe and no apostrophe would be easy if the possessive was actually always truly possessive. But what we commonly call the possessive is actually the genitive case. The genitive helps us show possession, yet that’s not all it does. The genitive is also used to reflect measurement (including time)—five days’ worth of dirty laundry, a day’s drive, one dollar’s worth of penny candy, a month’s salary. We also use the genitive to show not possession or ownership but source.
Consider this sentence: We all marveled over Natalie’s painting.
Natalie’s painting could be owned by her, it could have been painted by her, or it could be a painting of her. If the painting was created by Natalie, the word Natalie’s shows source.
If Natalie is the subject matter of the painting, for clarity we might write something such as we marveled over Marco’s painting of Natalie. But we could and do say Natalie’s painting, and given the context, others would understand what was meant.
You might have heard the dilemma between the choice of an apostrophe and no apostrophe framed as attributive vs. possessive.
When an adjective comes before a noun, we call it an attributive adjective. So when you’re trying to decide about an apostrophe for the first noun in a multinoun pair, you need to know whether the first noun is being used in one of the genitive senses, often as a possessive, or as an attributive adjective.
We’ve already looked at a few possessive noun pairs (John’s dog, school’s mascot, parents’ mistakes). Let’s look now at some attributive adjectives. In this grouping, the adjectives in the first three sentences are simply adjectives placed before nouns; in the final three sentences, nouns are used as adjectives. I included both so that you can see that nouns being used as attributive adjectives function like other adjectives.
The blue moon was bright.
An old wagon had been abandoned in the yard.
Thomas played with the misshapen kumquat
He claimed that a dog owner was different from a cat owner.
Our employee advocate was the owner’s son.
She told me I had chicken legs.
In the final three examples, we can clearly see that there’s no need for an apostrophe for the first noun in any of the pairs. The first noun is being used as an adjective in the same manner that the adjectives in the first three examples are used as adjectives.
However, we can modify the sentences and create the need for the possessive and thus the need for an apostrophe as well.
That dog’s owner is also a cat lover.
The employees‘ advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.
The chicken’s legs were uneven.
But what if the choice isn’t so clear cut? In some cases, we might want to consider what we know about adjectives.
Are you familiar with the royal order of adjectives? Adjectives come in different categories, and the categories usually fall in a particular order when multiple adjectives modify a noun.
The pink mouse.
The pretty pink mouse.
Pink pretty the mouse. X
Adjectives in one of the categories are called qualifiers. They are usually nouns (sometimes gerunds), and they sit right next to the noun being modified. These qualifiers are nouns functioning as attributive adjectives. A few examples—
What’s important to remember about qualifiers is that in the order of adjectives, they are the final adjective out of a group of adjectives, the one closest to the noun they modify. The qualifier and the noun it modifies are a pair that can’t be separated, not if we intend to keep the same meaning; we don’t put other adjectives between the qualifier and the noun. Think of the pair as a compound or a unit. So we can say the blue wedding dress, but we can’t say the wedding blue dress. We can say the crooked town council but not the town crooked council.
When we’re talking possessives, however, we can insert an adjective between the noun pairs.
That dog’s irate owner is also a cat lover.
The employees’ worthless advocate didn’t do much to help the censured employees.
The chicken’s skinny legs were uneven.
Three of the sentences in the next example don’t work because I’ve inserted an adjective between the qualifier and the noun it’s modifying. The new adjectives can go before the noun pair, but they can’t go between.
He said that a dog irate owner was different from a cat owner. X
He said that an irate dog owner . . .
Our employee worthless advocate was the owner’s son. X
Our worthless employee advocate . . .
She told me I had chicken skinny legs. X
She told me I had skinny chicken legs.
So if you’re having trouble deciding about an apostrophe for a pair of nouns, temporarily add an adjective between them. If the new phrase doesn’t make sense, you’ve got an attributive adjective that must fall immediately before the noun it modifies. Put other adjectives before the noun pair if you want to, but don’t put any between the two nouns.
The wedding ice-blue dress cost more than my car. X
The wedding exquisite dress cost more than my car. X
The exquisite ice-blue silk wedding dress cost more than my car.
If the attributive isn’t right for your needs or doesn’t fit, add an apostrophe to the first noun and put as many other modifiers between the nouns as you like.
The wedding’s cost led to her parents’ divorce.
The wedding’s exorbitant and bank-breaking cost led to her parents’ divorce.
Depending on what you’re trying to convey, you might need the attributive or you might need the possessive. By adding other modifiers between the nouns, you can determine which option is called for. (You don’t need to use additional modifiers in your actual sentences to make this work. Adding them temporarily is simply a test to help you determine possessive or attributive.)
Both of the sentences in the next example are valid, although they don’t say the same thing. One uses council as an attributive adjective while the other uses council as a possessive. The first sentence would be more accurate in some circumstances while the second would better fit other situations.
The next council meeting will be on Monday.
The council’s next meeting will be on Monday.
Nouns Ending in S
Many attributive nouns will be singular, so you may not have trouble deciding between apostrophe and no apostrophe in most cases. Yet even though you’ll likely have fewer opportunities to use a plural as the first noun, there are some plurals that will be attributive. So what about nouns that end in S, specifically plurals? How do those work? Are they attributive or possessive? Apostrophe or no apostrophe?
With a few exceptions, they work the same way singular nouns work. Consider the following examples. I’ve included examples of singular nouns for comparison. (P=possessive, A=attributive)
The Giants’ pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The team’s pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The Giants’ new pitcher was late to the game. (P)
The team’s new pitcher was late to the game. (P)
Giants pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)
Team pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. (A)
Giants new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X
Team new pitcher Johnny Johns was late to the game. X
Consider the name of a band that ends in S, whether singular or plural.
Kansas’s songs are all the rage today. (P)
Foo Fighters’ songs are all the rage today. (P)
Queen’s songs are all the rage today. (P)
Kansas’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Foo Fighters’ old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Queen’s old songs are all the rage today. (P)
Old Kansas songs are all the rage today. (A)
Old Foo Fighters songs are all the rage today. (A)
Old Queen songs are all the rage today. (A)
Kansas old songs are all the rage these days. X
Foo Fighters old songs are all the rage today. X
Queen old songs are all the rage these days. X
A few more—
Queen’s lead singer died way too young. (P)
Foo Fighters’ lead singer owns a Tesla. (P)
Queen frontman Freddie Mercury was 45 when he died. (A)
Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl owns a Tesla. (A)
The Beatles’ earliest songs aren’t all universally loved. (P)
I love every Beatles song. (A)
If you have trouble deciding between attributive and possessive when the first noun of the noun pair is a plural or ends in an S, substitute a singular noun to see how it would be written.
According to the Associated Press Stylebook, we don’t use an apostrophe when that first word ends in an S if it’s a descriptive phrase. As a tip, the AP Stylebook says that if a longer form of the phrase uses for or by rather than of, an apostrophe usually wouldn’t be needed in the shorter version.
an association for lawyers
a lawyers association
But if for, by, and of aren’t helpful, definitely temporarily insert adjectives between the two nouns as a test.
The Chicago Manual of Style has a bit of a different take. Other than for proper names (including names of companies), they advocate for using the apostrophe unless the intention is clearly not possessive. I suggest reversing that and checking first to see if the noun is being used in the attributive sense.
CMoS would have us write farmers’ market; I would argue for farmers market. Just as I would argue for writers conference, nurses station, and ladies room. I can’t see any reason to change the pattern simply because the first noun is plural rather than singular.
As we have seen, company names, band names, and the names of ball teams can be used as both attributive and possessive, even when they end in S. The same is true of members of professions or associations of people. I’ve included adjectives before the noun pairs in the next examples so you can easily see how these pairs would be attributive.
a [new] physicians center
the [very dry] plumbers putty
the [oldest] lawyers association
the [annual] writers conference
an [all-male] alumni association
the [largest] bricklayers union
a [comprehensive] voters guide
a [violent] believers uprising
[an active] consumers lobby
the [outspoken] soft drinks industry
Just because a word can be used as an attributive noun doesn’t mean that it should always or should only be used that way. And just because a plural can be used as an attributive, that doesn’t mean that it—or the singular version of the same word—can’t be used as a possessive. I’ve included these examples so you can see some options and instances when a plural noun can be used in the attributive sense. I don’t mean to imply that the same words can’t also be used in the possessive sense or can’t be singular and attributive as well.
The consumers’ newest lobby focuses on vitamins.
An updated voter guide is in the mail.
Some irregular plurals that don’t end in S get an apostrophe S whether attributive or possessive.
the children’s new toys, the oldest children’s hospital
people’s highest expectations
the newly stocked women’s department
We covered a lot in this article. I hope the examples prove helpful when you have to decide between attributive and possessive. If you have questions, please ask.
When I’m reading for pleasure, I enjoy novels just as other readers do. I don’t edit or proofread my way through; I actually enjoy the adventures, the characters, and the emotional ups and downs. But just like every other reader, I get ticked off by poor plotting or unbelievable character behavior.
I can also get distracted by punctuation. Most of the time I ignore an unusual punctuation choice. The author uses semicolons improperly? Not usually an issue. Commas in the wrong places? Everyone does it. Such punctuation doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
But the book I’m reading now—traditionally published by an author well known in the genre—is so full of exclamation points that I feel like I’m being slapped by them every other sentence and sometimes three, four, and five sentences in a row.
I want to tell the characters and the author STOP YELLING AT ME.
Yes, the overuse of exclamation points is so overwhelming that it comes across as characters yelling. But yelling for no reason. Almost every statement accompanied by an exclamation point is a simple declarative sentence, no special punctuation needed.
Compounding the problem is the fact that this isn’t the quirk of a single character; such a quirk could be argued to be legitimate, a way the character presents him- or herself. But because every character speaks in exclamations—so far, eighty-some pages in, every character has exclaimed the most common comments as if they’re beyond excited about what they’re saying—the quirk belongs to the writer and not to a character. And it’s a practice, habit, or deliberate choice that needed attention in the rewrite or edit stage, well before the book was published.
And no, I’m not exaggerating when I say that every character who speaks utters dramatic exclamations. At least that’s what the punctuation would tell the reader. The practice is both unnecessary and annoying. The presence of so many exclamation points goes beyond being noticeable. The excessive and unnecessary punctuation marks create a negative impact for the reader.
Okay, that’s me reacting as a reader. As an editor, I’m going to suggest that you don’t overwhelm your readers with an overabundance of any punctuation mark, especially the unusual or less common ones—colon, semicolon, dash, parentheses, and exclamation point.
Punctuation, even when used correctly, can stand out in a negative way. And the less common the punctuation, the more noticeable the poor use or overuse will be. Any mark used too often can stand out when it should instead do its business without drawing attention to itself.
We can talk about other punctuation another time—we recently looked at too many questions and question marks in a story. But today I want to suggest that you keep exclamation points to a minimum, especially in adult fiction. And that you reserve the marks for true exclamations, typically voiced in dialogue.
In this book I’m reading, characters even think in exclamation points, as if they’re constantly yelling in their heads or exclaiming without speech. It’s odd to repeatedly see a character thinking so loudly or excitedly, especially when what he or she is thinking isn’t exciting but is instead quite ordinary thought.
An exclamation point on its own doesn’t automatically convey excitement, so simply adding one to a sentence doesn’t create emotion or passion. The context and story situation, tension and conflict, and word choices, word order, and sentence construction can all help a writer create a dramatic moment. And once those devices are used, an exclamation point is often unnecessary.
Yet the exclamation point is a legitimate punctuation mark. But it shouldn’t be used to pump up what’s lacking in the words themselves. It shouldn’t be used to fill in for the absence of strong character responses. And it definitely shouldn’t be used when a sentence is a simple declaration, a mundane comment or observation with no excitement or drama to it.
I was going to offer a few examples from the book so you could get a sense of what I’m talking about, yet out of context, the misuse of the exclamation points isn’t necessarily evident. Almost any sentence could be an exclamation, depending on the circumstances. What I want to stress concerning the use of exclamation points in this book is that there is no need for most of them. The phrases and sentences are plain declarations, not emotion-laden exclamations or bellowing.
There are paragraphs of dialogue containing four and five exclamation points. Characters engaged in normal conversation pass exclamation points back and forth as though they’re playing hot potato. One of the pages I read after I began writing this article had 13 exclamation points. Thirteen. That’s exhausting to read—I can only imagine how exhausting it is for characters to speak and think that way for page after page and moment after moment. It’s as if the characters are constantly surprised or unnaturally but steadily ecstatic.
Such speech, such behavior, is unrealistic. Also, since even the most common declarations have exclamation points attached, everything is given prominence or a pseudo-importance, meaning that ultimately nothing stands out.
Children’s fiction can use more exclamation points than adult fiction can. The use of the punctuation mark is one way of showing new readers what’s exciting to the character. But adults and experienced readers don’t need a visual every other sentence.
And even if one character speaks in exclamations, not all of them will. Three and four characters certainly wouldn’t need to exclaim four and five lines of dialogue in multiple paragraphs on the same page.
To reduce the number of exclamation points when they’ve been overused, I often suggest that writers take them all out of a manuscript and then read the story from hard copy, adding exclamation points as necessary. The number is often greatly reduced, leaving only those that are actually necessary and useful.
There’s no correct number of exclamation points per book, but you might find that you don’t need more than a dozen or two in an 85,000-word story. One story may require ten times that many while another story may not need even one.* The use of exclamation points is part of a writer’s style and is a reflection of the needs of a particular story and the genre. But the point is to be deliberate about their use, using them only as necessary and not as a decorative flourish. Use word choices, sentence structure, and character dialogue and actions to create the mood or tone necessary for the scene. Don’t throw exclamation-point confetti onto a page of text and assume that the punctuation will do the work of creating tension or excitement.
Such abandon may have readers gritting their teeth and wondering why every character is yelling all the time, even in their thoughts.
This is definitely an area for restraint.
When to Use Exclamation Points
• Use exclamation points for exclamations—commonly in dialogue, sometimes in thoughts, and only rarely in general narration. By general narration here I mean actual narration and not dialogue masquerading as narration. Some narration is actually a character’s (or the narrator’s) lightly veiled monologue directed at himself or at the reader, and you could just as easily use exclamation points in such text as you would in spoken dialogue and thoughts. We use exclamation points much less often for description, for the depiction of action, in back story, and in summary than we do in dialogue unless we’re including character reactions or opinions in the same bit of text.
The sky was angry, a contrast to only moments before. The clouds had expanded and now wrestled with one another for space. Rain burst out of those clouds with an explosion of fury.
Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress, the hem already brown with mud, was plastered to her body.
What a horrendous day! Without warning, rain had burst out of the sky. Mara couldn’t even cry. Her wedding dress—the stupid twenty-thousand-dollar gown she just had to have—was now a wet rag.
I’m not saying that you’d never use an exclamation point in narration, just that they are many times more common in dialogue and thoughts.
• And rather than have every character bellow out their speech, emphasize only a few exclamations by a few characters or reserve exclamation points for key emotional outbursts.
• Rather than use exclamation points in three or four sentences in a paragraph, try using the mark once to highlight one phrase or sentence.
Now, if a character is actually yelling multiple sentences, that’s a different situation. Exclamation points are welcome, even multiple marks, when they’re truly needed.
• Use exclamation points after interjections.
“Hey! I was using that.”
• Use exclamation points for commands.
“Drop it right now!”
• Use exclamation points to indicate a raised voice.
“No, no, no!” she wailed.
• Use exclamation points to reflect almost any strong emotion, including dismay, surprise, urgency, fear, and enthusiasm.
Dread rushed through her in a wave of heat when she turned back to the waiting officer. “I left my wallet in my other purse!”
“Tommy actually won!”
• Use exclamation points for rhetorical questions. (Question marks and periods can also be used.)
“So you can’t you help me!”
• Use the exclamation point to show excitement that’s already there; don’t use it to try to foment excitement.
• And unless you’re deliberately using exclamation points for an effect—a rare effect—don’t have characters yell every sentence or add so much emotion to their words that they speak every sentence as as exclamation.
Can something like the following example work? Maybe. If the circumstances demand such punctuation and the setup isn’t used again and again without restraint.
“Lisa! I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood! “It was the burglar when he went racing through the house! He broke your lamp!”
But even exaggeration can be toned down or tweaked, leaving the emotion still as potent.
“Lisa, I told you I didn’t do it!” She always deliberately misunderstood. “It was the burglar! He broke your lamp.”
Particulars and Conventions
• In fiction, one exclamation point at the end of a sentence is sufficient. There’s no range of excitement conveyed by the number of exclamation points. Exceptions for the portrayal of e-mail and other character-generated writings.
• We typically don’t pair an exclamation point with a question mark. Maybe every so often in children’s fiction such a practice can be used for effect. But just as we wouldn’t pair an exclamation point with a period, there’s no need to join it to a question mark. Decide on one terminal mark or another.
The interrobang (‽) keeps searching for acceptance, but its use isn’t widely accepted.
I know that we’ve all seen exclamation points and question marks stuck together; I’m not saying the use is an impossibility. I am suggesting that a better practice is to be decisive and choose one over the other. Decide whether your character is asking a question or making an emotional exclamation. If you need to show multiple emotions or reactions at the same time, use words, sentence structure, and even multiple sentences to convey your meaning. Fiction isn’t a newspaper story or an advertisement where you don’t have room for expansion and expression, where you can’t actually say what you mean using all the words necessary. Fiction’s a different animal; use all your tools to convey even the slightest nuances.
• Don’t use both an exclamation point and a period at the end of a sentence.
“Give me back my dog!.” X
“Give me back my dog!”
• Don’t use both an exclamation point and a comma in dialogue before a dialogue tag.
“I did it!,” Victor said. X “I did it!” Victor said.
• Don’t use both a comma and an exclamation point midsentence whether the text is dialogue or narrative.
The boy’s a thief!, she thought, upset again. X
The boy’s a thief! she thought, upset again.
• Don’t pair exclamation points with a dash used to show dialogue that’s cut off.
“It can’t be missing—!” X
“It can’t be missing—“
• Don’t imagine that every emotional sentence or emphatic utterance needs an exclamation point. Readers are quite able to glean emphasis from context and the words themselves.
• Consider limiting your use of exclamation points to shorter sentences and phrases that can be spoken with a single breath. The mark is pointless for exclamations that peter out before they end or that are read without the emphasis of the exclamation point because it’s so far from the beginning of the sentence that the reader doesn’t know it’s there.
The exclamation point in this next example doesn’t work. It comes too late to be effective, and the speaker couldn’t possibly speak the entire sentence emphatically.
“She raced over the hill and jumped into the creek without hesitation—getting soaked up to her waist—and followed the trail into the trees on the other side, Darlene chasing her the whole way, promising retribution and bellowing threats with that loud voice of hers, like you know she does when she’s angry!”
Exclamation points aren’t evil. They have valid purposes. And like every other writing tool, they can be used to ensure clarity and create effects. But they have limitations. And their misuse can easily undo much of a writer’s carefully crafted work.
Check your own writing. Use exclamation points in early drafts to help you pinpoint where you want to include excitement or emotional utterances. But use a rewrite or edit to pull out exclamation points that weaken rather than strengthen your text.
(a graphicshowing exclamation use for a few authors)
This is the time of year we’re filled with excitement over new projects, new possibilities. We make resolutions and plans, determined that this is the year we’ll write that novel, that we’ll submit a manuscript to the one agent we most want to represent us, that we’ll tackle the project that we’ve been putting off for months or years.
I’m going to add my agreement to yours, tag my encouragement onto your own as you go into 2018 with fervor for all activities writing related. Do them. Start those projects. Contact those agents. Dig deep into research for that new story.
But don’t give up on what you began last year.
Don’t give up on projects that you were once gung ho over. Don’t allow the turn of a calendar page mean that you have to put aside older projects. Just because you didn’t meet a goal last year or you didn’t finish a manuscript when you said you would doesn’t mean that you have to toss the project aside and start afresh.
I’m all for new years bringing new goals and new stories, but if you didn’t finish last year’s goals, you don’t need to toss aside the projects attached to those goals.
As a matter of fact, you might need to push deep and dedicate yourself to finishing half-completed projects.
We all like starting projects. They’re shiny and new and filled with possibilities. But stories that are incomplete, stories where we’ve hit snags or where we’ve run into roadblocks the size of mountains, are challenging. Sometimes they’re no longer fun. They’ve lost their luster and appeal. Those problem stories drive us away rather than invite us close. Sometimes we don’t even want to think about them anymore. The new story has endless possibilities while the possibilities of the old story have narrowed to almost nothing. At least that’s how we often feel. And yet . . .
Finishing the older project, pushing through the problems and challenges into solutions and answers is one way we grow as writers. If we always give up when the problems pile on, we’ll never learn how to solve those problems. Beginning a new project is not the solution to problems with an older project.
I definitely want to encourage you if you’re tackling a new project this month or this year; plan it, start it, go deep into it. But if you’re teetering between the completion of an older project and the shine of a new one, allow me to encourage you to take on that older project as this year’s new one. If you need a new mindset to approach your story or manuscript with a new attitude, find that mindset. Find the prompt or goad that you need in order to re-energize yourself to work on the problem manuscript.
Before you mention it, yes, some stories need to be tossed and forgotten or set aside until your skills and knowledge are advanced enough to tackle them and their accompanying problems. But that’s not all stories. And it’s certainly not all problem stories. Many times you need to push—and push and push and push some more—at and through the problem areas until you achieve a breakthrough.
I don’t want you wasting time on the unsolvable story problem; there are times when quitting and moving on is the right option. But it’s not the right option every time. And if you find yourself never pushing through writing issues, always putting aside the incomplete for the new, then you’re never going to learn methods for solving those problems.
Start something new this year and this month if that’s where you are in your career or hobby. And yet if you’ve got an incomplete writing project hanging over your head, let me encourage you to finish it. Make a declaration that you’ll find at least one solution for that obstacle that made working on the manuscript a drudgery rather than a delight. Or go all out and declare that you’ll find three solutions for that obstacle.
You may have to do a bit of study on writing rules, on fiction particulars, on story structure. You may have to be willing to change the POV or the story’s narrative tense. You may need to change the protagonist into the antagonist and the antagonist into the protagonist.
You may need to drop characters, add characters, change the setting, or change the ending.
You may have to get far-out-of-the-box creative and try something unimaginable. Something unique. Something unbelievably new. And wouldn’t that be fabulous?
My challenge for you as we enter a new year is to write. Write more than you did last year. Get your thoughts and ideas out of your head and down on the page. Try a new genre or a new style. Create a new character. Invent a new world.
But I also challenge you to finish what you’ve already begun. Do whatever you have to to keep working on the old even when the shiny and new is twinkling at you, enticing you away from what may no longer be so shiny. Remind yourself that learning how to solve a difficult story problem may be worth much more to your writing career than beginning yet another new story that you might not end up finishing.
Consider your problem solving and the finishing of a troublesome project to be career training if nothing else.
Finish what you’ve started.
Happy New Year to you all. May good stories chase you down and the mechanics of writing become more intuitive this year.
This may be an odd topic, but it’s one that came up for me recently, so I thought it worth an article.
When we write fiction, we use every tool, every bit of experience and wisdom, to create a plot and characters that engage readers for the length of the story. We apply what we know about story structure. We learn everything we can about our characters so that they behave in character, moved by circumstances in a way that only they could be. And we use grammar and punctuation as part of our foundation and in ways that enhance mood, tone, emotions, and so forth.
Today I want to look at what is probably best described as a style issue blended with a punctuation issue. I want to look at the use of questions by characters.
There are the common, everyday questions that any character, any person, might ask over the course of a day:
What can I get you?
What did your ex do this time?
How old do you have to be to rent a car?
Like the rest of us, characters will ask questions. They’ll ask to elicit information, to put another character on the spot, to relax another character. They may ask questions if they’re nervous or to fill the silence.
We ask questions for many reasons, and for the most part, we probably don’t think about it when we have our characters ask questions. But I’m going to suggest that writers and editors should pay more attention to questions, especially those of a certain type.
Tag Questions/Question Tags
Tag questions are questions tagged onto the end of a sentence.
You fed the dog, didn’t you?
He’s going to the movies with us, isn’t he?
You can babysit on Friday, can’t you?
You’re likely to be familiar with this format. A question follows a statement, with the question set off by a comma. These questions after statements have a variety of purposes.
They can be used to elicit agreement, for emphasis, to reveal the speaker’s uncertainty. They can even be used to raise doubts in those who hear the question.
That’s one ugly dog, don’t you think? (elicit agreement)
You will pay me now, won’t you? (for emphasis)
It looks good, doesn’t it? (uncertainty)
She could have done better, don’t you agree? (raise doubts)
Question tags are obviously a valid tool for crafting sentences, yet their use can diffuse the certainty of the declarative element of the sentence. That’s a valid purpose for their use, of course. Yet when such sentences are used too often, they can dilute the power of declarations.
If a character is always appealing to other characters—don’t you think so, do you, can you, isn’t it—the first character can come across as wishy-washy, indecisive, or weak. Now, if that’s the point of using tag questions again and again, that’s a legitimate use. But we typically want to create strong declarations in our text. We want to have characters declare that someone else is something. Using tag questions is like making a declaration and then pulling it back. It’s like trying to be bold and then smoothing over that boldness with oil to soothe the sting.
For the same reason we limit hedge words and phrases—to make bold declarations undimmed by hesitance—so we should limit tag questions that only seem to deliver strong messages but which in reality soften the blow with the question.
Hedges—he seemed angry, she was a bit quiet, the boy sort of hollered—don’t pack the same emotional punch that bold declarations do. He raged, she was quiet, the boy bellowed all make bolder statements, and it’s those bold statements that create tension, conflict, and emotional impacts and that lead to character reactions which in turn push the story forward.
Making declarations without afterward backing out of the boldness by using tag questions also helps create tension, conflict, and powerful emotional impacts.
If you find characters again and again adding questions to their declarations, consider dropping those questions. Do use them when they’re necessary to create a desired effect or when a character is looking for information. Use them even to show the diffident personality of a single character. But understand how they leach power from the rest of a sentence and don’t allow all characters to continuously use them. And if the character who does use tag questions to moderate his speech is a character who grows and changes during your story, consider switching his non-declarations into true declarations as the story progresses.
Allow characters to be bold, to say what you’d never say in polite society. Don’t imagine that you need to censor your characters, that they can’t sound mean or impolite or rude or demanding. It’s those bold characters who are remembered. It’s the ones who make declarations who stand out. It’s the ones whose emotions are unleashed who move the reader.
If characters make declarations in one breath but take them back in the next, there is no impact from the initial declaration. The original declaration is nullified.
But our characters don’t have to be like us, doing everything they can to get along with others. They’re allowed to rub each other the wrong way. They’re allowed to be rough rather than smooth, honest rather than always polite. Honest characters and the emotions that push them drive plot forward and make fiction emotionally satisfying.
A character who doesn’t want to offend, who doesn’t speak the truth, is less likely to be remembered. I’m not talking about intentional liars here; liars can be great characters. I’m talking about characters that writers make too timid to be of any use. Characters too nice to produce reactions in others.
Using tag questions over and over is just one way that a powerful plot can be weakened by the story’s execution. If you find that you’ve hamstrung your characters by having them first speak declarations only to pull those declarations back a moment later with tag questions, consider rewriting for boldness. Use tag questions deliberately to create effects, but watch out for the unintended effect of weakening your sentences and characters. If you’re doing all you can to write bold sentences and strong characters, make sure that you’re not unintentionally enervating them with tag questions.
I’ll leave you with a few sentences to consider for comparison. Any one of these sentences might be the perfect one at any given moment in a story. But too many of one kind or using the wrong sentence at the wrong time could cause the impact to fizzle before it’s done its work.
He’s a snake, isn’t he?
He’s a snake.
That man is a snake.
Max Grock is a snake.
If you wanted to make an impact, maybe reveal both Max Grock and the personality, the attitude, or the current emotional level of the speaker/viewpoint character, the final few options would be be more effective than the first example.
I like the last option. The harsh name and the pairing of the K sounds—the consonance—creates a strong impact. Even a feeling of harshness. The speaker is making his feelings known.
Check your manuscripts for question tags. Make sure that you’re using them purposely and that the effect you’re using them for isn’t overshadowed by an unintended negative effect. Let your words ring with power, with potency. Let declarations stand as declarations.
I’m still pulling for all you NaNoers. If you need a push to get over the goal line, why not join me Wednesday, November 29, at 10 p.m. (Eastern time) and we’ll do some timed sessions and increase your word count.
Not participating in NaNo but you’re in the process of writing something? You’re welcome to join us. Simply want to practice writing without pause, without your inner editor frowning at you and making you make changes immediately? You are welcome too.
While many of the most accessed articles deal with writing mechanics, it seems that the articles that generate the most discussion have to do with style or encouragement for writers. You’re always welcome to share your insights and questions; we’ve had some great discussions.
There’s plenty of info for all sorts of writing needs, so if you haven’t, I hope you’ll explore the site. There are a handful of ways to search for what you’re looking for, but you can always check out an alphabetical list of articles in the archives. You’ll find information on punctuation (there’s a lot on commas), the fiction elements—point of view, characters, dialogue, plot, etc.—writing for the reader, and encouragement for writers.
Again, my thanks. Way back when, I never imagined the blog would reach so many. Thanks for letting me talk about words and writing, two of my greatest loves.
I hope you’re busily writing, busily editing, or busily thinking about writing today.
I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo (the National Novel Writing Month) this year, but I’ll certainly encourage those of you who are. If you want to brag or commiserate, come to a NaNo-friendly corner of the world and tell us about your experiences.
Never heard of NaNoWriMo? The NaNo folks have all the info you need. And it’s not too late to start.
I plan to host at least one write-in during the month, so I hope you can drop by. A handful or two of us got in some fantastic word counts with writing sprints last year. And the competition to write the most words was fun.
You can do it. You can write 50,000 words toward a novel this month. I hope you exceed your expectations. And I hope something in your writing surprises you.