Commas are key when you want to write clear sentences. Here's how to use them correctly in fiction
Commas are the undoing of so many beginner writers - some who don't even realise they're using them incorrectly.
In fiction, commas are used to make things clear for the reader. They provide clarity around what the writer is trying to say.
For example, I want to eat Mum (horror novel) vs I want to eat, Mum (family fiction).
So how do we use them correctly?
When writing fiction there are four main uses of commas.
1. To separate independent clauses joined by any of the following conjunctions (joining words) and, but, or, nor, for, yet, so.
When you have two independent clauses and want to join them into one sentence you must use a comma conjunction. That is, a comma followed by one of the conjunctions above.
I went to the shops to buy a dress, and (comma conjunction) ended up buying shoes as well.
It was late and my feet were aching, so (comma conjunction) I took off my shoes and carried them.
*** If you fail to use a comma conjunction you will create a run-on sentence or comma splice and that is not the correct way to write a sentence. If you do it will look something like this:
I went to the shops to buy a dress, ended up buying shoes as well.
It was late and my feet were aching, I took off my shoes and carried them.
2. After an introductory phrase, or words that come before the main clause.
An introductory phrase tells your reader that the main part of the message - including the subject and verb - is yet to come. When you use this style of sentence a comma usually needs to go at the end of the introductory phrase.
Introductory phrases mostly begin with words like as, because, before, since, when, though.
Because we like shopping together (introductory phrase), Lisa and I went to the mall (main clause).
Although she enjoys cocktails, Helen can't always afford to buy them.
Single introductory words also require a comma. These are words like: However, Next, Finally, Suddenly.
However, we would later find out she stole the dress from her friend.
*** Starting a sentence with But as an introductory word is an exception and does not require a comma.
3. To mark off nonessential words, clauses, and phrases that occur mid-sentence.
A nonessential clause is part of a sentence that can be removed without changing any meaning. Nonessential clauses should be marked off with a pair of commas.
Example: The bouquet of flowers, made up of red roses (nonessential), was beautiful.
Example: My new Iphone, in a pink glitter case (nonessential), goes everywhere with me.
4. To separate adjectives when the order of adjectives is interchangeable.
When using interchangeable adjectives you need to separate them with a comma.
Example: They serve hot, strong (interchangeable order) coffee at the cafe.
Hot and strong can be switched in order and the sentence still makes sense so a comma must be added between them.
But if we had a sentence like: She bought a small red convertible - you do not use a comma because if we try to switch the adjectives around: She bought a red small convertible it doesn't sound right - so they are not interchangeable. Therefore, no comma is required.
5. To introduce or interrupt direct dialogue.
When attributing dialogue to one of your characters you need to put a comma inside the quotation mark.
"I can't wait to read the new book by Jodi Picoult," Lisa said.
"The new movie is supposed to be really good," she said.
*** If the dialogue ends with another form of punctuation such as a question mark or exclamation mark it replaces the comma.
"I can't wait to see the band!" Julie exclaimed.
"Why are you doing this to me?" Lisa asked.
*** IMPORTANT INFORMATION BEFORE YOU GO ***
It is also important for fiction authors to understand how to use the Oxford (serial) comma.
An Oxford comma is the comma that goes before the final conjunction (usually the word 'and') in a series of three or more elements.
There has been much debate over the use of Oxford commas but here's a few examples of why I think you should use them when writing fiction and what can happen if you don't.
Examples are from the poke.co.uk
“Amongst those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Krisofferson and Robert Duvall.”
- Without an Oxford comma this reads as though Merle Haggard's ex-wives are actually Kris Krisofferson and Robert Duvall.
By using the Oxford comma things become much clearer: “Amongst those interviewed were Merle Haggard’s two ex-wives, Kris Krisofferson, (Oxford comma) and Robert Duvall.”
“This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”
- Without an Oxford comma this sounds like the person's parents are actually Ayn Rand and God.
With the Oxford comma things become much clearer: “This book is dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, (Oxford comma) and God.”