• Nikki Lee Taylor

Simple punctuation for fiction writers. Stick to these rules and you can't go wrong



Punctuation can be SUPER confusing when you're just starting out writing fiction. But with a few simple rules, you can do it properly and overcome all that punctuation panic. Here's how...


There are only five punctuation marks you really need to use to clarify things for readers and create a flowing story. So, if you have any doubt over how to correctly use some of the other, fancier punctuation marks - don't use them. Simple as that.


A good way to gauge your understanding of punctuation is by asking yourself - Could I easily and confidently explain how to use this punctuation mark to someone else?


If you are just starting out writing fiction and don't think you could confidently explain the in-depth use of all the punctuation options to someone else, here's what you need to do: If in doubt - leave it out, and stick with the five main punctuation marks.


Here are the ones you need to know:


  • Full stop/period

  • Comma

  • Question mark

  • Apostrophe

  • Quotation marks



Full stop

This one is pretty simple. A full stop/period is used at the end of a sentence. It indicates the point has been made and it's time to move on. The full stop can work in most situations and takes the place of fancier punctuation like semi-colons, en dashes, em dashes, and ellipsis. Be sure to start the next word following on from a full stop (the first word of a new sentence) with a capital letter - but you knew that, right?



Comma

This one gets a little more confusing so I wrote a whole post on commas. You can read it here.


Question Mark

The question mark is used at the end of a question. Simple. Just remember if you are writing dialogue and use a question mark followed by a speech tag, the speech tag should almost always be 'asked' - not 'said'.


Example


"Why don't you want to dance?" she asked. CORRECT


"Why don't you want to dance?" she said. INCORRECT


The other thing to remember is even though the question mark looks like a version of a full stop because it has a dot at the bottom, the following speech tag is not capped.


"Why not?" she asked. CORRECT

"Why not?" She asked. INCORRECT



Apostrophe

The apostrophe indicates the ownership of something. It is also used for abbreviations/contractions.


Ownership examples

  • Mary's shoes

  • Sarah's Instagram

  • Travis' guitar (when the word ends in 's' the apostrophe comes after the letter not before)

  • James' bag


Abbreviations/Contraction examples

  • That's (That is)

  • Can't (cannot)

  • Don't (do not

  • It's (it is)

  • I'm (I am)



Quotation Marks

Quotation marks always come in pairs and identify when one of your characters is speaking. The exact use of quotation marks depends on whether you are using American English or British English.


Styles


American English

American English uses double quotation marks (“ ”) for direct quotes. With this style, periods, commas, exclamation points, and question marks go before closing quotation marks. Dashes, colons, and semicolons usually go outside the quotation marks.


Example


"That is my favorite kind of chocolate," Melinda said.


"Where are you going?" she asked.


When she asked him would he go with her, he whispered the following: "yes."


British English

British English uses single quotation marks (' ') for direct dialogue.


Example


'Are you coming to the dinner party?' she asked.


Last words...


One more thing. I didn't include the exclamation point. That's because unless your character is YELLING SOMETHING in their dialogue - LEAVE THEM OUT!


Sorry for shouting, but please don't overuse exclamation points and never put them into your narration. Only dialogue and very sparingly.


There are other quotation marks like semi-colons, em dashes, and ellipsis that are often used in fiction writing, but when you are just starting out there is no reason you cannot write a well-punctuated book using these simple punctuation marks.

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