Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

By P.J. Parrish

The other day I caught an interview with Tony-winning playwright Terrance McNally. His new play Mothers and Sons is now on Broadway and he and its star, Tyne Daly, were talking about it:

Daly: Terrance is great at punctuation.
McNally: Punctuation is very important.
Daly: If you follow what he does, it’s like a musical score.
McNally: That would be in my notes, that it’s a comma not a semi-colon. I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.

To which I said: “Yes!”

Did you notice that I used an exclamation mark there? That is because when I heard McNally talk about punctuation, I got really, really excited. Because I am one of those old-fashioned writers who believe that all those little marks we pepper in our fiction:

. ; : ? ! ( ) , “” 

all those little marks make a big difference. So forgive me if I go in the weeds today (yeah, I know, I do this often) but I want to talk about getting the little stuff right.

But first, I’m thinking we need a definition of “right.” Because even though all of us savvy folks here at TKZ know we need to be up on our grammar so our editors will accept our manuscripts and our readers won’t flame us with Amazon one-star reviews, we also know that when it comes to fiction, rules can be bent.

In fact, sometimes they need to be bent. Sometimes, you the writer are going for a particular mood or effect or style, and if you do that with confidence, then grammar police be damned!

Take a look at this opening line of a famous book:

Marley was dead: to begin with.

That’s the opening line of A Christmas Carol. I’m not sure what Dickens was trying to do with it, and technically it’s a misuse of the colon. It probably should be “Marley was dead, to begin with.” But that’s flat and prissy. That oddly placed colon is like slamming up against a brick wall in the fog. I think it works in a weird sort of way. (Hat tip to blogger Kathryn Schulz for this example).

Here’s another strange one that I’m sure you’ll recognize:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Again, misplaced commas, an inflamed colon, fragments and a plethora of periods. But it is music, no?

One more and then we’ll move on:

Grogan’s is not the oldest pub in Galway. It’s the oldest unchanged pub in Galway.
While as the rest go
it remains true to the format fifty or more years ago. Beyond basic. Spit and sawdust floor, hard seat, no-frills stock. The taste for
hasn’t yet been acknowledged.

I can just hear the grammar gurus grinding their teeth over that one. This is from Ken Bruen’s Edgar-nominated The Guards. This is classic Ken, a style that ignores convention to create its spare lilt. Like George Saunders and Joyce Carol Oates, Ken plays with sentence structure, indention,  and makes up new uses for all the old punctuation symbols. Because when he hears his story in his head, he hears a singular rhythm that you or I would not if we tried to tell the same story set in that Irish pub.

But here’s the thing: (colon!) These writers all knew the rules before they broke them. Charles Ives was a church organist before he broke away to write The Unanswered Question.

Picasso painted this

Before he felt free enough to paint this

William Strunk, the éminence grise of grammar, says: “The best writers sometimes disregard the rules. Unless he is certain of doing well, [the writer] will probably do best to follow the rules.” Or, as I often tell folks in my workshops: Don’t start juggling machetes if all you can control is two tennis balls. So maybe we should take a moment — pause em dash — to look at some of those little marks and decide which ones we can play around with without slicing ourselves to bits.

The Period

This is my favorite punctuation mark. It is concise and emphatic without being overbearing. You always know where you stand with periods. Periods give you simple sentence structure and clear syntax. Periods can also create lovely sentence fragments, which can be a nifty stylistic tool. You can write a really great novel with just periods, quotes and maybe some question marks. Unless you’re James Joyce. Cormac McCarthy once said of Joyce: “[He’s] a good model for punctuation. He keeps it to an absolute minimum. There’s no reason to blot the page up with weird little marks. I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”  But hey, Joyce is juggling chainsaws in Ulysses. Don’t try this at home.


Wars have been waged over the poor comma. Some people are very strict about them, sticking them in every little compound sentence crevice. Others feel less is more, that fiction’s narrative voice allows you the freedom to “feel” your way around a phrase without the pause a comma injects. If you publish traditionally, your editor will have style manual and will inflict many commas on you. Some are bad:

Woman, without her man, is nothing

But some are good:

Woman! Without her, man is nothing.

The Colon
This is a pretty clear-cut fellow. It introduces text that amplfies something previously said or it tells you a list is coming up. I don’t think colons have much place in fiction, except maybe for that second use. A colon finds a better home in non-fiction. I think a better, less stodgy substitute for the colon is:

The Em Dash

I adore the em dash because to my eye and ear, it feels more like people really talk and think. Our thoughts tend to move forward and there is something pure and lively about seeing this     instead of this :  A colon bring your eye to a stop while a dash implies there is more movement ahead. Two examples:

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds: the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.’

“The gambit is when you sacrifice one of your pieces to throw an opponent off,” the chief said. “There are many different kinds the Swiss gambit, the classic bishop sacrifice, the Evans gambit.”

I think the second is better because it is dialogue. You also can use the em dash to show an abrupt break in the dialogue, when one person is cutting off another:

“Define insubordination.”
Louis wet his lips. “I did something — ”
“I don’t care what you did. Define the word.”

Which leads us to the ellipses. It’s a cousin of the em dash in that you see it used in dialogue often. But there’s an important difference. Whereas a dash implies an abrupt break in the dialogue, the ellipses implies a trailing off. It can also imply a slowing of thoughts.

“Why didn’t you quit?” Jesse asked quietly.
Louis shook his head. “Can’t…”
“He’s still out there.”

The Exclamation Mark

This thing can be like a rabid ferret…hard to control. Yes, you need a rare one to convey extreme emotion. But like a dash or italics, it can lose its effectiveness if you overuse it. As Elmore Leonard said: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”

And last but least:

The Semi-Colon

I saved this one for last because I hate the damn things. Semi-colons are like some professor-types. They’ve got an inflated sense of importance from living in the academic world. Or maybe they’re like literary novelists who like to go slumming in crime fiction. I think I’ve used maybe two semi-colons in sixteen books and both times I had to take a shower right after. I am not alone in my attitude. Let’s go back to what the playwright Terrance McNally said for a moment: “I want to hear a comma and you’re giving me a semi-colon.”

Our own James Bell called semi-colons the eggplant of punctuation. (Click here to read it). Why are semi-colons bad? Because the beautiful business of fiction is replicating real life on the page and in real life people don’t think or talk in semi-colons. Unless they’re using emoticons. And c’mon, don’t you want to punch out those people anyway?

Postscript: After I finished this, I was proofing one of my back list titles. It is filled with em dashes! The Em seems to be my default punctuation. That got to wondering why I hate the semi-colon so much and what this says about me as a person. So…

What Your Favorite Punctuation Says About You

Period: You are emphatic, decisive, fearless. In the life raft, everyone looks to you to figure a way out.  You bowl overhand.

The exclamation mark: You’re dramatic and get a lot of invitations to parties. You wear purple. You’re probably the person people glare at for talking on your cell phone too loud at the bagel store.

The Em Dash: You are creative and optimistic. Life is a cabaret, old chum. You keep fresh kale in your fridge, wait for a Kraftwerk comeback and you root for the Knicks.

Question mark: You are deeply spiritual and people in meetings always wait to hear what you think. You have read and understood everything George Saunders has written. Your favorite color is tweed.

Colon: You’re organized and make to-do lists. People always ask you to arrange the Christmas office party but no one grabs you under the mistletoe.  You do the Times crossword in ink.

Semi-colon: You are cautious and methodical but you change your mind easily. You have trouble ordering at a restaurant and often resort to eating off other people’s plates because you think you made a mistake in getting the sea bass. You think Rand Paul makes a lot of sense.

36 thoughts on “Write crap and grieveWrite? Crap! And grieve…

  1. Nicely done, Kris. I’m with you on all of these, especially the em…love ’em.

    And all editors of fiction should advertise free semi-colonectomy services.

  2. Hey! My favourite punctuation is the ellipsis…I use it a lot…what kind of person am I?

    Exclamation points, two ellipsis (what would be the plural of ellipsis? Probably the same, I’m thinking), and a question mark. Not bad.

    Timely post, Kris. Jayde, my editor at Divertir, recently pointed out my addiction to ellipsis, and introduced me to the em dash. I knew about them, saw them in other books, but wasn’t sure of their use. I am now.

    I will print this off and post it on my board. Thanks, Kris!

    • Ah, the ellipsis…
      I’d say if that’s your favorite, you’re sensitive and thoughtful. You eat the white stuff out of oreos and throw out the cookie. You once had a pet rock named Harold that you took for long walks in the woods.

    • That’s amazing! Only his name was Hudson.

      Thanks, John (if you ever see this), I like finding out these things. And thanks, Kris (if you ever see this) for taking the time to make me feel included…lol. DAMN, there I go again.

  3. Great post, Kris. I love the em dash so much that I have a hot key to insert it anywhere, anytime with one click. I also believe that the semi-colon has no place in fiction. Regarding the colon, in my workshops I advise new writers to leave it in the hands of their proctologist.

  4. Anyone recall a book from the ’80s called “Stalking the Wild Semicolon?” More a booklet, really. Terse little volume on each punctuation mark. As I recall the advice on the semicolon, the author said never use it. It’s such a fussy, prissy little mark, and it’s always possible to find another construction that’s more straightforward. If you find yourself using a lot of them, rewrite the sentence! I would say if you’re favorite punctuation mark is a semicolon, you’re more than a little persnickety, and probably not a lot of fun at parties.

    • Time for someone to bring it back. Great, handy little book.
      To get an em dash on a Mac, hold down the option key and type the hyphen. Gives you a nice, clean em dash. I imagien there’s a way to do it on the PC, I just have no idea what it is.

    • I use both the shorter en dash with a space on either side for nonfiction and blog posts, etc. and the longer em dash with no spaces on either side in fiction. To make the en dash on a PC: Ctrl plus – (minus sign, top right of numbers keyboard). To make the em dash: Ctrl+Alt plus that minus sign.

  5. Good stuff, Kris! Clear, informative, entertaining, and humorous — and I agree with basically all of it. I’m definitely not one of those “school marm” type editors hung up on proper grammar – especially for fiction! (Yes, I do like my exclamation points in comments and emails, and I definitely think they have a place in fiction when a character is screaming, frightened, desperate, or in pain.)

  6. Must agree about the semicolon. When I come across one, I stop and stare at it for an extra heartbeat, not because I’m directed to do so, but because it is odd. I believe the writer should provide a kick starter with each one to get to sentence going again.

    • I think most readers are like you on this one, Brian. We stop at a semi-colon because we sort of KNOW it is special, one of those weird punctuation marks, and we stop because most of us aren’t English majors and we can’t quite figure out what it’s for. Which makes a semi-colon a hiccup. Which we don’t want in fiction.

  7. Wow, someone who agrees with me. As a recovering musician, I have long worried less about the “Proper” grammatical use of punctuation, and used ot to provide cadence to the text, especially in dialog. I do everything as you noted here, with one exception: to me, a semi-colon indicates a pause longer than a comma, but not as long as a period.

    I expect I’ll have some “:discussions” with copy editors in the future.

    • A semicolon serves several very specific purposes in nonfiction, which I could name, but in fiction it just seems affected and pompous, especially for dialogue! If you have a pompous professor giving a lecture, sprinkle in lots of semicolons! LOL

    • I’m absolutely with you on no semicolons in dialogue–crazy! Otherwise, I find them useful in special instances. Semicolons can serve as a fine, lingering extension, as a way of making a moment last, one that needs more breathing room and would not be served by a period.

  8. Ever since reading Noah Lukeman’s great book, A Dash of Style, I’ve used and loved the em dash, even though there’s nary a leaf of kale in my ‘fridge and I root for lost causes like the Mavericks. Thanks for a great post.

    • en dashes have other uses, like separating numbers and dates, but are often used in nonfiction like em dashes. I explain above how to make both of them on a PC. The shorter en dash usually has a space on either side, while the longer em dash usually has no spaces on either side.

  9. I had a journalism professor who hated semi-colons. However, when he had an operation mid-semester to remove part of his colon, I had to point out the obvious when he returned (em-dash) there was still use for a semi-colon.

    By the way, no deep discussion about punctuation should leave out Victor Borge’s humorous take on the subject: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bpIbdZhrzA

    • Eric: I have had the same colon surgery. And yeah, my doc has heard all the bad jokes. Even from me. He told me everyone tells the same joke just before they put em under.

  10. I’m a total em dasher – though not too sure about the Knicks – everything else though-:) guilty as charged!

  11. Where I have trouble is with hyphens. I rely on my copy editor, because each publisher is different in their preferences. What I try to do is make a style sheet for each one so I can remember how they like things the next time around. For example, in Hanging By A Hair, my editor added the hyphen to next-door neighbor. However, I’m a whiz with commas!

  12. Some of my clients like to do the combo question mark and exclamation mark like in one of the cartoons above. Or as in “She’s gone?!” So far I’ve said that’s kind of a no-no. Maybe I should start letting it go…? What do you think?

    • Oh geez. I think it looks like a Batman comic. I’m thinking you can convey the emphatic question in some other way? Although I don’t like adverbs, maybe it is better than a double-punch punctuation mark?

  13. Early on, I read that semi-colons had no place in fiction, and especially not in dialogue, so I don’t use them. However, I’m a liberal user of em dashes and ellipses. Maybe too liberal, but people talk and think in fragments and that’s how I write.

  14. Another thing to consider re: punctuation.

    If you ever want an audiobook of your book, and want it to sound good, realize that the punctuation tells us narrators when and where to breathe.

    Too many commas, colons, semi-colons etc and it may sound weird.

    Not enough punctuation and we read too long without breathing then turn blue and pass out on the floor and our spouses find us twitching from oxygen deprivation and we get put into a hospital in a special ward for audiobook narrators who read too long where we have to listen to endless segments of Orson Welles cursing out a producer for poorly punctuating a script as we go through therapy of alternately throwing darts or flicking boogers at pictures of the offending author’s cover photo.

    Don’t get boogers flung at your cover photo.

    Punctuate responsibly.

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