Punctuation Guide: Finishing Sentences

Whatever previous experience you have with writing—school papers, professional articles, fanfiction, childhood stories—when you start writing a novel, you may find yourself facing a lot more punctuation than you’re used to. Or a lot less. Here’s a quick guide to punctuating the end of your sentences for novels, and a few tips on how best to use them.

Period

Most everyone knows the period. It’s the dot at the end of a sentence. Remember there should be one at the end of most sentences (the exceptions are below). Make sure you’re using the period correctly at the end of dialogue especially (see: Punctuating Dialogue: Basics).

Exclamation Point

These special symbols come at the end of a sentence and indicate emphasis, or in dialogue that the speaker is “Shouting!” If you’re a journal article writer, you probably don’t use many. But if you’re an Internet writer, you may use them to excess.

Please note that most major sources these days suggest limiting exclamation points. Some even suggest using only one per story, or at least per unit of pages (like one hundred pages). Really, in a novel you don’t need a collection!!!! There are other ways to indicate emphasis that can be much more expressive. Using an overdose of exclamation points may get you pegged as a bit of a teen or an under-developed writer (they’re so popular in text messages).

They can be great for comedic effect though.

Question Marks

Is this the symbol to indicate questions? Yes, it is. Simple and straight forward, use this when asking a question. Alternatively, use a period on an obvious question sentence when you want to imply the speaker is being sarcastic or that the subject isn’t really in doubt.

Interrobang

An advanced, and honestly out of favor, punctuation option is the interrobang. This is a combination of the question mark and the exclamation point (?!). Some typesets will even let you combine the two into a single symbol. This is for marking very emphatically said questions, like “You’re pregnant?!”

Combined punctuation (besides the ellipses) are out of style, though the Internet and its promotion of purely written communication may well bring it back (there’s even talk of a mark to indicate sarcasm).

On the whole, it is not suggested for most formal novels except for comedic effect or teen text messages. At least, not yet.

Ellipses

One option for ending a sentence is with ellipses (…). These dots indicate a trailing off of speech or thought. They’re very useful in dialogue or narrative. However, like exclamation points, don’t use them to excess. A page full of ellipses starts looking like a patchy lawn, unappealing.

Different style guides will insist on different punctuation after ellipses at the end of a sentence. For example, a trailing off at the end of a sentence might have an extra period (….), or at the end of dialogue going into a speech tag might have a comma (…,”). Also, if trailing off in a question, you might use a question mark at the end (…?). Not all style guides like any or all of these, so pick what works for you in your novel, then let your editor fix it to the publisher’s style guide when you get one. But overall, be consistent (especially if you self publish).

Em-Dash

The last punctuation I’ll go over here is the em-dash (—). In general text, it can indicate an aside, much like the parenthesis I’ve been using all through this article (and exactly like I used it in the first paragraph). In dialogue and narration, it can also be used at the end of a sentence, indicating the breaking off of a thought or sentence suddenly. So if you want to make it clear your characters are interrupting each other, end the dialogue with an em-dash (—”) before the second character starts talking.

These symbols can be tricky to get, and there is no button on the keyboard just for them. Some programs will create an em-dash if you type two hyphens in a row. I’ve seen suggestions for combining a command button with the hyphen button, but those never seem to work for me. I like the alt code. Hold down the alt key and on a number pad (not the number line) type 0151 to get an em-dash (only good for PCs. Sorry). Or go poking around your character map. The Internet will also have myriad suggestions.

It’s always good to know how to get the punctuation you want.


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