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.

Introduction to POV

At some point in the process of working on your novel, point of view is going to come up. It’s an important aspect of how you present your story to your readers. It influences tone and style, and works hand in hand with tense.

But until you stop and think about it, POV doesn’t mean much. You might not plan ahead, just wander where the story takes you, or even forget the plan and end up weaving a confusing mess of points of view that the reader can’t parse out. The wrong POV can wreck a story that is otherwise excellent.

So now that I’ve scared you, what should you do? Do a little research, become aware of POV and how it works, and start noticing POV in things you read.

You can start your research right here.

First Person

First person is where you story is narrated by “I.” The main character narrates the story directly to the reader. Sometimes this means actually narrating, like Dr. John Watson narrates all of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. He writes the stories as though communicating directly. Other times the main character just narrates—to themselves, to the reader, to the gods.

First person is immediate, sinking you straight into the head of the main character. There is only one other POV that can get so far into the character’s head. First person can also be limiting, allowing you to only explore the world from that one, contained, perspective. If you ever switch people, you have to throw in extra clues to make it clear who “I” is now. Keep this all in mind whenever considering first person for your story.

Second Person

Second person is almost never used in novels. This is the POV where the narrator talks to “you.” The reader is the main character. Most people find reading second person very jarring. Occasionally someone will create something experimental that uses second person, usually something short. The only major series I can think of that ever used it was the Choose Your Own Adventure novels popular with kids in the 1980s.

On the whole, you’re best off knowing what second person is and never using it.

Third Person

Third person is the most popular point of view for fiction. This is the POV that uses “he” and “she” for all characters. Third person is unique in that it has multiple levels. There is third person omniscient, which is narrated by someone outside the story, above the story, who sees everything and knows everything. Third person limited sinks into the head of one person at a time, getting as immediate as first person at times.

The tricky part with third person is how you switch POV. Are you going to go omniscient and dip into any head you want to? Or are you going to write limited and dig deep into a character, but have to be careful about slipping into the perspective of other characters? Some authors even slip from head to head at will, digging in here, going lighter there. These are all options. The trick is to know what you’re doing, and to do it well and consistently.There’s more to say about POV, especially how it ties to tense choice, but let’s save that for another article. For now, you have the basics of POV. Play with them and see what suits your story and your voice as an author.

Punctuating Dialogue: Basics

When I get a new manuscript, certain things stand out. Voice, POV, how the author deals with certain grammar tricks. When it comes to new authors who are just discovering narration, one of the first places I find problems is in punctuating the dialogue.

So, if you want to instantly catapult your writing above the newbie stage, learn to fix some of these basic problems and definitely punctuate your dialogue right.

Wait, Dialogue?

Dialogue is where the characters talk to each other in your story. Most of the time it’s in quotation marks and there may or may not be some indicator of who’s speaking. Advanced dialogue includes indicating foreign languages and including thoughts (via telepathic communication or not). For now, we’ll just focus on making sure the period is in right place.

Is There a Speech Tag?

A speech tag is that part before or after the dialogue where you say “he said,” “she said,” “George said” or even “Betty bellowed.” This is your attribution, letting the reader know who is speaking and sometimes how they’re saying it. Speech tags require special punctuation, but we’ll get to that.

No Speech Tag

If there isn’t a speech tag, then your punctuation is the same as any other sentence. Inside the quotation marks, at the end of the sentence, will be a period, or a question mark, or even an exclamation mark.

“I want to go home.”
“Can I go home?”
“I wanna go home!”

With a Speech Tag

If there is a speech tag, then there should be a comma in there, somewhere. If the speech tag is at the front of the sentence, the comma comes after the speech tag and before the quotation mark.

Ben said, “I don’t like you.”

If the speech tag comes after the sentence, and the sentence ends in a period, the comma replaces the period.

“I’d like a coffee,” Sarah said.

But if the sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation mark, leave the question mark or exclamation mark.

“Can I get you anything?” he said.
“I hate you!” she said.

Also, note that while the dialogue is capitalized when it comes after the speech tag, the speech tag is not capitalized if it comes after the dialogue (unless you’re using a proper name, since those are always capitalized). Whether you use a comma or a question mark, do not capitalize “he.”

Action Is Not Speech Tag

One common error writers can make is to assume anything that comes after dialogue is a speech tag.

Incorrect: “I would like a coffee,” she smiled at the barista.
Correct: “I would like a coffee.” She smiled at the barista.

Smiled is not a speech tag. Asked, said, exclaimed, yelled, these are speech tags. But we can’t smile words. Smiling is an action. If it’s an action tag, punctuate it as a completely different sentence. There should be a period (or question mark or exclamation mark) in the quotation marks and the first word of the action tag should be capitalized.

Now, there are a few cases where you might not be sure if it’s an action tag or a speech tag. “She sighed” is a borderline tag that different people will treat differently. But, it’s audible. If the term you’re using isn’t a tone of voice, it’s pretty safe to assume it’s an action tag.

In all cases, when in doubt about punctuation or tag choice, you can always ask around. Your editor is here to help.

They’re More Like Guidelines

Any time you read a writing blog or book, join a new writers group, or even get talking with some fellow writers, there will be a list of “rules” you will be inundated with.

Don’t use passive voice.

Show, don’t tell.

Adverbs are bad. Cut them all.

Never head hop.

You might even hear “Don’t use speech tags.” At which point, you should be wondering both “And what is all this?” and “Without speech tags, how does my reader know who’s talking?”

Excellent questions. You’re starting to think instead of letting yourself be told what to do. This means you’re on your way to becoming a better writer.

I’ll be explaining all these “rules” and many more in articles to come. For now, I’ll just point out that they are not rules. No one laid them down from on high to tell writers how to tell their stories. These are “guidelines,” suggestions that have often gotten blown out of proportion with the true reasoning lost as the message is passed from person to person in one giant game of Telephone.

You should know the “rules” of writing, from grammar to what point of view currently sells best in your genre. These will help you craft a better book that has an improved chance of selling well. At the same time, remember that they are guidelines, and once you know them, you can decide when to break them.

When? When it suits your story best.

There, Their, They’re

Homonyms are the bane of English speakers everywhere. For some people, the differences sink in immediately and choosing the right one is easy. For plenty of other people, it might as well be a task for Hercules.

One of the basics, the necessary ones you must know for an agent to respect you, is “There,” “Their,” and “They’re.” Each has a very different meaning and purpose. This means a reader can usually figure out what you meant to say, but why risk the confusion? When self-editing, it’s easy to go through and check that you’ve used the right “There” if you remember a few simple facts.

THERE

An adverb, “there” specifies location. “Over there” is a simple concept that specifies a place that isn’t “here.” In fact, one could say that “there” is anywhere that isn’t “here.” However, you’re probably more likely to write something like “Over there, on the far side of town, is the graveyard.” See? Describing a location.

“There” and “here” both describe location, and conveniently, “there” is simply “here” with an extra “t” on the front. Useful trick for remembering which “there” is “over there.”

THEIR

This time, our homonym is a pronoun. A possessive pronoun, specifically. It identifies something owned by “them.” For example, if a book could be described as both “his book” and “her book,” one might rather say that it is “their book.” The possessive pronouns are a short list, and you probably remember most of them easily:Mine, yours, his/hers, their, whose.

That’s it. So when you want to write about something belonging to a group, remember the right homonym is “their.”

THEY’RE

This one is the easiest to identify, at least for me. Why? Because it’s a contraction. That’s what that apostrophe (the comma-looking thing up high between the “y” and the “r”) means. Contractions are two words mashed together so they take less effort to say. Like “can’t” or “don’t.” Those mean “can not” and “do not.” Well, “they’re” means “they are.” It’s a combination of the pronoun “they” and the verb “are.”

So if you want to use “they’re,” ask yourself if you could put “they are” in the same place and the sentence would still make sense. If the answer is “yes,” you’re using the right “they’re.”

See, simple. Place (there), possessive pronoun (their), and pronoun/verb contraction (they’re). Three very different words that sound (and look) alike. Any questions?

Every Writer Needs an Editor, Really

Whether you’re self-publishing, chasing down an agent, or even an editor yourself, when you finish that novel and before you do anything with it, you need an editor.

Why, you might ask? Surely your publisher will clean it up, or your agent will. Or maybe you know your writing is flawless (I wish mine was). Really, you still need an editor.

Here’s why: It’s your baby. You know it inside and out. Every character and subplot is real and alive in your head. And because of that, you cannot see the missing words. You could skim over the reference to your blue-eyed hero’s brown eyes in chapter seven. You might even miss the small plot hole you introduced in the second round of rewrites that you know the answer to but forgot to explain.

If you’re like me and your writing is not flawless, then sometimes you need someone to bounce ideas off of, or make suggestions about the areas where the plot bogs down. An editor can do that.

Ah, but your best friend reads all your stuff and helps you with that. That’s great, really. And a friend like that can help improve your writing to a certain point. But unless your friend has training, has experience, spends a lot of time analyzing how stories come together, something is going to be missed.

Not that there is such a thing as a perfect editor. Goodness no. Your manuscript will come back better, but not flawless. You could send it to six different editors and a cool dozen proofreaders before publishing, and there could still be a missing comma somewhere, a “the” that should be an “a,” and maybe a small plot hole in chapter ten.

No one is perfect and writing is a subjective art.

So why pay for an editor? Because, wouldn’t you rather there be a few small mistakes in your book rather than an error on every page?

I would.

And trust me, in today’s market, even if you get a traditional publisher (many of whom won’t look at you without a flawless manuscript), you might not get the level of editing you’re expecting. You may still end up paying your own editor, publisher’s orders.

You need an editor. Really. Every author does. Another set of eyes, someone experienced in analyzing how stories come together, will work wonders on your baby, your precious story. You can do a lot with self-editing, but not everything.

So, when you finish your novel, novella or short story, get thee to an editor.

I do.

Really, Editing Is Important: With a Case Study

So you’ve finished your novel, and you’re proud of it, quite reasonably so, I’m sure. What’s the next step? Send it to an agent? Self publish?

Nice dream, but no.

The next step is a critique, some rewrites, some reviews. Then we can talk edits and then publication steps like agents or self publishing.

Ah, but maybe this isn’t your first novel. You think you’ve got all the steps down and this time you don’t need anyone else to review your work.

Wrong.

Trust me, really. Get a critique, get an edit.

While it seems that more and more best-sellers are not being fully edited by the publishers, this is to their detriment and is in no way something that you should emulate.

If you have sharp eyes for grammar and typos, you’ll find errors in any book. I remember reading Anne McCaffery’s Freedom series at one point and being quite frustrated because one of the characters kept changing rank mid book. That’s something an editor should catch. It’s nice if the author can catch it, but being your story, sometimes you know what should be there and errors just slip past. It happens. That’s what editors are for. And they’ll in turn miss a few things. The trick isn’t to get clean copy, though it’s a nice dream, but to get as close as humanly possible.

But if your book is riddled with errors, typos, plot holes, inconsistent character descriptions… well, big name authors seem to pull if off without losing sales, but you shouldn’t do it. Really. In an era of self publication when people are suddenly able and willing to publish any old thing off their computer without any review, the amount of absolute garbage out there is appalling. And so much of it could be so much better.

We’re not just talking typos and description errors either. A good editor will point out when the first three chapters really should be one, or half of one. When the middle of the book drags on too long, an editor should point that out. When the climax of the book just doesn’t climax, yeah, the editor should be catching that too. Or the critique group, or the agent before even considering sending it to a publisher, or someone at the publishing company. Someone should be catching these things, and commenting on them, and then authors get to fix them. Because the author can’t always see it by themselves, no matter how experienced an author they are.

Need an example for that one? Not a problem. I apologize if this goes long, but it’s an old favorite of mine, rant wise.

A book series gets popular, starts making a lot of money, and suddenly the author’s words can’t be touched, should be left as is, because clearly he or she is doing something right. No one wants to mess with the goose that laid the golden egg. Except those first books did great after being edited, and the later ones need it too. And the perfect example is Harry Potter.

Now some reading this will be scandalized, some will have never read it, and some won’t care. That’s fine. But I’ve considered the whole thing far more than I should, being an editor and learning the craft at a time when that series was the hottest thing ever. Still is really, given how much money everyone involved has made. But one of the first things that hit me when I finished book 7 was that it needed an editor.

Not a copy editor, a developmental editor. And looking back, the problem started somewhere around book 4. The stories kept getting longer. Not inherently a problem. It happens and can be done very well. But it wasn’t good in these cases. Book 5 has a plot that could be solved by a five minute conversation and some adults acting like adults (well, let’s be honest, all the books could save a lot of ink if the adults acted like adults). Book 6 has to drag out weak material for a full year, a flaw of the story structure of the novels, but if it were shorter then the whole arc of the story would move smoother. And book 7? That one could be cut in half and still work. It’s got these deep emotional scenes that move characters sideways and the story nowhere. Those novels weren’t character driven until  those last few books. They were plot driven novels. And at the end they were still plot driven novels, bogged down by character growth that went nowhere.

All of these things a good editor would point out well before a novel reached the publishing stage, but J. K. Rowling was raking in money. Why mess with a good thing?

That question exists because publishers are just out to make money. They don’t buy books because they’re amazing or new or interesting. They buy books they think will sell, and hopefully sell well. If they know your book will sell like crazy, which was a given by the time J. K. Rowling’s fifth book came out, then why put any effort into it?

Well, maybe to the publisher it doesn’t matter. And maybe a lot of readers will buy some of these books no matter what. Goodness knows J. K. Rowling isn’t the only best-selling author with a book or three out there that should have never made it past a developmental editor, let alone a copy editor. The real question is, does it matter to you? Does your book mean enough to you that you want it to be the best book it can be? Or does it just matter that it gets out there in some form and maybe someone will read it anyway?

Those are the questions you have to ask yourself before you publish, however you publish.

Personally, I’d rather make the best book I can, edit it well, review, critique, and then publish. That way, when someone does decide to buy it, they won’t get bogged down in dumb errors and just might recommend it to their friends. Because it’s those recommendations that sell your book in the long run.

So, anyone else got an example of a big name book that really should have gotten edited before it was published? Or a small one? Let’s talk about it. Maybe we’ll learn something while we poke at the holes.

Get Your Manuscript Critiqued

I’m going to be blunt. You’ve written a novel. Whether you think it’s the most perfect book ever written or are nervous and uncertain about the quality of your work, get it critiqued.

There are a very few people who can just write a book and have it be perfect and ready to go. I’m not one of them. Chances are, neither are you.

But, you might ask, where do I get a critique?

Fortunately, there are several options.

Hire an Editor

One option for critiques is to hire an editor. You can pay for a manuscript critique or a developmental edit. The former is less expensive, but less helpful. But either will help you learn the strengths and weaknesses of your story and writing style. If you have the money, go for it. I’d love to have your business. But not every author can afford to pay for a professional review.

Ask a Friend

The usefulness of this option varies with the skills of the friend. Someone who reads the type of book you’ve written will be better than a friend who knows little to nothing about that genre or style. Even so, they probably aren’t trained or experienced as a writer. You’ll get some problems pointed out, but others will be missed. So understand the quality of the critique you’re getting when you ask a friend.

Ask a Writer

This is a step up from asking a friend. A fellow writer, best one writing in the same field or genre you are, will be an excellent person to discuss your writing with. Trade critiques and learn from your fellow writer’s strengths and weaknesses as they learn from yours. This is a solid second set of eyes to review your manuscript and help you improve as a writer.

Ask Your Family

Honestly, you can. But really, don’t. Unless your loved ones are familiar with the field and writers themselves, most of the time asking a family member just gets you worried and confused about your writing. If you write science fiction and your parents don’t read or like it, they won’t like your book no matter how good it is. While you need another pair of eyes, you need a pair of knowledgeable eyes and listening to the wrong advice will just mess you up. Don’t ask family to read your book until you’re much closer to done.

Join a Critique Group

This is my favorite option. I run two groups locally, one in science fiction and fantasy, the other in romance. I get knowledgeable comments from multiple people working in the same fields I am, all of whom are working towards publishing. We learn from each other and improve with every meeting. The regulars bring solid understanding and familiarity with my work, while new people from time to time bring new insight and ideas. What one person misses, another can catch. And while I don’t follow every bit of advice, it all makes me think, and in the end my books are better for it.

So, to find a writing group, check an online presence or ask around at your local libraries and bookstores. Major groups of writers in an area will often host a critique group or two. Beware, finding the right group can be tricky. The wrong group of people with the wrong focus will mess you up as badly as the comments of the wrong family or friend. You may have to try a number of groups before you find the right people. But keep trying. Found your own if nothing local works for you.

Another option if there’s nothing local is to joining an online group. There are websites for writers that will provide critiques and reviews of your work. One such place is writing.com. There are others. Keep looking until you find the right group. Some people like this option because they don’t have to look the person reading their work in the eye. Others prefer a face to face meeting. Experiment until you find what works for you.

It only takes a few good critiques to see how far you need to go to develop as a writer. But it only takes a few more to realize how far you’ve come.

The Importance of Good Marketing

Everywhere I go these days, everyone is talking about marketing. How to do it, how not. What works, what doesn’t. When you need it.

Which is always. Really. If you self publish, expect to market your heart out. If you are lucky enough to get a publishing contract, still expect to market because the publishing companies won’t spend the money unless you’re Stephen King or the equivalent there to.

But, you say, what if I go for word of mouth. I’ll tell my friends, they’ll tell some friends, and some more friends, and tweet a bit, and I’ll sell a bunch of books.

Well, in a way, that’s marketing. But, you also have to sell the right kind of book to the right kind of friends. If you write romance and all your friends love romance, great. If you write hard science fiction and all your friends love hard science fiction, great. If you write romance and all your friends love hard science fiction… yeah, problem.

I’m getting to a point here. Or rather, a case study. You have to market the right story to the right people in terms they understand. Or it all goes wrong. And my example for today is my favorite movie of the year, the movie touted as a flop from day one, Disney’s John Carter.

“John what?”

Yeah, I can see a lot of people saying that.

“Oh, is that the poster with the funky JC imposed over a wasteland shot, or that thing with the big white hairy monster?”

Yeah, I can see a lot of people saying that too. Because that’s how John Carter was advertised. The images were simple, told you nothing except it was an action flick with lots of CGI, and 10 to 1 you didn’t remember the preview by the time you left the theater after the movie you came to see.

There’s no merchandise for John Carter, no tie in with Disney. So it can’t have been a big deal right? We know how Disney advertises big movies. Look at the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.

The thing is, it was huge. John Carter had a budget of 250 million. That’s a high level, over the top, summer blockbuster budget. And John Carter should have been a summer blockbuster. Except, it came out in the spring lull. And the critics panned it, not because the CGI was bad, or the dialogue (OK, that gets a bit campy at points, but so did Star Wars), but because they saw it all as having been done before. Everyone describes John Carter as being too derivative, there’s nothing new.

Um, that’s what Disney forgot to clarify in their advertising. John Carter isn’t derivative. It is the source material everything else is derived from. Really. A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs is one of the first science fiction novels, perhaps the origin of the whole pulp scifi genre. It was published a century ago, and all the major science fiction movie makers and writers will reference it as an inspiration.

But no one told the critics that. No one told the people watching the previews. With the title changed, only the diehard fans of all ages even realized that John Carter was based on the classic book with a main character of that name. I almost didn’t catch it, save I overheard someone make the connection.

The original title of the  movie was John Carter of Mars, but someone, who probably never read the book, thought that was too campy, or maybe too derivative of the recent Disney flop Mars Needs Moms (which I’ve been told was also a good book at some point), and cut the ‘of Mars.’ Woops.

So what went wrong? Disney didn’t advertise to the fans, didn’t advertise in a manner that would let the critics understand the source, or encourage everyday movie goers to give the classic a try. They advertised it like another Conan movie, and no one got it.

Until they got to the theater. Oh, some people hate it. There’s always someone who hates a given movie. But most people, once they get past the bland advertising, are flabbergasted to find its really just “a good movie”.

Rumor has it Disney basically sunk John Carter for a number of reasons. I’m not going to get into that, except to point out that love of the project shows in the marketing and results.

Now, where was I. Oh yes, a good movie. Who can resist Woola? (See below)

This is where word of mouth comes in. It is word of mouth that has resulted in John Carter making 250 million plus worldwide. But that does no good if Disney insists it’s a flop (which they do) and encourage movie theaters to pull it before enough people get curious. A movie that did well on word of mouth was My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But that had a small budget and lingered in theaters until people heard of it. I know that’s how I ended up seeing it, and falling in love, and buying a copy on DVD. I heard about it from a friend. John Carter hasn’t been given that kind of time, because a big corporation expects an outlay of 250 million dollars to be made back now.

So, there are a few lessons to take from this:

  • Advertise to the right people
  • Advertise in the right terms
  • Don’t be afraid to mention your inspirations
  • Never forget merchandise
  • And don’t get impatient. Word of mouth takes time. Don’t give up while interest is still building.

Even if you do everythign right, you may never make the millions you’re dreaming of. But if you do it right and your product is good, have faith that someone else will realize it in time. Market because you love what you do, not because you want money. People will see the difference and it just might result in more sales.

All images are from the free gallery at Apple trailers.