Prose’s Unsung Heroes: Punctuating with Personality
You know that guy who ends every sentences in three exclamation points? What speaks louder to you: the content of his missive, or the fact that he screams everything he says? That, my friend, is the power of punctuation.
We talk a lot about words when discussing writing—from the sounds of words to the myriad of ways to arrange those words. But writing isn’t just composed of words. There are also spaces, italics, bold text, all caps, small caps, and a whole legion of punctuation. And I’m not just talking about your use of the serial comma, or whether you put one or two spaces after a period! I’m talking about a host of hard-hitting exclamation points, question marks, ellipses, em-dashes, semi-colons, and other unassuming characters that add bursts of personality your manuscript—whether you like it or not.
Just like the music in a movie, punctuation can drastically alter mood and interpretation. That same sob scene will read differently if it’s backed by the world’s tiniest violin squeaking unsympathetically, the hellfire and brimstone of Carmina Burana, or banjos. But overdosing on strong punctuation is like setting your make-up gun to “nightmare circus”—leaving the face of your manuscript a riot of screaming colors.
As a rule, the reader should never come away with a stronger impression of your punctuation than your story. So how to wrangle these textual divas into enhancing your prose—rather than distracting from your intent? Here I’ve outlined the many personalities of punctuation, along with tips on how to—and more importantly, how not to—use them.
Exclamation Points Try Too Hard
Example: I love you!!!
Exclamation points are like party hats for your sentences. Like a literary laugh track, they are excited and want to let you know that you should be excited too!!!--even if there's nothing to be excited about! Some people use exclamation points like smiley faces—to show that they’re enthusiastic. And a lot of people use them for everything in children’s books, because they want kids to be excited about what they’re writing, and probably because they get the sense that they should talk to kids in a very energetic voice. But I dare you—just once, try reading a book written entirely in exclamation points aloud. It begins to sound a lot like screaming.
Now don’t get me wrong—as anyone who reads Writers Don’t Cry regularly can tell, I love exclamation points! They definitely have their place. But tragically, that place isn’t every sentence. In fact, in a book with a lot of exclamation points, I tend to read at least half of them as sarcastic, even if they weren’t intended to be so. But we see so many of them these days, especially in email, that we have become exclamation point blind—to the extent that when someone doesn’t use them, we may wonder if they secretly hate us or something. So, to help yourself see them again, try putting every sentence that ends in an exclamation point in bold text or all caps. Then, if it reads too loud, cut it!
Question Marks Are a Little Lost
Example: I love you?
What does it mean when you use a question mark? Does it mean the character is uncertain of the answer? Or perhaps that the character is actually asking a question? Or do you just want to imply the tone goes up? Are you using it to show that your character is not an idiot and is considering multiple options? Or to show that your character is uncertain? Is your character a bad character for thinking in all question marks?
Question marks are like helium balloons—they can be cute, descriptive, or make you sound funny. And while a few questions can prove thoughtful, too many questions marks makes the story feel like it boggles even the author’s mind—which is never a good sign.
I’ve always felt that question marks give you a glimpse of the author’s thought process. A number of authors pepper their zero drafts with question marks—and there’s nothing wrong with that! Their prose is brimming with questions, just like the author. And it’s good to be thoughtful at that stage in the game. The trick is, when you go through in the first draft or even the second draft, to look at those questions and to smooth it out to make sure they say what you really want them to say.
Ellipses Are Micromanagement
Example: I . . . love you.
Ellipses are ultra dramatic. They know how to make an entrance . . . and they’re even better at memorable exits. They know the power of the pregnant pause and they wield a mighty raised eyebrow. With three little dots, they can express sarcasm or disbelief, be patronizing or thoughtful, or just show a theatrical sense of timing. They can even put on an affected display of searching for a word of the . . . less insulting variety. But using too many ellipses can make reading . . . interesting. As can all the sarcastic side-stepping they tend to attract.
Overdosing on ellipses is usually the result of a desperate desire for the reader to experience your story exactly as it is in your head. But this micromanaging can make it feel like the author is breathing down your neck as you read, commanding you to feel exactly what they want you to feel, and generally, distracting you from the story proper. And as tempting as it can be to make sure readers don’t miss a thing, you have to remember: trust your reader. Sure, it won’t be exactly as it is in your head, but that’s the beauty of it. Every reader brings something different to their experience of a story—and that’s all theirs. Don’t take that away from them, or they may never get into your story enough to enjoy it.
Try treating ellipses like unusual words, and give yourself a limit. Alternatively, make it the mark of a particular character, and make sure other characters react to it. To help raise your awareness of ellipses, try highlighting all the ellipses in your manuscript. (Hint: if the page yellow, that’s too many.)
Em-Dashes Can’t Get Enough of Themselves
Em-dashes are smart, sarcastic, and brimming with witty insights and snide asides. They are the ones who sit next to you in class and give you a running commentary—alternately cynical and hilarious—to everything the teacher says. And I have to admit, this is my personal—and most beloved—weakness. When I first discovered em-dashes, I littered every sentence with em-dashes. I used them in place of commas, ellipses, and semi-colons. I used them for dramatic effect, for snippy asides, and to add additional layers of meaning. I used them just to use them, because they look so pretty on the page. Like little literary eyebrows.
But, it turns out, the place for em-dashes isn’t everywhere. Too many em-dashes can make your sentence twisted and confusing, and the original meaning of your sentence can be lost in the flood of snark. Just try reading something full of em-dashes aloud! The number of tonal shifts required to keep the parts of the sentence straight alone will boggle your tongue. It bears remembering that the witty aside is only witty when cast in relief to the straight shooter. All on its own, it gets to looking a bit silly. Like a man talking to his hand.
The Number One Trick: Read It Aloud
Reading aloud is the perfect vetting device for punctuation. Make sure you read every sentence as affected by the punctuation. The screaming of exclamation points, rising tones of question marks, pregnant pauses of ellipses, and tone shifts of em-dashes will be abruptly apparent. Then try reading it without the more exotic punctuation marks. Does it change your interpretation? Lastly, to keep yourself honest (since, honestly, you’re likely pretty close to your manuscript at this point) have someone else read problem sections with and without the less common punctuation. If anything sounds weird or fails to change between the two versions, cut it. But if the punctuation enhances—by all means, exclaim, question, and pause away!