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  • Writer's pictureGreg Moriarty

Punctuate your fiction – 10 areas of plain language style

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Welcome to my new post for independent fiction writers. This time, I'm looking at the small stuff – style. I'll touch on punctuation, emphasis and fonts.


Style is a broad topic. To make it easier, I won't cover the basics about 'correct' punctuation. I want to go over points where you really need to make a decision. And it's not right or wrong here. This is about modern style choices based on plain language fundamentals:

  • Use minimal punctuation.

  • Make the characters – the keyboard kind – meaningful.

  • Minimise variation on the page.

  • Be consistent in the book.


Stylised image of a pen lying beside a pen pot

A whole load of research confirms that the more you play with the shape of the letters, the more it will affect reading ease. Everything on the page needs to count. Include no unnecessary markings. See the brilliant Edward Tufte for more on this.


I want to make my starting point clear. As storytellers, we must do our utmost to make sure readers consume our writing with minimal effort. A good goal to have is that nobodoy will re-read a sentence to grasp meaning.


Our style choices and the shapes we make on the page are all about readers absorbing our material effortlessly – within reason of course. The goal is to put the readers' needs before our own. Check you can do that.


In a way, this post is to give you my professional opinion about modern style choices ... and mercilessly attack the choices I don't agree with!


In another, it's about raising awareness of the items that do at least need your attention.


OK. Let's get into it. Here's what we'll cover:

  1. Spacing sentences

  2. Ellipses

  3. Semicolons

  4. Brackets

  5. Removing apostrophe s from plurals

  6. Speech marks

  7. Italicising

  8. Fonts

  9. Bolding

  10. Dashes


1. Spacing sentences

You have the choice of using 1 or 2 spaces to end your sentences. The modern choice is 1 space.


The 2 spaces came from typewriters, when we needed to make doubly sure that the carriage moved across the paper. That isn’t an issue with today’s technology. Two spaces was an old fix to an old problem – time for it to stop.


Consider how we separate sentences. You’ve got a full stop, the space and a capital letter. Enough already.


2. Ellipsis

Your call is typically around how to space the 3 dots.


Modern practice keeps a space either side. But you should leave no space when the dots appear right before or after a speech mark.


You can use this punctuation to trail off if you want to add tension. When used in dialogue, it can show uncertainty in the character or words they’ve stifled:


‘Tell me you didn’t hurt …’


3. Semicolons

God, no. Please forget these.


There’s no need to ever, ever, ever use semicolons in fiction! I drew on them for my student law essays. A holidaymaker on a beach reading your gripping book doesn’t need that abuse!


Semicolons exist to build complex sentences or complicated lists. They’ll increase your average sentence length, which can lead to re-reading. The research is really clear on when people need to backtrack over text. And long sentences with a semicolon will do it.


You could be tempted to use a semicolon to join 2 independent sentences with no joining word, or use it to string together a long, complex chain of ideas. But it’s better to invest in some full stops and commas, and trim your sentences.


I’m not including a demonstration sentence here because – just no. Absolutely not.


4. Brackets

The choice here is to use them to show digression or add an afterthought, or not.

I'm not a fan of them. By that, I mean I can’t stand them.


If you use brackets, you can only do so rarely or they’ll become off-putting or, worse, annoying. (And I doubt the reader benefits from this change in formatting for the sake of a sentence or 2). See those brackets there? Not necessary.


I interpret brackets in fiction as the writer getting in the way: (‘I sort of want you, the reader, to notice this sentence, but I want it to be slightly less prominent than the content either side of it. So I'm going to bookend it with curved bars.’) No thank you.


Let the character or narrator say what they need to say without the brackets. Or kill that darling.


5. Removing apostrophe s from plurals

I won’t go into the basic rules for showing possession, because they’re non-negotiable. There’s no getting around it. You have to learn them.


Where you see more variation is with using apostrophe s for plurals.


You don’t need to use one. There’s no rule to use an apostrophe when you make plurals that might not ‘look right’ to you.


Notice the lack of apostrophes with these 5 nouns. So clean!


‘He died in the 1970s.’

‘You could try writing a list of dos and don’ts.’

‘They destroyed all the photos of the BMXs.’


6. Speech marks

Single quote marks for dialogue is standard, in Australia at least. This is where we see the plain language principle of minimal punctuation making lots of sense. Why clog the page with all those double quote marks?


Save the doubles for when you absolutely need quote marks inside a bit of dialogue. Not the other way round. And note the full stop inside the final speech mark:


‘I need to go back with something more than “It’s coming along nicely”.’


You have the other option of using no speech marks at all for dialogue. Radical! It’s not for me. I’m okay with my brain being a punctuation-free zone. But I draw the line there.


For now, it’s single quotes for me.


7. Italicising

Italics are definitely overused. Writers go to great lengths to avoid distracting changes in how the words appear. But they will often allow chunks of less legible and less accessible italics.


The first rule I go by is italics should be critical for showing that the text is neither the narrator’s prose nor dialogue.


For example, dramatic sounds such as ‘bang’ or ‘crack’. You might add an exclamation mark, but no all caps. Never all caps combined with italics. That’s just cruel. ‘But this bang was really loud,’ you might say. I don’t care how loud it was. You shouldn’t use all caps for emphasis.


The second rule I draw on is for emphasising a word or short phrase. But don’t overdo this. Only keep the italics if absolutely critical.


You’re probably asking what about foreign words? No italics. Legislation? No. Book and newspaper names? Not necessary. What does the reader get by seeing a fictional or actual newspaper italicised and separated from the other words in the sentence? Nada!


Admittedly, my editor overruled me on some of these choices in my novel Scot Free.

What we did agree on is no large slabs of text in italics. That means no letters, diary entries or flashback chapters entirely in italics. Yikes! Won’t someone think of your fully sighted and low-vision readers? Their poor eyes.


If you do need to clearly show a change here, vary the font.


8. Fonts

There are sans serif and serif fonts to choose from. The words you are reading right now use a sans serif font. They lack the feet in the letters found in the serif fonts. Sans serif fonts are also uniform in thickness and less ornate.


Use a serif font for your paperback as it will support reading by keeping the reader’s eye on the line. Use a sans serif font for your ebook as it works well on screens.


Ideally, you use only 1 font in a novel. But if you follow the rule above of not using italics to show different formats or voices for example, then that’s when you need to consider a second font.


But make it realistic. If you include another font to show a series of social media posts or text messages, don’t use a serif font. In real life, those texts will appear on screen in sans serif. You’ll add to the realism if you do the same.


One other thing – for your own benefit during drafting. Publishers may want you to submit a manuscript using Times New Roman. But while you're still writing, choose a screen font that’s easy on the eye and one that you like. It will invariably be a sans serif font. You can’t be reading your draft on screen in a serif font for years at a time.


9. Bolding

You can use bold for chapter subtitles or sections within a chapter. A chapter might start with ‘Now’ or any word to place the events.


Check you’re also not using all capitals. That’s overdoing it, as I mentioned in the section on italics.


10. Dashes

You have 3 dashes to choose from and you can get by in a novel with 2. You really can. Don’t complicate your life or your reader’s life by using a third. I’ll suggest which one to ditch.


The shortest one is the hyphen. We use it to join words or part words to make other words.


‘Self-conscious’

‘Ex-husband’


Don’t overuse them. You want the cleanest page possible.


Style choices always shift and we see this a lot with hyphen use. ‘Email’ no longer needs one. There’s no-thing worse than over-use of hyphens. Turn to your standard dictionary for help.


The other 2 lines? The middle length is an en dash. It’s the width of an N –. The other is an em dash —.


Keep the en dashes and ditch the ems. How long does that stretch of ink need to be?

These dashes mainly show emphasis and broken dialogue. They aim to disrupt flow. In their heads, readers will hear that disruption as they read, so use en dashes sparingly.


In the following examples, note the spaces either side, except when inside speech marks.


‘A sunset – deathly slow – and Mediterranean air.’

‘Look’ – he raised his hands – ‘I can’t go back to prison like this.’

‘Let go of me. I need to –’


To finish up, these tips are about helping the formatting of your sentences and your mechanics fade into the background so that readers can absorb your cracking story. Minimise distractions for people.


Style is always evolving. What I’ve outlawed for myself now may become my style choice in the next book – except semicolons, 2 spaces, brackets and italics.


As long as you’re consistent – with my choices – you’ll be fine!


Get more expert advice on plain language style from the free, online www.australianstyleguide.com.


See you next time!


 

Greg Moriarty is an up-and-coming writer specialising in crime fiction. He's the author of 2 gripping thrillers, The Swap and Scot Free. He's also an expert in plain language for business and government writing.

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