Punctuation. Such a bugaboo. But in spite of recurring trends toward throwing all punctuation rules on their pointy little pinheads, it turns out that commas and dashes and colons, not to mention semi-colons. do matter. All of them—that's right—all, have a place in the traditional (i.e. non-experimental) novel.
Like many writers today, I would argue that punctuation in novels works best when it's not noticeable—that is, when it is modest in nature and seen so commonly that the eye just naturally skims over it while it does its job. The humble and lovely comma, used well, is a good example.
On the other end of the spectrum are punctuation marks that stop the flow of the narrative, like colons and semi-colons. Use them where you must—and sometimes you must—but in a piece of dramatic writing it's great to avoid writing sentences that require them if you can. Exclamation marks are even more fervently to be avoided.
Punctuation has a critical function: making the meaning of a sentence (or a series of sentences) clear. (Obviously, more types of punctuation are useful in explanatory non-fiction narrative, like a blog post, than in novels.) :)
Punctuation also has a bonus function for writers who are comfortable with its nuances: creating special emphasis without adding words.
To illustrate the last point, here's some of what Priscilla Long (author of the excellent book on writing, The Writer's Portable Mentor) says about effective use of punctuation by sophisticated writers (pp. 254-257):
"Here [are] a few moves that first-rate writers have under their belts and other writers don't.
Commas and Semicolons In a List
Whether you adore or deplore the semicolon, know where it should go if you should want to use it. Knowing this, you can use it or refuse it without looking inept.
In a list, if a single item has a comma within it, then semicolons separate the different items.
- Mondrian's loves were Paris, France; London; Amsterdam; and New York.
Even one comma within one item in a long list of items forces semicolons to separate the different items.
A phrasal adjective is an adjective made of two or more words: . . . (for example): real-estate broker. Except for ly words (nearly white walls) and proper nouns, phrasal adjectives should be hyphenated—to make reading easier and to avoid misreadings: small-business owner, not small business owner (that tiny person).
. . . (from Bryan A. Garner's General Rule): when a phrase functions as an adjective . . . the phrase should ordinarily be hyphenated. Hence, the soup is burning hot becomes the burning-hot soup; the child is six years old becomes the six-year-old child. Most professional writers know this. Most nonprofessionals don't.
Comma, Dash, and Colon
. . . One use of the dash is to set off an appositive. Appositives clarify and expand the meaning of nouns, within the same sentence.
Gauguin's life—poverty, disease, loneliness, disillusion, guilt—was wholly tragic. (John Berger,
"Gauguin's Crime," 65)
There are three ways [comma, dash, colon] to punctuate an appositive, moving from least emphatic to most emphatic.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County, a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County—a sleek black racehorse.
- Lou was the prize of Kent County: a sleek black racehorse.
Interrupters are a cool way to create emphasis or pack in information. An interrupter can be a phrase or an entire sentence interjected into another sentence.
- Words—I often imagine this—are little houses, each with its cellar and garret. (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, 147)
-Otto fished up a magazine from the floor—one of the popular science magazines William always left lying around—and idly opened it. (Deborah Eisenberg, "Some Other, Better Otto," 49)
(and here's an exception to the rule) . . ."Yes, you do include the question mark or exclamation point in an interrupter sentence. And no, you don't include the period."
Do you have a favorite punctuation mark? Or a pet peeve about them?