Punctuation and Last Note
“Commas can save your life.” A writing teacher told me that. The idea is that the fiction writer needs to pay attention to every detail, to every word, to every bit of acoustical resonance, to every punctuation mark, etc. That is the only way to create great fiction (and, thus, save your life).
There are certain punctuation marks that should not be used in fiction. The exclamation point, for instance, is generally not considered a punctuation mark that is found in serious fiction. The point is that the exclamation should already be present in the language, in the words chosen.
Many also have problems with the semi-colon, which looks fussy and stuffy, especially as it continues to fall out of use. The colon and the dash can be mixed in, in fiction, but only with moderation. Quotation marks are fine for dialogue, but not fine for almost anything else. Ultimately, the fiction writer should only use three punctuation marks with any regularity—the comma, the period, and the question mark.
In one sense, this is everything a fiction writer needs to know. In another sense, reading about fiction writing is only helpful to a point, the same for reading fiction (which isn’t to say the fiction writer shouldn’t be doing a great deal of both of these activities). Fiction writing can only really be learned by writing fiction. Go write.
Michael Kimball is the author of eight books, including Big Ray, Dear Everybody, Us, and, most recently, The One-Hour MFA. His work has been translated into a dozen languages and been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Bomb, Prairie Schooner, New York Tyrant, etc. He is also responsible for the collaborative project Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), a couple of documentaries, and the conceptual pseudonym Andy Devine.