Today I'm going to cover some less common marks of punctuation as it relates to writing fiction, mainly dashes, parentheses & semicolons.You may have occasion to use these, but you'll want to use them properly and sparingly. Why? Because improper use and overuse can pull the reader out of your story–something you should avoid.
Before I discuss proper use of the marks I mentioned above, let's cover the issue of overuse. As with many other details in fiction (e.g. repetitive words and phrases), less common marks of punctuation should be used sparingly. If not, they will lose their effectiveness and possibly become an irritant to the reader.
Take the exclamation point, for example. Your sentence structure and dialogue should be strong enough that you rarely need one. Occasionally you might, but keep its use to a minimum. And, although I can't find a reference to back me up at the moment, I've been told not to use both a question mark and an exclamation mark together. Choose one or the other, even if the sentence is interrogative.
Let's move on to dashes. A dash is different than a hyphen, and there are two kinds of dashes: en dashes and em dashes. Just like their names, en dashes are about the width of the letter 'n,' and em dashes are about the width of an 'm.' (Check instructions for your operating system and specific word processor version to find out how to make these. Try this as a starting point for MS Word.) In this post, I'm discussing the em dash.
Em dashes are typically typed with no spaces on either side. My word processor will make one automatically if I type a word followed by two hyphens, followed by another word, and then hit the space bar. Suddenly the two hyphens become one long dash. Viola! Em dashes can replace commas, semicolons and colons to add emphasis and or indicate interruption or an abrupt change of thought.
Ex: Ben was the man–the only man–she wanted in her life.
Ex: "Come help me open–never mind."
Em dashes are also used to show an abrupt stop in dialogue, typically an interruption.
Ex: "Jenny, I love y–"
"No you don't. If you loved me, you wouldn't treat me like this."
Some references say em dashes can replace parentheses, but I disagree. Parentheses also set off information that clarifies or is an aside, but they do so quietly, not with added emphasis. My mom told me something that has stuck with me through the years. 'Surrounding something with parentheses is like cupping your hands and whispering the words. Surrounding the same thing by em dashes is like holding your arms out and shouting it.'
Now do you see why the overuse of either one can grow irritating after a while?
On to the semicolon... It has many uses, but I'm going to focus on the ones seen most often in fiction. (This is the best reference I've found so far.) A semicolon is typically used to join closely related clauses when a comma isn't appropriate, or when the two clauses are already lengthy and or contain commas.
Ex: Cindy hugged her pillow and cried; she always cried.
Ex: After her boyfriend left, Cindy hugged her pillow and cried; but she didn't change her mind, and she didn't call him to reconcile.
If you're trying to keep your writing tight, you'll probably want to break up long sentences, but there are times when a semicolon can be useful. One can be substituted in place of a comma+coordinating conjunction. Sometimes when a writer commits the dreaded comma splice (the error of joining to independent clauses with only a comma), a semicolon might have worked instead.
Reminder: An independent clause is one that has a subject and a predicate and can stand alone.
Comma splice: John is a lawyer, he is also a writer.
Correct: John is a lawyer; he is also a writer.
Also correct: John is a lawyer, and he is also a writer.
And a third option: John is a lawyer. He is also a writer.
I hope you've found this lesson helpful. If there are topics you'd like me to cover in the future, let me know. :)