Thursday 1 April 2010

Punctuation (The Full Stop)

Writing is both an art and a craft and, like all crafts, it has the tools of its trade, which must be diligently learned.

The first tool of writing is, of course, words. These are the foundation stones of any piece of writing and define the content of the text: creative or technical, academic or informal writing.

The second tool of writing is punctuation. The impact punctuation has on any written content is its most important function, for it defines the rhythm of the writing. Creative writing has a different sound (and purpose) to non-fiction; punctuation provides the cadence that makes a story sing.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the different types of punctuation commonly used by creative writers. Let’s begin with the full stop.

Whether they’re overused, underused or perfectly used, full stops are the most critical tools that any creative writer needs to work with.

The full stop:

• provides a boundary to thoughts. Its absence connects thoughts, while its presence divides them into separate sentences.

• restrains all other punctuation marks, which only modify the words that come between two full stops.

• sets the tone for style and pacing.

The most important use of the full stop is to change the length of a sentence.

• A long sentence will slow the pace down, creating a stream-of-consciousness effect that, used appropriately, can add an authentic feel of a character whose mind wanders either from drowsiness or dreaming and who thinks in a chaotic manner.

• A short sentence has impact. It can hook a reader. It can heighten the sense of drama. It keeps the pace moving fast.

The dangers of too few full stops (which produces too many long sentences) is that it can create run-on sentences. “Run-ons” occur when a writer does not know how to let a sentence (or a thought) end and lets it drag on and on without bringing it to a satisfying conclusion. An overabundance of ideas can get crammed into one sentence and this may confuse the reader. Remember the mantra: one sentence, one idea.

Too many full stops. Too many short sentences. The writing will be choppy. A reader can get sea-sick. He can’t settle. He stops. Starts. Stops again. Takes too much effort. Short sentences are only effective if their content has a definite purpose and each sentence can stand alone without relying on other sentences.

Let’s take a look at the impact of a full stop.

T S Elliot opens his poem “The Waste Land” with a long sentence:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

This opening sentence meanders over four lines and, before the first full stop, has already conveyed a sense of apprehension and incomprehension. This city, this waste land, is a grim place of people unable to live fully or see a way out of their deadness.

If Elliot had used the full stop more liberally this sense of dazed confusion would have been lost:

April is the cruellest month. Breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land. Mixing
Memory and desire. Stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Can you feel the difference in the rhythm between the number of full stops Elliot actually used (one) and the number he could have used (four)?

Here’s another example of a wonderful use of a full stop. Kazuo Ishiguro begins his chilling “Never Let Me Go” with the simply stated ‘My name is Kathy H.’  Who is Kathy H? And why doesn’t he introduce her to the reader by her full name? Because giving her a full name would have made her real and, as we slowly discover over the course of the novel, she isn’t quite real.

These two masterful examples show how the full stop can be used to vary sentence length. Each author made a careful choice as to where to place his punctuation mark to achieve the best effect possible. These decisions – like any decision about the placement of a specific punctuation mark – weren’t arbitrary.

And neither should yours be.

When revising your work, study the context of each full stop, assess its impact and consider other nearby punctuation marks. Only then can you decide whether you’ve put your full stop in exactly the right point for maximum impact.

"Penguin Writers' Guides: How to Puntuate" by George Davidson
"Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lyn Truss
"The Art of Punctuation" by Noah Lukeman


Unknown said...

I love where you are going with this!!! Punctuation is exactly what I'll be needing in a few days when my first draft is complete!

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Awesome! Thank you for doing this post. I love punctuation and get much of it wrong at time... :)

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Oh, do the semicolon sometime!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

JEN: good luck with the revision of your first draft

LADY GLAMIS; only the comma to do, then it'll be the turn of the semi-colon :)

Amanda Holly said...

Ooh and the exclamation mark please! I love using those and I know it can drive people mad at times! Hell, what can I say? I'm just excitable!

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Amanda! Yes! Yes! Yes! I'll do the exclamation mark! Soon! I love it too!!!! And I'm glad you're excitable!! :):)