Wednesday 21 October 2015

How To Use Semicolons in Fiction Writing

Why do so many writers fear the semicolon? The poor, misunderstood semicolon? It isn’t its fault that it’s so widely misused. It didn’t ask for any of this. So, please spare a thought for this simple, uncomplicated punctuation mark…

Because it really is simple and it can transform your writing.

There is only one rule for using the semicolon to punctuate a sentence:

The clauses on either side of the semicolon must be able to exist as sentences in their own right.

That’s it. That’s the big scary rule…

For example, this sentence:

The man drove slowly across the bridge; it was raining and the road was slippery.

Could easily have been written as two sentences:

The man drove slowly across the bridge. It was raining and the road was slippery.

But there are articles about the correct use of semicolons all over the internet. So, instead of simply adding another one, I want to talk about how they can be of use to fiction writers.

So, why should you use a semicolon instead of a full stop?

The semicolon is useful in most forms of writing; however, it is particularly helpful in writing fiction. Linking two sentences together has a huge, but subtle, impact on the way they are interpreted – and quietly manipulating the reader is a fiction writer’s job.

In the first example I gave, the man is driving slowly because it is raining and the road is slippery.
In the second example, the rain and the slippery road are simply descriptions of the setting, and are not connected to the man’s decision to drive slowly.

So, although neither is particularly gripping, which one would be more effective as the opening of a story? Well, that depends on the story.

Personally, I prefer character based stories, for which the first example would be most effective. The use of a semicolon subtly introduces some characterisation and allows the focus to remain on the man. The reader begins to wonder about his destination and his decision to drive in the rain.

The second example would be more suited to an environment based story.  Splitting the opening into two sentences shifts the focus from the man to the setting. The mention of the rain and the slippery conditions tell the reader that something is going to happen on the bridge.

In this example:

Julia switched off her alarm clock. It was Wednesday.

The full stop separates the fact that it is Wednesday from Julia turning off the alarm. The reader assumes that she turns her alarm off every day and that the important thing to note is the day of the week. This opening suggests that something is due to happen on Wednesday.

Whereas, in this example:

Julia switched off her alarm clock; it was Wednesday.

The semicolon links the two sentences and suggests that Julia has turned off her alarm clock because it is Wednesday. Again, the use of the semicolon shifts the focus to Julia. The reader begins to wonder why she doesn’t need her alarm clock on Wednesday.

Another effect of the semicolon in these examples is that it removes some of the urgency. Short sentences increase the pace of reading, so combining them to form a longer one will slow your reader down. This is why, in the examples with full stops, the reader is expecting action and, in the examples with semicolons, the reader is more concerned with speculating about the character.

So, don’t be afraid of the semicolon; use it to manipulate your reader. But remember, with great power comes great responsibility; don’t overuse it; overusing anything in your writing will draw the reader’s attention. So, always think carefully about your punctuation choices; you don’t want to annoy your reader. For instance, this paragraph uses way too many semicolons, most of which are unnecessary; I bet you noticed; annoying, isn’t it? 


  1. I was looking for the answer to this question for a couple an hours, thanks a lot for posting it! I just need to write my essay at the highest level that is why this tips is going to be very useful for me!