Genres and genre conventions

This is currently a stub, on account of this article is going to take me a while to write.

The first thing to discuss when it comes to genre is, which age group is your book written for? It can be a children’s book, mid-grade (MG), young adult (YA), new adult (NA) or adult.

I know nothing about children’s books, so I’m going to skip that.

Genre articles:

Horror

 

 

 

Scenes and sequels, plus beginnings

English is a beautiful language full of enough special rules to choke a blue whale. Many of them pertain to vocabulary. As you might have figured out by now, more than half of the words commonly used in our language have more than one meaning. ‘Scene’ is no exception.

A scene is a chunk of a story with a specific beginning and ending. Each author has her own understanding of ‘scene.’ That said, most people agree that your average book appears to have roughly 64 scenes, give or take. I can’t speak to most books because I haven’t counted the scenes in ‘most books.’

So a scene is a unit of measurement used in a book.

A sequel is something that follows. For example, Bride of Frankenstein is the sequel to Frankenstein. Fast & Furious 2 is the sequel to Fast & Furious. The Two Towers is the sequel to Fellowship of the Ring.

Now we complicate things.

Scenes typically contain scenes and sequels.

Whaaaaat?

It’s that thing where our words have more than one meaning.

I use both definitions of ‘scene’ pretty much constantly. A lot of writers do. This is important to learn.

So scenes are made up of scenes and sequels. A typical scene will contain the following:

  • Scene
    • Goal
    • Conflict
    • Result (sometimes called ‘disaster’)
  • Sequel
    • Reaction (can be broken into “Emotion” and “Reason,” but must occur in that order because we feel faster than we think)*
    • Dilemma
    • Decision

These are the basic building blocks of a story. A novel is a chain of scenes and sequels, one right after the other, that inexorably leads to the conclusion. And you can’t have scene-scene-sequel-sequel-sequel-scene-sequel-scene-etc. because that’s not the way human beings work. Even if your story is entirely about aliens or elves or whatever, you still need to write it this way because your readers are going to be human beings. You could do some experimental fiction, but it would probably be hard to read and not sell very well.

When I talk about scenes and sequels, I typically use the following example.

You wake up Sunday morning and you want to make chocolate chip pancakes for your son because they’re his favorite, it’s his birthday, and your recently deceased wife used to make them for him. (Motive, Setting, Goal.) However, when you go to the kitchen, you discover you have no chocolate chips (Conflict and Result). You’re upset by this (reaction) and you ponder what you should do: make them without the chocolate chips, or buy some (Dilemma). You decide to sneak off to Safeway before he wakes up (Decision).

You drive to Safeway to buy the chocolate chips (Goal). However, once you’re in the store, you discover there’s only one bag left and someone else is reaching for them at the same time you are. You get into a fight with them over the chips (Conflict). The fight ends when he calls you names and he’s escorted out of the store (Result). Shaken, you buy the chips (Reaction) and, as you’re heading out the store, he accosts you in the parking lot. You consider running, but your trick knee is acting up again (Dilemma) so you stand your ground (Decision).

And you can take this story in any direction. It could be a romance, a thriller, a spy story, a mystery. He could be your time-traveling son. Who knows? But there you have two scenes, each broken up into scene-and-sequence.

During the scene part, your character will have a goal and a conflict. The conflict will resolve in one of three ways.

  1. Your character won’t get what he wants. (‘No.’)
  2. Your character will get what he wants, but it sets in motion some other action or effect that will come to light later. (‘Yes, but …’)
  3. Your character will get what he wants. (‘Yes.’)

The only time you use #3 is when you’re writing the end of the climax, because, once there’s no more conflict, the story ends and you write the Resolution.

In the above example, the first scene ends with ‘no.’ The second scene ends with ‘yes, but.’ Does he ever make it home to make pancakes for his son? When the answer is yes, then the story is over.

These can be pretty complex. I still can’t readily identify them in the books I’m reading, though I’ve made a start. Happily, Jim Butcher, in his Livejournal, said he didn’t master it until he’d written many books, so I don’t feel so bad about myself. (He does one entry on scene and another on sequel; I posted to the first. The one following is the second.) Butcher’s advice is a little more complex than mine.

Should you begin your story with a scene or a sequel?

When you start a story, start with a scene, not a sequel. Your character has to have something he’s going for. It should be small and related to his world, but it has to exist because you can’t start a story with his reaction to something. If we don’t see the thing he reacts to, we won’t be able to tell if he’s overreacting, underreacting, etc.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the TV show) begins with Buffy wanting to make a good impression on her first day of 10th grade at a new school. That’s her goal. Jim Butcher’s Storm Front begins with Harry Dresden wanting to get his mail from a snarky mailman. Arrows of the Queen begins with Talia wanting to read her book in peace. Big Hero 6 begins with Hiro wanting to win a bot fight. The Wizard of Oz begins with Dorothy wanting to know what’s out there past the limits of her farm, and she wants to save her dog Toto. Spiderman: Far From Home begins with Peter Parker wanting to go on a normal class trip as a normal teenager. Every story begins with the main character wanting something minor, something that fits in with their normal day. That’s a scene. The disaster should be something relatively small, yet pertinent to the story, something that tells us a little about the world we’re in and the characters who inhabit it.


*Jim Butcher describes Sequels using Emotion, Reason, Anticipation, and Choice, but it’s basically the same thing. You can read his article here.

Story Structure: What is it, and do I need it even if I don’t outline?

Yes, you need to know what story structure is whether or not you outline your work. The more you know and understand story structure, the easier it will be to pants your way through your alpha draft without having a saggy middle or boring story. Outliners should know this too.

Story structure is not a formula. It doesn’t create formulaic books. Some scholars studied a couple thousand works of fiction from around the world and across time and they came up with a basic understanding of how stories work. Humans have this fundamental need to tell stories, and I think this is part of our functionality, or the way our brains work. You don’t need to use story structure, but if you plan on becoming rich and famous, it really helps to understand this stuff. Plus you can’t effectively break the rules if you don’t know what they are. So set aside any quibbles you have and listen.

Fiction is not real life. In real life, things happen for no apparent reason. In 2017 my best friend was hit by a car and nearly died. In a story, that would be relevant to the plot, or it wouldn’t happen. There’s no plot to my life or his, and it just happened. Were I to be telling a story, and I included an event like that which didn’t actually forward the plot or character development, readers would pitch my book across the room. So all the stuff in your book has to matter to your character arcs or your plot development.

If you’re writing a series, you can include things in your WIP that are relevant to the series arc but not the book’s plot arc, but those should be subplots and used sparingly. And you should know your series’ structure (which is basically story structure writ large) before you get too far into your books, or you’ll need to grandfather those things in. I believe Jim Butcher grandfathered Storm Front’s events into his series plot in the Dresden Files series because Storm Front was his first published book and he had no idea, at the time, that he’d publish a 24 book series out of Harry Dresden. That’s why the series seems to take off with Book 3. This is a guess, though, and if Butcher would like to correct me, I will happily post what he says.

In Plotting, pantsing, and outlining I referred to these as “twists.” This is what they’re actually called. Percentages are approximate. You might hit your inciting event somewhere between 10% and 13%, but it should be close to what I list or your story may start to sag.

0% – the beginning

12.5% – Inciting Event. Sometimes called “inciting incident” (which is probably just people making slips of the tongue) or “call to adventure,” for people who like the Hero’s Journey.

25% – First Plot Point

37% – First Pinch Point

50% – Second Plot Point, or Midpoint

62% – Second Pinch Point

75% – Third Plot Point

88% – Climax begins

98% – Climax ends, Resolution begins

Again, these are approximate. Some people end the climax at around 95%.

In addition to these points, there’s usually a Key Decision that happens somewhere between the 20% and 25% mark.

This article is meant to be brief, as in “not a book.” The best book I’ve found for simply, easily, usefully, and briefly describing these things is Weiland’s Five Secrets of Story Structure book. I encourage you to buy and read it. I’ve read about nine books on story structure so far and I’m working on my 10th and 11th ones now, so I’m going to synthesize what those books say for you, but a lot of it will be from her book. (Again, I get no kickbacks for books I recommend.)

Go get a copy of your favorite paperback, one you’ve read so many times you know the story by heart, mark the pages where these percentage points occur, and keep it handy. You may want a pencil or highlighter.

The Hook – 0-12.5% of the book

This is where you introduce the characters and the world to your readers. Your story should begin with your characters in their Normal World, which will be either idyllic and soon to be lost, or horrible and in need of fixing. Something minor but symbolic of the changes to come will happen in the first couple of pages. Get out your book and look through the first chapter. What little thing is this? In Arrows of the Queen, it’s Talia’s 13th birthday, and the news she’s going to be married soon. In Storm Front, it’s Harry Dresden being hired to look into the death of Tommy Tom and the disappearance of Larry Sells (I think; the book is not handy).

In this section of the book your main character should let the reader know what she wants. It’s good for novice writers to explicitly state this. Talia blurts to the women in her hold “I want to be a Herald.” Dresden wants to stay on Murphy’s good side so he can be paid both now and in the future. If your reader doesn’t know what your main character wants, your book will seem vague and perhaps confusing.

There is a hell of a lot of writer advice out there about keeping back story and world building out of your first 12%. I’m not sure I believe that, though I’m open to being wrong. You should never info-dump or engage in exposition in this section because that will bore your readers to tears. However, you do need to let us know enough about your world to orient ourselves. Get out that book and read it carefully. Use a symbol to mark each time your favorite author slips in some bit that makes the world more understandable. Harry Dresden tells us he lives in Chicago, and that there are laws of magic he can’t break, and how magic affects technology, and quite a bit more. Talia tells us what the hell a “Herald” is and why she would want to be one.

Only use character background info and worldbuilding if it helps the reader grasp what’s going on and what they need to know about the character to make sense of the character’s immediate situation. We don’t need to know that the monarch of Talia’s world is always a Herald at this point. We do need to know the basics of what a Herald is. We don’t need to know about the Blackstaff during the first 12% of Harry’s story, but we do need to know that he could be killed if he violates the Laws of Magic on Murphy’s behalf.

Inciting Event – 12.5% to 20-25%

Your main character will brush against the central conflict somehow at this point. Something major will happen that will deeply impact the character, but won’t be enough in and of itself to suck the character irrevocably into the story. In a romance, this might be the Meet Cute. If I were writing a scifi about the discovery of interstellar travel through wormhole jumping, this might be where I put the successful discovery of interstellar travel. No one has done it yet, but at this point we know how to do it, and the main character might be chosen to make the first attempt. From the 12.5 to 20% mark (approximate) the characters will be preparing, somehow, to enter the conflict. They may have no idea that they’re doing so, but they are.

For example, in Big Hero 6, Hiro is taken to the Nerd Lab and meets his future friends. He’s wowed, both by their coolness and by what they’re working on. He meets Baymax and learns what Baymax can do too. (Movies are wonderful for studying story structure, incidentally, and the more you learn about this stuff, the more you can see it as you watch.)

Around the 20% mark, or between 20 and 25%, your character should make a Key Decision that will lead to the First Plot Point. In Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers decide to fly to Never Never Land. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy decides to run home and encounters the tornado that takes her to Oz. In Big Hero 6, Hiro decides to try to qualify for Robotics School. In Arrows of the Queen, Talia is asked if she really wants to be a Herald and Queen’s Own despite the fact that the previous Queen’s Own was murdered, and they didn’t catch the murderer. In a paranormal werewolf romance I read a few months ago, the main character decided to stay in the diner where she worked despite being alone.

Sometimes, after the Key Decision, there will be a brief sequence leading to the First Plot Point (the point of no return). We see Wendy and her brothers fly to Never Never Land. We see Dorothy run home and try to get into the storm cellar. We see Hiro develop his nanobots and display them at the exhibition. Sometimes the Key Decision is “I think I’ll step through this portal,” and then there’s a sentence of action and then we’re at the First Plot Point.

First Plot Point – 25%. End of Act 1, beginning of Act 2.

Here the main character is sucked into the conflict and can’t leave. In the PN werewolf story, the main character is mugged and saved by a giant wolf, which turns out to be the werewolf she falls in love with. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s house drops on the Wicked Witch of the East. In Peter Pan, the kids land in Never Never Land and encounter Captain Cook. This is a big setpiece scene, a transition from the old world into the new, and a situation that the main characters can’t get out of easily. If the movie is a musical, you’ll usually have a giant musical scene here with dancing. The Munchkin scene in The Wizard of Oz is an example; it starts with Dorothy opening her door into technicolor fantasy and ends with the song “Follow the Yellow Brick Road.”

Act 2 is often split into two parts. Between 25% and 50% you’re going to want to very carefully follow your genre’s conventions. This is the section that’s most specific to genre.

Typically your character doesn’t understand the central conflict at this point. They might not even know who the villain is. They’re trying to do the thing they need to do, but because they don’t know what’s really going on, they’re running around rather unproductively and making little progress. This section should be interesting. Your protag is going to meet a lot of new people, including allies, and possibly train or develop something. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy meets her three buddies and is attacked several times by the Wicked Witch of the West. In Big Hero 6, Hiro mods Baymax and discovers Kabuki Man, his antagonist. Often this section is very engaging.

37% – the First Pinch Point

Here your antagonist makes a move or plots something that will affect your protagonist. This serves a bunch of purposes. First, if you’re veering too far off into fun-land with your protag and their allies, this re-centers your central plot. Second, your antagonist gets to screw with your protagonist, which is both important and should make you cackle and rub your hands together with glee. Third, it usually gives the first half of Act 2 enough “oomph” to get to the Midpoint.

It should be obvious that, by the 37% mark, you need to have introduced your antagonist. Often the antagonist is introduced (or its effects are) by the end of Act 1, but it’s okay to be a little late, and sometimes the antag is still behind the scenes. For example, in Storm Front we don’t see the antagonist until late in the book, but we see his effects and feel his power before the 37% mark. In Big Hero 6, the antagonist is the professor in the robotics lab. We meet him in the first act, see him as Kabuki Man at the 37% mark, but don’t find out the Kabuki Man is the professor until the climax.

50% – the Second Plot Point, aka the Midpoint

This is one of the most important points in the book and deserves a major setpiece scene. This is where everything changes. Your characters may end up with new goals, a new outlook on the conflict, etc. It’s so important that there’s a craft book out there where the author recommends you write this scene first and then work in each direction until the story is written.

At this point your main character will have an epiphany or come to an understanding about what she needs to do to achieve her goals. What she’s been doing so far (either internally, externally, or both) isn’t working, so she decides to try something else. In a movie where two main ally characters hate each other, this is where they resolve to set aside that hatred and work together as a team. In a romance, this is “sex at 60,” the point at which the two characters have sex or a moment of intimacy that signifies sex. In The Wizard of Oz, this is the Emerald City scene. Dorothy has achieved her goal of finding the Wizard, and now has a new goal: kill the Wicked Witch of the West. In Arrows of the Queen, this is where Talia finally begins to feel like she might belong.

62% – The Second Pinch Point

Between 50% and 62% your enlightened characters are still using their old methods of coping, dealing, or problem-solving to get what they want, because they haven’t linked their enlightenment with the need to try new methods. Dorothy is still hiking across Oz, for example, instead of clicking her heels. So even though they know more and are changing their ways, they’re still not getting where they want or need to go, so they’re still falling on their faces pretty much constantly. This can be really fun to write or watch.

In Big Hero 6, for example, Hiro wants to fight Kabuki Man, so he and his friends design and train in their superhero suits and Hiro flies all over San Fransokyo. Dorothy encounters the Flying Monkeys. Talia tries to figure out who’s corrupting the Heir to the Throne. Dresden’s tracking down Harry Sells.

My favorite part of a story to write is the part between the 37% mark and the 62% mark simply because that’s where the greatest amount of character growth seems to happen.

Between the 62% and 75% mark your antagonist should make himself known again–you want to keep your story on track if it seems to be veering off.

75% – The Third Plot Point, Beginning of Act 3.

Again, this is a huge setpiece scene. Between here and 88%, your character should be at his absolute lowest low-point and might even make some pretty unethical decisions. Often there’s some sort of symbolic or real death, especially of a mentor. Your character should be alone, on the ropes, ready to give up, because even though he knows what he needs to do, he doesn’t have all the info he needs to do it, or the strength to do it, or the heart.

Dorothy is told that if she doesn’t give up the ruby slippers in one hour, she’ll die. She’s locked in a room by herself. Talia’s psychic trainer is murdered and she is the only one who can get the McGuffin and rescue her friend–and she’s weak, afraid, and undertrained. Murphy is pissed at Dresden, tries to arrest him, and he has no allies. Hiro recklessly endangers his friends in his pursuit of Kabuki Man and then leaves them behind when he loses.

However, typically your character is only one piece of information or significant action away from winning. She just doesn’t know it.

88% – 98% – The Climax

The climax typically begins around 88%, though I’ve seen it start around 85%. Novels aren’t as precise as movies. During the climax the protag begins to wrap everything up, starting with the least important problem and working toward the most. They realize and apply that last bit of information needed to save the day.

Dorothy kills the Wicked Witch for her broomstick. Then she discovers that Oz is just a guy from Nebraska. She tries to leave in his hot air balloon, but it flies away. Then Glinda comes and tells Dorothy to click her heels three times. She goes home. Conflict over.

Hiro goes to the site of new construction, prepared to fight the scientist-developer, who he thinks is Kabuki Man. It’s not him. He fights and overcomes Kabuki Man, but then discovers that the man is the professor. He realizes that an innocent woman is locked into the hyperspace area that the scientist-developer created, so he enters that area, finds her, and has to leave Baymax behind, losing the last bit of his brother. Villains neutralized, great wrong righted, person saved, conflict over.

Talia guides her friends to where the McGuffin is and they rescue it. Then she saves the mind of one of her closest friends, cementing her place with the Heralds. Conflict over.

Dresden defeats Larry Sells and all his minions and stops the ritual they were enacting, solving the murders and closing up the subplots. Conflict over.

Once the conflict is over, the story is basically over. However, people really, really like resolutions. They want the “happily ever after.” We crave it. That leads us to …

Resolution – 98%-100% (sometimes starts at 95%)

Here you show the protagonist after the story is over. You resolve any lingering bits and restate the theme. There are many ways to do this. A lot of people recommend you show the protag back in her original world, only improved. Closing with a scene that mirrors the opening scene is a nice touch.

For example, Dorothy wakes up in bed, in Kansas, happy to be there. She says “there’s no place like home!”, which is the theme of the movie. Talia sees her best friend off on his training trip and thinks she’s finally found a place she belongs. Dresden preserves his relationship with Murphy and doesn’t get in trouble with the White Council. Hiro rebuilds Baymax and heads off to Nerd School with his friends, no longer a depressed loner.

If The Wizard of Oz ended with Dorothy clicking her heels, if Big Hero 6 ended with Hiro flying the missing girl through the portal, the story, while over, would have felt unfinished. You need the resolution to provide readers with a sense of satisfaction, of resolution.

You need this even if you’re writing a tragedy. Tragedies don’t have “happily ever after” endings (called HEA; HFN means Happy For Now), but they do need to satisfy. In Romeo & Juliet, for example, the story is over when Juliet kills herself, but in the resolution we find out what happened to their warring families. It must be done.

Once you internalize this, it will make both plotting and pantsing stories much easier to do.

Again, this isn’t a formula! This was developed through the study of existing stories. It’s set up with these percentages because they’re where those things occurred in well-paced, successful stories that had already been written before anyone studied story structure. Experienced writers might start their climax at 80% and resolve it at 95%, etc. That’s up to you.

Watch movies, looking for this stuff. Disney and Pixar are both excellent examples of movies that stick rigidly to story structure, and you’ve probably seen them all anyway. All of the MCU movies adhere strictly to this structure. The new Hobbs & Shaw movie, which came out less than a week ago, sticks to this structure. I see it in TV episodes, too; I’m currently watching Elementary, which is structured this way. Buffy seasons were also structured in this fashion, with each episode structured thus and the season structured according to this fashion. Once you start noticing it, it will be hard to un-notice.

That said, I started learning about story structure about 4 years ago and I’m just now able to identify it as I watch new movies. It takes a while before you can really make it out. But read your favorite novel, watch movies, etc. and you’ll start to get it too.

How to punctuate

I’m an American and this applies to American English.

If you didn’t learn punctuation in school, you will need to teach yourself punctuation. This may help.

First, capitalize the first letter in every sentence. Your phone may do that for you, but your writing program, if it’s worth its salt, won’t. There are artistic writers who don’t do this and that’s fine. That’s them. Artistic writers are wonderful and they’re treasures, but they sure as fuck don’t make much money when they’re alive. If you want to write professionally, for money, capitalize that letter.

Capitalizing your first letter is important because it signals to readers that a new sentence is starting.

End each sentence with a period, called a ‘full stop’ in British English. Sometimes end sentences with a question mark. Rarely (maybe once or twice per book) end a sentence with an exclamation point. Seriously. Do not use exclamation points. Not in narration–let me feel the excitement via word choice. Not in dialogue–if you’re writing your dialogue well and using the right actions surrounding it, you won’t need an exclamation point.

Example:

“Let’s go to the mall!” Jennifer said. “My game is in!”

This can become

Jennifer tossed her backpack over her shoulder and grinned at Marcy. Today was expansion release day for their favorite game, Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four.* “Let’s go to the mall. Right now. Before school’s out, before everyone else gets there.”

The excitement should be generated through words, not punctuation. The rule of thumb I’d heard–and I fully agree with it–is that you should include no more than 2-3 exclamation points per novel. Otherwise you or your characters sound manic, melodramatic, and annoying. Use them sparingly, and they will carry quite an impact. Use them flagrantly, and you’ll wonder why people accuse you of writing purple prose.

About those question marks. Most people know you put a question mark after a sentence that starts with who, what, where, when, why, how, or if. Other words that start questions are does, can, may, should, will, is/are, and have.

You do not use a question mark if those words are in the middle of the sentence. “She asked me if I’d gone shopping” is not a question. It’s a statement.

You do use a question mark even if the question is delivered in a flat tone of voice. (Many people use question marks if, in their head, the sentence ends with a pitch lift.) If it’s a question and not a statement, use a question mark.

Example:

He threw his napkin onto his place, obscuring the half-eaten lobster tail. “Do you want to marry me or not?”

She sighed and played with her fork.

“You don’t want to marry me.”

Now that last sentence, if ended with a period, is a declaration. He knows she doesn’t want to marry him and that’s it. We could end it with a question mark, at which point it would become a question. “You don’t want to marry me?” invites her to answer, to give a reason, and subtly sounds different.

Other kinds of punctuation in English include the following: colon, semi-colon, comma, dash, hyphen, brackets, braces, parentheses, apostrophes, quote marks, and the ellipsis.

Colons are for lists. When you write a list, you separate the things in the list with a semi-colon. It would look like this.

“Go to the store and get me the following: hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.”

Note the commas in the sub-list of cheeses. The reason you use a semi-colon for a list is to differentiate those things from anything you need to sub-list. The list is meat, cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard. The sublist is cheddar, swiss, and provolone. If you put all that together, then you use commas for the cheeses, because they’re all versions of the same thing, and you use semi-colons for the items that are significantly different from one another.

Semi-colons are also used to connect independent clauses. You can use it (sparingly) in lieu of a period. Periods scan better.

She didn’t know why he hated her so much; all she’d done was try to please him.

Okay, but it works just as well with a period.

Hyphens are used to create compound terms such as ‘well-known,’ ‘part-time,’ or ‘mix-up.’

Dashes come in two flavors: the en-dash (the width of an ‘n’) and the em-dash (width of an ‘m’). The en-dash is used to indicate ranges, connections, or differentiations. The em-dash is used to provide strong emphasis and can be used in lieu of a comma, colon, or pair of parentheses when those don’t hit your point hard enough. Overuse of em-dashes will make your writing seem melodramatic. Example of properly-used em-dash:

“WWII was composed of two wars: the Pacific War, which ran from 1931-1945, and the European war, which ran from 1939-1945. Once the Japanese signed a treaty with the Germans, they became one war–the war we know of as WWII.”

Sometimes you put spaces before and after em- and en-dashes, and sometimes you don’t. It depends on style — the AP stylebook says to put spaces, but MLA says there should be no spaces. This is why you see no spaces in novels, but you do see spaces in newspaper articles.

You also use em-dashes to indicate interruption. You can do that as per the examples below:

He glared at her. “What do you mean, I don’t–“

Her expression might have been a smile on anyone else’s face. “You didn’t ever satisfy me”–her gun moved to point at him instead of the server–“and now I want out of our arrangement. With all the diamonds, Scott. Every. Last. One.”

Note that when dialogue is interrupted and the speaker is finished, you put the em-dash within the quote, but when the dialogue is interrupted by action and the speaker is still speaking, you put the em-dash outside of the quote.

Parentheses () are for examples or qualifying marks, and could be theoretically removed from the sentence without affecting it whatsoever. You can also replace them with commas. If you refer to the Dashes paragraph above, you can see an example of parenthesis use. These are called ‘brackets’ in British English.

If you’re using parentheses, other punctuation almost always goes outside the closing parenthesis. Example:

After raising the hood of his car (and wiping his hands on his jeans), Billy checked the oil.

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence unattached to another sentence, put the punctuation within the end parenthesis.

Billy usually did his own oil changes. (He liked to get dirty.)

If your parenthetical statement is a complete sentence and is enclosed within another complete sentence, do not use a period in the parenthetical sentence. However, you can use other closing punctuation within parentheses.

I sent her the invitation, but (she’s far too busy today) of course she won’t come.

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck!).

Amusingly enough, you can add question marks and exclamation points to parenthetical sentences like the ones in the chocolate example. You don’t have to, and you probably shouldn’t in general, but if it works with your narrative or character’s voice, then it’s fine. So you could have the following:

He opened the bar of chocolate (why would he think I didn’t want any!?) and ate it entirely (the schmuck).

Notice, however, that the period is still at the end of the sentence because the period ends the sentence (and should end almost every single sentence you write). <– note the parenthetical clause at the end, with the closing parenthesis and the period.

Brackets [] clarify meaning or introduce technical information. “You [Jon Snow] know nothing.” I’d use a bracket if I was quoting something precisely and needed to introduce information that the reader would need to understand the material. They are almost never used in fiction writing but are widely used in the sciences and social sciences, and in journalism. I might also write “I [Martin Luther King, Jr.] have a dream.” I’m quoting him directly, but in this context it’s very useful to add his name so you can get the reference. These are called square brackets in British English.

Braces {} are mostly used in computer programming and math. I never use them in any kind of writing that I do.

Ellipses (sing. ellipsis) are series of three to four period-like dots. They can be used a number of ways, but mostly should never, ever, ever be used in fiction writing except in dialogue. They’re spaced in a particular way and your computer will have a keyboard shortcut for them and/or will automatically space them. WordPress doesn’t do automatic spacing or format em-dashes properly, which is why my punctuation marks look a little ‘off.’

Some people use them to indicate a voice that is trailing off.

She twisted her napkin between her fingers. “Well, if you want to…”

There you use the three dot ellipsis because the sentence isn’t finishing, but there is other punctuation after. In the same example you could use ellipsis and end with a question mark, depending on if it’s a statement or a question, but generally with questions it’s better to just use the question mark. You can also use an ellipsis to indicate a space, or hesitation, in grammatically correct dialogue.

“But…I thought you loved me!”

Note the lack of space before and after the ellipsis.

If you routinely use ellipses in your non-dialogue writing, you will look wishy-washy and amateur. Use a period. Stand by your statement. However, if you want your character to look wishy-washy, the occasional well-placed ellipsis will do that. Just please try not to use ellipses more than a couple times in a long chapter because it’s also somewhat jarring to readers.

In academic writing you use ellipses for one reason only–to indicate text that has been removed from a quote because you don’t need it, without rewriting the original sentence and opening yourself to charges of misrepresentation or plagiarism. For example, say I’m writing a newspaper article. A man is telling me about a chef he knows. I need to quote him directly, but we don’t need all of his words. I’d do the following:

Original quote: “She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines, all examples of citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Elliptical quote: “She bought…citrus fruits. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

The four dot ellipsis is used to indicate that the sentence is over. Example:

“She bought oranges, lemons, limes, and tangerines…. They were needed for her latest pastry recipe.”

Or I could use two three-dot ellipses to join the two sentences.

“She bought…citrus fruits…for her latest pastry recipe.”

Again, you use that in academic writing or journalism only, where it’s understood that you are abridging a quote, not writing in a hesitant tone of voice.

Quotation marks are so much fun! In America, dialogue is set off with double-quotes, whereas in Britain it’s set off in single-quotes (and sometimes not at all) which can make it easy to tell the nationality of the author. We also use double-quotes when we quote someone else’s speech or writing.

Single-quotes in America are used to indicate something is unusual or special about the word, or to set the word apart for some reason, or to indicate that someone who is speaking is quoting someone else. Here is an example of the last:

I said to my colleague, Mr. Smith, “Brian told me that you said, ‘there is absolutely, definitely no school on Friday.’ Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?”

The material set off in the single quotes is what Brian said, word for word, to me and I’m telling Mr. Smith that.

Most punctuation is set inside the quotation marks in America, with the exception of question and exclamation marks. Here are examples and reasons.

“Are you pulling some kind of practical joke here?” –> Speaker A is asking Speaker B (you) a direct question. Question mark goes within the quotes.

Had she really said “I don’t love you any more”? I reeled in my seat, clutching for my glass of water. –> Speaker A (I) is thinking about something Speaker B (she) said to him directly. Question mark goes outside the quotes, because Speaker A is questioning the statement he’d heard.

“He said to me, ‘Are you sure you want this game?'” –> Speaker A (me) is relating to Speaker B about what Speaker C (he) has asked. Question mark goes inside the double and single quote marks.

“I love the Dread Pirate booty* series!” He grinned at Jennifer from behind the counter as he rang up her purchase. –> Speaker A (I/he) is telling Speaker B (Jennifer) about something he’s emphatic about. Exclamation point goes within the quotes.

“I said to him, ‘Of course I want that game!’ It’s the hottest game of the year.” –> Speaker A (I) is telling Speaker B (the listener) about something she emphasized to Speaker C (him); the exclamation point goes within the single-quote for that reason.

I couldn’t believe she cancelled our date in favor of watching “When Harry Met Sally”! Wasn’t a real romantic relationship better than a movie about one? –> Speaker A (I) is thinking to himself, and the quotes are around a movie title. Since “When Harry Met Sally” has no punctuation, the exclamation point goes on the outside of the quotes.

The question mark or exclamation point go on the inside of the dialogue’s quotation marks when the person speaking is asking a question.

But what about periods and commas within quotes? Many, many people screw this one up, but it’s actually pretty easy to learn. When you write dialogue, you end the sentence with a period if you start a new sentence or include an action beat right after it. You end it with a comma if you use a dialogue tag.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park,” Jesse whispered, his lips swollen. He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. <– example of comma use because ‘Jessie whispered’ is a dialogue tag. In this case I added a clause after the dialogue tag to indicate why he was whispering, and added another sentence after.

Jesse whispered through swollen lips. “She beat me up as I ran through the park.” He sank into the chair, a mass of bruised misery. –> Here the same idea is written as two sentences with a dialogue tag (whispered). Note how the dialogue ends in a period.

“She beat me up as I ran through the park.” Jesse sank into the chair, his lips swollen, his face a mass of bruised misery. –> Note the lack of a comma due to the lack of dialogue tag. If there’s no dialogue tag, there’s no need for a comma.

British English punctuates dialogue differently.

Apostrophes are the despair of many people. An apostrophe is used for many reasons:

  • To indicate omission of letters from words (aka ‘contractions’). Example: Cannot becomes can’t.
    • It’s means ‘it is.’ “It’s cold outside.”
  • To indicate possession (possessive case). That’s the cat’s favorite box, or Jerry’s remote control car is pink and purple.
    • Its indicates possession, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’ does. That’s its favorite box, or I have a smartphone. My thumbs are too big for its keyboard.
  • To pluralize lower-case letters. There were too many s’s in that word.

What about words that end in -s? Despite what your English teacher may have taught you, there’s no hard and fast rule. Be consistent, and don’t stress about it too much. If you’re trad-publishing and your editor wants you to do it a particular way, do it that way. Publishing houses have style sheets, too, and they want you to ‘fit’ their punctuation style. That said, if you’re looking for examples, go here.

That said, you should never, ever put the apostrophe before the terminal -s. This is not a rule you ever get to break, period. People get mad about that stuff, as per the examples below.

  • That’s Thoma’s book. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed Thomas’s name to Thoma.
  • The Jone’s family. –> no, no, no. You’ve just changed the last name ‘Jones’ to ‘Jone.’

In those cases, you either don’t use an apostrophe, or you put it after the ‘s.’

And now for the almighty comma.

Do not put a comma wherever you breathe. If someone told you to do that, they were wrong. People breathe at different rates, and punctuation isn’t dependent on your lung capacity. In musical scores there will occasionally be an apostrophe above the staff. You breathe at the apostrophe. But otherwise there is no punctuation that correlates with breathing.

Commas are primarily used to separate clauses, or ideas, within a sentence. They can become rather complex, and, frankly, comma usage deserves its own article. Here are some real basics.

  • Use a comma to separate lists within a sentence if none of the items in the list requires commas itself. Her dress was green, red, and yellow. If any of the items in your list require commas themselves, use the semi-colon instead. …hamburger meat; cheddar, swiss, and provolone cheeses; lettuce; tomato; and mustard.
  • Use a comma and conjunction to join two sentences or independent clauses together. They went to the store, and then they went home. Generally you want to use periods for that sort of thing, but if all of your sentences in a particular paragraph are the same length, you can vary sentence length by joining two sentences this way. Be careful about overdoing it.
    • Don’t use a comma if the conjunction is joining two adverbs or adjectives that both modify the subject noun. In other words I type fast and well is correct because both fast and well describe how I type. My cat is pretty, and clumsy is wrong because both pretty and clumsy describe my cat. (Seriously. I’ve seen her miss basic jumps.) This should be easy to identify because and well or and clumsy aren’t sentences or independent clauses.
  • Use it to offset unnecessary information (clauses or words). My friend, John, bought that house. I ran, my feet aching, to work today. 
  • Use it after an introductory phrase (watch for dangling modifiers!). Grabbing her remote, Jennifer flicked on the television.
  • Use it with question tags or emphasis words. I know, right? The sunset is pretty, isn’t it?
  • Use it to set off dates. I wrote this on August 8, 2019, at one o’clock in the afternoon.
  • DON’T use a comma to separate articles (a, an, the) from nouns. Lots of people do this! She took the, poison is incorrect. Don’t even do it in dialogue to express a hitch in speech. Use an ellipsis or dash for that. You can, however, use a comma to separate two articles in dialogue to express emphasis or hesitation. “She took the, the poison” is okay, especially if I want to show that the speaker is amazed or startled.

There’s lots more on commas. You can find as many examples as your heart desires by visiting grammarly.

I used the following resources to write this page: Grammarly, The Punctuation Guide, GrammarBook, Your Dictionary, Grammar Girl (via Quick and Dirty Tips), Purdue OWL, Literary Devices, and Get It Write. I also recommend the books The Transitive Vampire (and other books by Karen Elizabeth Gordon); Eats, Shoots, and Leaves; and Woe Is I. I receive no kickbacks for links to books or websites.

*This game was created by Patricia Briggs and is featured in her Mercy Thompson series.

How to critique

For this article you should know the basic kinds of editing already. If you don’t, please read “Kinds and costs of editing.” Also, I’ve posted links to related articles about critiquing at the bottom of this post.

I critique an average of 9000 words each week, six weeks out of seven, and I’ve been doing this for at least four years. According to Scribophile, as of today I have critiqued 353 works, and that’s a low number because I’ve also critiqued for offline friends. (If you want to know more about Scribophile, a crit partner-matching website, read this article.)

My first at least 50 critiques were entirely copy editing. I cringe when I look back on them both due to my total ignorance and my absolute and awful arrogance. I corrected I don’t know how much punctuation, spelling, etc. I threw in a little line editing, but that was mostly when someone had obviously used the wrong word. “The building was inflammable; it wouldn’t burn” kinda thing. Most writers, especially novice writers, do a considerable amount of copy editing in their critiques because they think that’s the only kind of critiquing there is. You give me your work, I’m going to polish it.

The problem with that is, you’re most likely polishing a turd.* A polished turd is still a turd. It won’t sell. If you pipe sunshine up the asses of novice writers and they publish to Amazon, you (and they) will kill their careers even before they start. DO NOT do this. It’s cruel.

So this is how and when and why you should critique.

If a writer is giving you an alpha draft (a draft that has not gone through a beta read, also known as a ‘rough draft,’ also known as the thing most writers tend to rewrite about eight times before they show it to someone else–your rough draft can have drafts of its own) then you developmentally critique it. Do not talk about word choice. Do not talk about sentence structure. Do not point out that most of the sentences start with “I” or “He” or “The.” Do not point out adverbs, dialogue tags, bad punctuation, etc.

Why not?

That is enough to make any novice writer, especially the ones still in larval stage–teens on Wattpad, people who just started seriously writing a few months ago, etc.–cry and quit. Then you have crushed someone who might go on to be a very good writer. Many writers have deep and persistent self-esteem problems and they only grow out of it with patience and practice, and if you crush a new or novice writer because you think they can’t punctuate–if you give a new writer a critique that is a literal sea of red ink–you are being absolutely awful, arrogant, and generally not a person I’d care to be around. All that craft bullshit can be learned, or you can pay to have it corrected. And you can argue that a writer should be resilient–I agree!!–but resilience must be grown. If you step on the newly-germinated tree, it will die. If you step on a full-grown oak, it will not.

But also, as I said, if the work is fundamentally flawed, the person is going to rewrite it, and all your comma corrections are trashed. For example, I’m working on a book currently titled Joana. I wrote most of Act 1, showed it to crit partners, and had my characters soundly (but kindly) panned. So I rewrote it from scratch. New scenes, new settings, everything. It was (kindly) panned again for being slow and uninteresting. I rewrote it from scratch again–new scenes, new settings. That one worked. If I’d had someone else spend an hour or two of their time nit-picking my adverbs, they’d have wasted their time entirely.

When you do a developmental crit on an alpha draft, it should be mostly in paragraph form. If you’re working on a Word or Google Docs file, you might consider making a few brief comments using the “comments” function in places you want the writer to be aware of. Then make a separate file, title it with the author’s name and yours and their chapter number and the word ‘critique’ (note: I teach teenagers so I tend to give explicit instructions), and write a few paragraphs about the characters, the pacing, and the plot. I will break this out by act later. If you are using an online platform such as Scribophile or Betabooks, there will be ways of doing this inherent to the platform.

By the way, I highly, highly recommend Scribophile and Betabooks. See “How to find crit partners” for more.

Default to developmental editing crits as much as possible unless the writer has asked for something else. Developmental crits are the deepest, most useful crits that you can receive or write. They will teach you the most, as a critiquer, and they will help you the most to receive as a writer.

If the writer has explicitly asked for line editing, you will go through their document and use the comments function to make note of what needs to be changed. Do not rewrite someone else’s work unless they ask for it! That’s rude. Sometimes I have, very politely and hesitantly, suggested to a writer that they rewrite a sentence in a particular way. I show them how I would write the sentence, and then I explain why. The explanation is crucial. When the writer gets that suggestion and explanation, they are then free to accept the rewrite or reject it, but they’re not going to think you’re an arrogant asshole who believes he’s better than they are.

So you might do something like this:

edit 2

I wrote the text and made the corrections. Note that I didn’t correct the punctuation in the third paragraph. That’s because it’s a function of copy editing, not line editing. Now in a real crit, if I were line editing, I’d throw in a little copy editing for obvious stuff like that as well, and I always highlight typos and dropped end-quotes in any crit I do, but those tend to be rare because a good writer will at least run spell check before uploading anything, and spell check catches a lot of typos. I will write an eventual article on dialog tags and shit like that, and when I do I’ll link it here.

So that’s some basic line editing, and what a critique for line editing might look like.

A critique for copy editing would look very similar, but instead of the suggestions I made for alternate words, I would focus on the bad punctuation. I’d highlight it and in the comment I’d put in the correct punctuation so that all the writer would need to do is hit “accept” or whatever the button on your comments is and it will automatically make the correction.

If a writer has a chronic problem, like, for example, they write a lot of dangling modifiers, then highlight the first one and make a comment about dangling modifiers. Explain what a dangling modifier is and how to fix it, and then just go through the rest of the text, highlighting the dangling modifiers, and in the comment write something brief.

For example:

edit 3

Do not express anger and frustration at a writer’s consistent errors, especially if you’re only reading the one thing they give you. They can’t magically fix the entire document the moment you point out the first error. Many writers write their entire WIP before they ever show it to anyone, which means the same error may be in the 80,000 words you just volunteered to read. Explain the error ONCE, mark it in a consistent and bland fashion when you see it, and keep snappy, snarky, mean comments about GPS (grammar, punctuation, spelling) to yourself. All they’ll do is hurt and demoralize the writer.

The fact of the matter is that many, many writers are terrible at GPS. But they write great books. They may be extremely good at creating compelling characters and exciting plots, which is considerably harder to do than having good GPS. Dyslexics, for example, can’t spell, and if you yell at them for their spelling, all you’re doing is being an ableist asshole.** Also, sometimes a little misuse of GPS is fine. Most writers insert the occasional fragment in their writing (like I have in this paragraph) and that is a matter of tone.

Personally, I wouldn’t do any copy editing beyond really obvious typos unless I was explicitly asked to do so, I knew the author’s nationality, I was familiar with the GPS conventions for that nation, and I knew their intended audience’s nationality. English people spell and punctuate differently than Americans. The official language of Nigeria, India, Belize, and several other surprising countries is English, and do you know if they use conventions from England, or if they (like America did) invented their own? Case in point: one of my friends and crit partners is South African. She writes romances that are set in South Africa. I have critiqued some of them. She speaks English natively, but as I have not studied her country’s punctuation conventions, I don’t crit her punctuation.

Fact of the matter is, in a real, fairly professional environment, you will almost never critique a person’s GPS unless they explicitly ask you to look at it prior to publication. Typically copy editing is done after the writer has hired and paid a professional do some editing.

So if professionals are available, and if you absolutely should hire them (and you should if you ever want to develop an audience), then why bother getting someone to critique your own work? Why critique anyone else’s?

If you learn how to do all this stuff, then you won’t have to pay as much to the various editors for their work. Some editors charge by the hour instead of by the word. If you are good at GPS and if you’ve had a friend critique your work for mechanics, then you don’t end up paying as much for a professional to catch everything you and your friend miss. Also, the more you critique other people, the less likely you are to make the same mistake. And the more people critique your work, the more errors they will catch and you can fix before sending it to that expensive editor.

Caveat: you will be incredibly bad at catching your own errors. Typically you will make all kinds of horrible, newbie mistakes that embarrass the hell out of you when you write your alpha draft. I drop end quotes all the time, or I put an end quote after a regular sentence for no apparent reason, because when I’m in the flow sometimes my brain signals get crossed and then I do this.” A crit partner can catch that for me tomorrow, but I’m going to need to wait at least a week before re-reading it if I intend to catch it myself. I’m too close to the work.

Now if your GPS is terrible you shouldn’t do line edits anyway. But don’t worry — you can still write! There are ways of fixing GPS.

There’s one other kind of criticism that you can and should give, especially during the alpha draft / developmental critique stage. You should tell the person whom you’re critiquing what they’re doing right. I’m not a fan of the praise/shit sandwich and I don’t naturally do this, so generally when I critique a work I go over it once for the critique and a second time to pick out what the person did well.

This isn’t intended to make them feel better or make the critique go down easier. I firmly believe that if you can’t handle criticism, you need to develop some resiliency. I’m not here to service anyone’s feelings, and professional writers would never ask me to.

That said, a large number of novice writers have no idea what they’re doing right. It’s important to know what you do right or well because it gives you confidence in your own writing, it’s something you should work on to develop even further, and you can then use that to help other people who aren’t as good as you at it to become better at it. If you help a novice writer see what they’re doing right, they’ll begin to develop a better eye for the strengths and weaknesses of their own works and of the works of others. They’ll be able to articulate those things easier. They’ll learn faster. And they’ll be less likely to have to steel themselves before they open your crits, no matter how much they appreciate and are grateful for your commentary.

Also, the occasional reader response stuff is good too. Note where you laughed and where the story made you feel one way or the other, even if the feeling is ‘boredom’ or ‘distaste.’ How’s the person ever going to fix their boring story if they don’t know precisely where you got bored? Writers need to know all these things in order to improve their craft. Don’t make your whole critique reader-response, but do put some in.

Read this for how to respond to crits you’ve received.

Read this for what to do with the crits or edits you’ve received.

Read this for how to find critique partners.

Read this for how to develop the right attitude (or for what not to do to other writers, etc.)


*There are a host of articles out there about ‘shitty rough drafts’ and the like.

**I know many English teachers whose spelling, punctuation, and grammar are worse than mine. I teach history. And while you can use spellcheck, if you struggle with whether you should use ‘lay’ or ‘lie,’ or whether it’s spelled ‘gray’ or ‘grey,’ or you mix up your ‘their,’ ‘they’re’ and ‘there,’ spell check isn’t going to help. As for the Oxford comma, only point that out if they’re inconsistent. If they use the Oxford comma in one sentence but don’t in the other, that’s a point worth making. If you hate the Oxford comma and they use it, let that sleeping dog lie. Your opinion is not valid either way there unless you’re using a style sheet for a particular publication.