A panda walks into a bar. He eats, shoots, and leaves. Or does he eat shoots and leaves?
Yes, punctuation is powerful, changing meanings even in punchlines, suggesting titles for fun books on punctuation, and starting bar fights.
For the newspaper business, technical papers, scientific journals, legal writs, etcetera, style manuals keep everybody understanding what those marks mean and the weight they carry within that discipline. Working with large teams producing massive content, style manuals take a lot of guesswork out of writing thus allowing the employee to do more in less time, and lessens the work load of editors. Nothing wrong with style manuals in these cases.
In novel writing, though, it matters not which manual of style one may quote as the authority on punctuation because — and this is important — though some masquerade as hard and fast rules, to the novelist these should be mere suggestions.
When it comes to writing novels, the rules can and sometimes must change. Please do not write with obeying any particular style manual you have in mind. You’re wasting time. Whether your writing style is as a pantser or an outliner, the story will change frequently. Sentences, whole paragraphs, and chapters will be rewritten, inverted, moved, or scrapped.
Your careful punctuation that meant something in the original writing, may not work with the rewritten version. In fact, as things change, you probably won’t change the punctuation to the current use of the sentence. Thus your meaning could be changed to the opposite of what was intended or lost entirely.
But you won’t see it. Why not? Because there is not one writer on this planet who can remember where all their edits are. Case in point:
I recently finished the editing of a novel by a professional writer with over thirty years of servicing large corporate clients. He is very good at what he does. The version of his first novel I received was number 23. I was assured there wouldn’t be much that needed doing to it. Alrighty, then. Let’s get to it.
Now, while I loved his literary writing style, I was lost in the story. What year was it now? When did this character come in the room? Wait, didn’t the main character already say that? Then why is he repeating it here? Wait, didn’t the main character say just the opposite of that earlier? How old was he and when? Whoopsie, which girlfriend’s name is he calling? Is he in the room with the former girlfriend and the current one?
And his punctuation was pretty good…until it wasn’t. He’d changed so much (23rd version, remember?) that what he’d previously punctuated now needed to be refined.
Remember, punctuation exists to serve words. Words do not exist to serve punctuation. Every story has its own pacing. Your punctuation should serve your pacing, and should help define how each character speaks, thinks, and moves.
And that is why novelists need an editor who is not rigid with the rules and understands — and can even help shape — your style. A good editor doing the job properly can help you find that style. Let them.
Sounds weird, I know, but Part 4 will discuss how to train a reader to your style once you find it. Author, editor, publisher, and more: learn about Angela K. Durden here and here and here.