Does the semicolon have a place in fiction?

Chip was a tall, gym-built man with crow’s-feet and sparse butter-yellow hair; if the girl had noticed him, she might have thought he was a little too old for the leather he was wearing.

Jonathan Franzen  The Corrections

Maybe this was what it was like, getting older. You tired of sex, even of good sex, the way you’d tire of a good spaghetti carbonara if you ate it three times a week. Or maybe there was such a thing as sexual laziness, to which she’d fallen prey. In most regards she was industrious; she never purchased pre-cut carrots. But ecstasy, too, was an effort.

Lionel Shriver The Post-Birthday World

Avert your eyes!  Can you see what is wrong with these passages? Are you shocked by these examples of bad writing?

I don’t know if I’m naturally a rebel, but I hate black and white rules. Okay, some are necessary: Don’t drink and drive, for example.   But rules about what constitutes good fiction writing irritate me.

I'm sure we all know bad writing when we see it (although clearly the authors of the bad writing don't!): implausible plots, clichéd characters, all tell and no show, adverb-overload, wooden dialogue.  But after that, I think it gets a bit hazy.

In a later post I plan to argue that well-chosen and sparingly used adverbs and adjectives still have their place. However, that can wait. Today I’m going to talk about the humble semicolon.

Just before Happily Ever After? was going to print, I read this in a book about the craft of writing:

 Colons and semi-colons have few places on your [fiction] pages unless absolutely necessary. Fiction is about flow and pace. Colons and semi-colons are about brevity, and they can interfere with the natural flow of fiction.

The above author nonetheless comes across as positively circumspect when compared with thriller writer James Scott Bell.

When it comes to fiction, I think of semi-colons the way I think of eggplant: avoid at all costs. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you've been to college."

The semi-colon is a burp, a hiccup. It's a drunk staggering out of the saloon at 2 a.m., grabbing your lapels on the way and asking you to listen to one more story.


I was aghast when I read these words, especially those of the late great Kurt Vonnegut.

I used semicolons fairly liberally in Happily Ever After? you see.  I may write commercial fiction, but I’m still very conscious of the sound of my sentences. Sometimes I like to insert a pause that is longer than a comma but less emphatic than a full-stop, and the semicolon is perfect for this.

However, as everyone knows, new novelists are completely neurotic. After I read these critiques I rushed to pick up the printer’s proofs and reread the pages of my manuscript. The words and storyline immediately became a blur—all I could see was the semicolons, winking back at me like dismembered emoticons!  I woke to nightmares of scathing reviews: This book has too many semicolons.

Anyway, time has moved on. If anyone was irritated by the semicolons in Happily Ever After? they’ve been too polite to tell me. That said I am trying to wean myself off them in my second novel—mainly because I have to find a new publisher; I don’t necessarily agree with the above critics, even Kurt Vonnegut.

A month or so back I stumbled across a conversation on Twitter where a respected, established novelist commented that her latest manuscript had come back from the editor with every single semicolon removed. I asked her why she thought Lionel Shriver and Jonathan Franzen were allowed to use this maligned punctuation mark in their novels. Her explanation: Franzen and Shriver have enough clout to override the opinions of their editors

But that doesn’t answer the fundamental question: If these award-winning, best-selling writers see a place for semicolons why are they regarded as bad?

What do you think about the semicolon? Do you think it has a place in fiction?


Comments (1)

  • 09 November 2011 at 15:51 |

    I try to avoid semi-colons in fiction at all costs. I think I've used one maybe twice so far in my career, and I'm not sure they were necessary.

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