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How Do I Use Colons and Semicolons in My Novel? 

Even experienced novelists sometimes struggle over whether to use a colon or semicolon at a particular point in the text.

Faced with such uncertainty, many simply rephrase the sentence(s) so that there is no need for either.

That’s a real pity as, used properly, colons and semicolons can be a valuable part of an author’s tool box – helping them with clarity, pacing and variety.

In this section we’ll take a look at how to use them correctly.

Both colons and semicolons can be used to join together two related clauses. As such, spotting where it would be appropriate to use a colon or semicolon is usually relatively straightforward. The problem comes from deciding which of the two should be used.

A colon is used where the second clause merely expands or explains what happens in the first clause:


Ruth pulled a CD out of the glove compartment: James Blunt.

Jim looked at his watch: two o’clock.


A semicolon is used where the second clause adds fresh ideas:


Jo flung open the log cabin's door; the full force of the blizzard hit her full in the face.

Two o’clock; it was time to go.


If the second clause is limited in its scope, simply clarifying what has happened in the first clause, a colon is likely to be the best option.

If the second clause could form a sentence in its own right, you should probably use a semicolon.


Can I use a comma instead of a colon or semicolon in a novel?

Many writers use a comma instead of a colon or semicolon in certain situations:


Jim looked at his watch, two o’clock.

Two o’clock, time to go.

The comma is a lighter punctuation mark than a colon and so choosing this option adds pace to the text. The choice over which to use will depend on the effect the author is seeking to create and so they may well make different choices at different points in their novel.


There are some occasions, though, where it would be inadvisable to use a comma. In our example about Jo, some authors would use a comma rather than a semicolon so that it reads:


Jo flung open the door to the log cabin, the full force of the blizzard hit her full in the face.


A sentence where two independent clauses are joined with a comma in this way is known as a comma splice and is generally considered incorrect.


Can I use a full stop instead of a colon or semicolon in a novel?

It is perfectly acceptable to write:


Jo flung open the door to the log cabin. The full force of the blizzard hit her full in the face.


The key point to consider here, though, is pacing. The full stop is a heavier punctuation mark than a semicolon, and so the reader will instinctively pause for longer when they reach it. If you are describing a dramatic scene as above, this longer pause may slow the pace and lessen the tension you have been building. Using a semicolon will act as a signal to the reader to go quickly on to the second clause – ensuring the drama is not diluted.

There will be occasions when you will want to slow the pace down. All novels need to contain contrasts – between characters, between emotions … and between pace.

If you are describing a young woman forced to stay at home while her friends have all gone for a fun day out, then full stops may well work better than semicolons in suggesting the day is really dragging.


Pam looked imploringly at her watch again. Still only eleven o’clock. She scanned the TV guide. Antiques. Cooking. Forty-year-old sitcoms. Her ears pricked up as she heard the rattle of the postie at the letter box. Junk mail. She embarked on an epic adventure to the kitchen. She flicked on the kettle. She opened the fridge. The milk had gone off.


To see where a full stop might not be the right choice, let’s look at the example below:


Jim steadied himself and slowly removed the panel from the side of the cannister, revealing a labyrinth of wires. Why did it never get any easier? As he started to reach inside, the sound of the siren penetrated the crater, mocking his efforts. There’d never been another raid this quickly before … And then he became aware of another familiar noise close by; the noise that told him he had to be somewhere else very quickly.


You could use either a full stop or a comma after 'close by' instead of the semicolon. As is often the case it’s a very fine judgement, but I feel the semicolon works best here. A full stop would lessen the pace a little too much, taking away some of the tension. A comma would have the opposite effect and increase the pace. The semicolon avoids bringing the reader to a halt while still giving them time to focus on the final ominous words.


Using colons and semicolons in a novel: Conclusion

Decisions regarding colons and semicolons are often finely balanced, depending on the effect the author is looking to create. It’s important to back your own judgement – but always be aware of why you have made a particular choice!

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