How Fictional Writers Can Use the Power of Grammar and Punctuation to Keep Readers Wanting More

Dawn Bevier

Real writers know a period is much more than just a way to end a sentence

Image by Cotton Bro on Pexels

For many writers, grammar and punctuation are afterthoughts. They assume that as long as their stories have good ideas and good words, their writing will stand out. However, the truth is punctuation and other grammatical features can significantly impact the amount of power a piece of writing holds. And by using the force of these lesser considered aspects of writing, writers can draw their readers even farther into their fictional works. So here are a few ways to use them effectively.

Short sentences

When people are in danger, their thoughts are rapid and chaotic. Their minds try to gather numerous details about the environment or situation all at once in an effort to ensure their own safety. This sequence of rapid thoughts highlights the immediate danger and time constraints of the situation, creating a sense of tension or urgency.

This psychological situation is manifested in writing through the use of short sentences. A series of short phrases or clauses together create fear, as they reflect a character's mounting anticipation of negative events that are happening or that may lie ahead.

Ellipses and Dashes

An ellipsis is often used in suspense writing to show hesitation or doubt. When inserted into a character’ s conversation with someone or into his or her own inner dialogue, the writer allows the reader to experience the same confusion, lack of certainty, or suspicion as the character. The reader is thus immersed in the character’s quandary, creating an atmosphere of possible danger concerning the character’s future train of thought or actions.

Dashes are used to show stops or breaks in a character’s thoughts or actions. These stops or pauses may show haste or lack of clear logical reasoning in the character. Rapid, often non-sequential, “jumpy” or “interrupted” thoughts create mounting tension in readers because they know that, in an environment of constant danger where emotions are on overload, a character is apt to think or do crazy things that may ultimately affect his or her safety. Thus, readers are worried about the character’s ability to retain the reason and calm that is necessary for him or her to overcome the complications and obstacles put in his or her way.

Questions and Exclamations

Questions are used every day when people seek answers about a particular topic, person, or situation. In fiction writing, a series of inner questions from a character displays his or her lack of knowledge, confusion, or uncertainty about a person, situation, or course of action. Once again, because readers care about the character’s fate, they internalize the character’s worry. This generates tension.

Exclamatory sentences work in a slightly different way. They work to show surprise or heightened emotion. This, again, is another indication of a character’s unstable emotional state or may reveal his ignorance or lack of knowledge concerning all the dangers that surround him or her. Exclamatory statements and the surprise they symbolize can reveal a character’s lack of preparation or lack of essential knowledge needed to conquer the situation at hand. And this uncertainty creates suspense over whether the hero will weather the storms that he or she faces.

Example of a Master in Action: Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most famous authors of suspense, and writers should study his works to see how all these techniques are woven together to keep readers delightfully on-edge.

Consider this passage from “The Tell-Tale Heart,” a story about a man who commits murder and whose guilty conscience eats away at him as he is questioned by the authorities. In the midst of their questioning, he imagines he can hear his victim’s heart still beating.

“Yet the sound increased — and what could I do? It was a low, dull, quick sound — much such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton. I gasped for breath — and yet the officers heard it not. I talked more quickly — more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men — but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed — I raved — I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder — louder — louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! — no, no! They heard! — they suspected! — they knew.”

Notice the mixture of short sentences, dashes, and exclamation marks and their powerful effect on the tension of the moment.

Reader tension and suspense are integral parts of getting an audience to follow an author’s characters and story from start to finish. Through the elements of character, plot, and language structure, a writer leaves a trail of crumbs that the reader is eager to follow to a hopefully satisfying and well-deserved conclusion.

Good luck and happy writing!

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Sanford, NC

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