Inventive Punctuation and the Popular Novelist

exclamation mark in fireLet me start with an admission: I love inventive punctuation. Of course, you can do an awful lot, just by changing a comma into a dash. But some people go the whole hog into brackets, asterisks and the wild excesses of the exclamation mark. It all fascinates me.

Most people, of course, ignore it. Well, readers pick up the writers’ signals, I hope. But they don’t actually play around with the stuff. Why should they?

For some people, though, punctuation is a real headache, indissolubly tied to (horrors!) grammar. It’s a terrible shame.

That was the reason that, several years ago, Elizabeth Hawksley and I wrote a simple guide. Its working title was Punctuation for the Petrified, which the publisher vetoed for excellent reasons. It reflected our feelings, though. We wanted people to learn a few principles, have a source book to check things that worried them and, above all, relax and have fun.

Inventive Punctuation to Clarify the Plot

first person narrative chemistrySo when the Romantic Novelists Association started an online learning project, I volunteered to run a course on punctuation for romantic novelists. But life got in the way, as it usually does. My wheeze—to build up to some of the interesting stuff that novelists are doing with punctuation today—bit the dust. My itch to share is still there, though.

Hence this blog.

Science Fiction and Fantasy/Paranormal writers seem to me to lead the field on inventive use of punctuation. Often their typographical innovations are driven by the plot.

exploding ideas instead of writer's blockTake Ink & Sigil by Kevin Hearne for instance. This is urban fantasy in spades, set in Glasgow. The protagonist is a sort of guardian sorceror, protecting his patch from ill-intentioned supernaturals. Only his magical assistants keep dying off from horridly appropriate accidents—when it opens, the latest has choked to death on on a scone. What’s more, he is labouring under a curse from magical persons unknown: his voice makes people hate him. But man is a problem-solving animal. And so are MacBharrais and his creator. The sorcerer talks to people by using the text-to-speech app on his phone.

Image by fancycrave1 from Pixabay

Here he is talking to an associate he has pressured into helping:

‘The text-to-speech app didn’t have a Glaswegian accent available, but it has a London accent, so I at least sounded like I was from the UK.

‘[Thanks for coming,] the app said for me in a slightly stilted delivery. [I need you to take Geordie’s inks and that somewhere secure, then go to your brother’s wedding. See you in the morning, We’ll talk then.]

It’s a cracking book, funny and fierce and truly exciting.
And, oh boy, I love those square brackets!

Inventive Punctuation to Establish Situation…

This one’s science fiction and I absolutely love the whole series. Unlike Ink & Sigil, its title made me nervous (my low nightmare threshold, remember) and I steered clear of Murderbot for ages. But what a joy it was when I finally scraped together enough courage to give it a try.

They’re actually called the Murderbot Diaries, which is absolutely right. The narrator is an irritable SecUnit, which seems to mean a sort of amalgam of automated industrial security guard and a personal protection officer. Officially it is described as a construct.

When we first encounter Murderbot, it is trying to hitch a ride off a space hub while keeping a low profile. A very low profile.

spaceship tunnel

Image by prettysleepy1 from Pixabay

‘I pinged the transport again and give it the same offer I had given the first transport: hundreds of hours of media, serials, books, music, including some new shows I had just picked up on the way through the transit mall, in exchange for a ride. I told it I was a free bot, trying to get back to its human guardian.

(The “free bot” thing is deceptive. Bots are considered citizens in some non-corporate political entities like Preservation, but they still have appointed human guardians. Constructs sometimes fall under the same category as bots, sometimes under the same category as deadly weapons. (FYI, that is not a good category to be in.)) This is why I had been a free agent among humans for less than seven cycles, including time spent alone on a cargo transport, and I already needed a vacation.’

… And Explore Character

headphones on books, audiobooks

Image by sindrehsoereide from Pixabay

OK, I’m hooked by this voice, irascible, curious, incredibly self-aware. Not a robot, according to generally perceived wisdom in this world, not to mention its own assessment. But definitely not a human either. And, from all we can gather, on the run. Well, a bit. And it consumes media, including books by the gallon. It’s picked up the bracket habit, anyway. And I love, love, love those double brackets which nobody would approve of anywhere in the grammar and punctuation universe but are just so RIGHT.

Pretty soon, our diarist is telling us how it came to be as it is:
‘When constructs were first developed, they were originally supposed to have a pre-sentient level of intelligence, like the dumber variety of bot. But you can’t put something as dumb as a hauler bot in charge of security for anything without spending even more money for expensive company-employed human supervisors. So they made us smarter. The anxiety and depression were side-effects.’

So were the resourcefulness and the cynicism (fully justified as successive stories will show).
‘Stupid’ is one of its favourite words. The spiky humour. The opinions.

Image by Roy Buri from Pixabay

As Murderbot reads and listens to more books – and watches more soap operas, but that’s probably co-incidental – it becomes more and more opinionated and the opinions tumble into those brackets. Sometimes, even, back-to-back brackets.

From the latest diary:
‘The full station threat assessment for murder was sitting at a baseline 7 per cent. (To make it drop lower than that we’d have to be on an uninhabited planet.) (I’ve never been on a contract on an uninhabited planet because if I was on the planet on a contract then we’d be inhabiting it.) You never found dead humans lying around on the floor like this.

‘”Well,” Indah began, having finally finished reading the report. (I know, it takes  humans forever.)”I don’t know how accurate this is—”‘

Those brackets, with their cynical observations and pitiless assessment of itself and others, turn Murderbot from a tragic figure into one of fantastic energy, enterprise and charm.
Fabulous stuff.

Inventive Punctuation to Make a Point.

This is one of the first encounters I had with playfulness in punctuation and it’s still one of my favourites. It is the *** system, proposed by the wonderful Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm.

When I first read it, many years ago, I had no idea she was taking the piss out of Mary Webb’s heavily ruralised melodramas. (Not sure that there isn’t a bit of a dig at Thos Hardy and maybe even George Eliot along the way, too.) I just hooted.

In her foreword she says that, for persons like herself, who work in offices and suchlike and have no idea whether what they are reading is ‘Literature or just sheer flapdoodle’, she proposes to mark what she considers her finer passages with one, two or thee stars. She points out that she is modelling herself on Baedeker’s tourist guides to cathedrals etc.

So here we have one her best efforts:

Rufus Sewell as Seth, Kate Beckinsale as Flora Post

‘***His huge body, rude as a wind-tortured thorn, was printed darkly against the thin mild flame of the declining winter sun that throbbed like a sallow lemon on the westering lip of Mockuncle Hill, and sent its pale, sharp rays into the kitchen through the open door. The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the invisible ghosts of a million dead summers.’

There is more. But you get the drift. Wonderful stuff.


If you’re a writer, punctuation is one of the tools of your trade. If you want to be inventive, go for it! Don’t let anyone scare you off. It’s heck of a lot of fun for all concerned. Pip pip!

Sophie Weston Author


12 thoughts on “Inventive Punctuation and the Popular Novelist

    1. Sophie Post author

      Glad you enjoyed it, Sarah. I love the stuff, as must be pretty clear. Of course, you could say that I need to get a life…

  1. lesley2cats

    That was lovely, Sophie – I’ve been looking forward to that. I’m a great fan of punctuation, and as I read through this post I realised how much I over-use it, in some people’s opinions. But I shall continue to do so, probably because I couldn’t NOT. And I’m going to re-read Cold Comfort Farm. Also, quite possibly, watch the TV version with Rufus Sewell… (*This comment full of punctuation and usage no-nos. So there.)

    1. Sophie Post author

      Absolutely no argument from me, Lesley. Punctuation is a tool, not a straight jacket. Power to your arm!

  2. Elizabeth Hawksley

    Thank you for this, Sophy. I’m not sure I’m convinced by the square brackets example but I’ve always loved Stella Gibbons’ use of Baedecker’s *** in Cold Comfort Farm. Talking of punctuation, I’d like to mention Georgette Heyer’s use of exclamation marks. I opened ‘The Grand Sophy’ at random and landed on the page where Sophy persuades her uncle to hold firm about not allowing Cecilia to marry Augustus Fawnhope – there were 18 exclamation marks on that one page! Or should it be !!

    Much though I love GH, I think her use of exclamation marks was excessive. Why did she do it? Perhaps she felt that they speeded things up – gave the passage that extra frisson of excitement.

    1. Sophie Post author

      The square brackets work very well in the story, Elizabeth. He introduces it very skilfully. Of course, I had to get my head round the speaking phone app as well as the punctuation signifiers. But pretty soon I was clocking it on autopilot.

      I remember Gillian Green (now of Pan Macmillan) complaining about Heyer’s exclamation marks. I was surprised. But when I went and checked, sure enough she was right. I can’t remember which book it was, but am pretty certain it wasn’t The Grand Sophy, which is one I’m not so keen on and don’t re-read. I think she used them so much, my eye must just have started discounting them, without my brain actually realising it! Slightly unnerving, that.

      I wonder how much GH was aware of it. We must ask Jen Kloester.

      1. Sarah Mallory

        Re Heyer’s use of !!, I never noticed them when I started reading her books, as a teenager, only as I have grown older. Perhaps the energy and excitement they convey is more suited to youth? Just a thought.

    2. Joanna

      Re Heyer’s use of exclamation marks, Dame Isadora is with you, Elizabeth. If you look at her rant on exclamation marks, you’ll see that she quotes a short passage from The Reluctant Widow in which there are 12 exclamation marks and Every Single Thing the heroine says has an exclamation mark at the end of it.
      I note that Sophie says she no longer sees them. My problem is that, having once seen them, I can’t stop 😉

  3. Joanna

    Loved this, too. It’s a great bit of fun. And I agree that the authors you quote were inventive. But actually, you have to be. I invented a style I called “speakbot” for computers in an SF story. It involved a different font in small caps + bold italic. [Here I tried to paste in an example, but failed. WordPress showed it as All Caps, no bold, no italic and in the standard font.]

    I was very proud of my inventiveness until I tested it by uploading to my Kindle. Since Kindle allows users to change fonts etc, my clever formatting had disppeared. Different font? Small caps? Not a chance. In the end, I had to use All Caps + bold italic, which looked like shouting but didn’t get changed. From which I deduce that using square brackets or round brackets was not only inventive but also practical. Because they would stick, even on a Kindle.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I hadn’t thought of that, Joanna, but of course, you’re right.

      Quite a lot of people use italics for something. If I remember correctly Kevin Hearne (square brackets man) uses them for texting. Whereas Martha Wells in the Murderbot series uses them to indicate that people (including bots and constructs) are receiving messages, up to including the conduct of a conversation, in their feed. As long as it’s clear and consistent, I find I get used to it very quickly.

  4. Elizabeth Bailey

    Very interesting post, Sophie. You’ve introduced me to some new books. I use a lot of commas. And for years battled with exclamation marks. Yes, Heyer does overuse them, but like you, I don’t notice any more. I know they are there and just gloss over them.

  5. Sophie Post author

    Thank you, Liz. Do hope you enjoy the new-to-you books.

    I have now actually consulted Jen Kloester, Heyer’s biographer and Prima inter Pares fan. Her reply is fascinating:

    Re: our Miss Heyer and exclamation marks! I think it was a mixture of personal quirk and the punctuation learned in childhood.

    She was very well-taught in both grammar and syntax (as we see from her novels) and also in punctuation. Her Victorian father was a first-rate teacher and I think we are seeing his influence and the influence of her time here. She would have deemed it correct to use an exclamation mark whenever a character spoke in a way that demanded it. I don’t imagine it ever troubled her that there were twelve on a page! 😀

    Georgette never had an editor and, until the late 1960s, her publishers apparently never thought it necessary to suggest one. She would have declined if they had, for she was ferocious about her manuscripts being reproduced exactly as written.

    In the late 1960s, however, a few years after she moved to The Bodley Head, a couple of editorial suggestions were made and rejected. After nearly fifty years of writing and with such enormous sales, I think she felt that she knew how to write a novel without anyone telling her!

    It is also true, however, that in her letters she sometimes used many exclamation marks thus: !!!!!!!

    She wrote as she spoke and so I suppose that was a direct influence on her letter-writing and likely spilled over into her novel-writing.

    I hope that helps.

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