Breathing life into your novel

I told my G.P. I thought I had always been a shallow breather. He put me straight, telling me that we adjust our breathing in accordance with lung capacity at the time: reduce it and we will exhale a reduced volume, increase it and we exhale more. Simple enough isn’t it?

I think he was telling me that faulty bellows will not engage the fire within; the bellows must first be fixed. With his help that is the task I undertake; I have no more thoughts of having been a shallow breather since birth.

Punctuation in a ‘living’ novel defines the pauses between the breath of words; get the punctuation right and you will see how the novel lives. Take any paragraph from any novel, remove the punctuation and you will see how it chokes and dies. Apply the comma, semicolon, colon and full stop (period in the United States) and see how the sense and the life return. But sense and life in this context implies nothing other than your novel’s subsistence: the way in which it pauses for breath to create an existence of its own. To gauge the pace of the novel you must punctuate wisely.

A lot of nonsense has been written about the four marks cited. Yes, by all means try to use them in a way that is grammatically correct, but just as importantly, if not more so, use them to pause the breath of words in appropriate ways. If you consider the full stop (period) to have a time value of 4, then the comma will have a time value of 1: similarly the semicolon a value of 2 and the colon a value of 3. There are no absolute values here, merely pauses relative to the pause value of the full stop. Try creating your paragraphs as you would hope to have them read, and that calls for a very clear voice in the head.

The pace of the novel is inevitably going to vary according to the narrator, the type of tale being told, and the stage you are at in relating the tale, so be sensitive to the needs of the characters and be true to yourself and your craft. Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Where you might use a comma on one occasion you might find it more fitting (in terms of pause and space) to use a semicolon, or a colon on another similar occasion. It may be necessary to make small adjustments to be grammatically correct, but the effort will be worth it to see your novel live and breathe as the type of animal you have strived for it to be. A tiger instead of a pussycat? Or, perhaps. a pussycat and not a tiger?


2 thoughts on “Breathing life into your novel

  1. You have left out a mention of the so-called Oxford comma. And whether a comma should be used toward the end when the list gets longer than three. I advocate the comma, as I do initial dependent clauses. Initial depndent clauses can inadvertently be run into the following sentence, thus leading to nonsense, if you are not careful.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Larry. It seems that even the Oxford University Style Guide has now dropped the Oxford Coma, unless it is necessary for disambiguation. I think that is what you advocate here.
      In the example: ‘The bruises on her legs turned black and blue, yellow, and cream before healing to a healthy pink.’ indicate the bruises went through 3 colour changes prior to healing. If you were to remove the comma after yellow it could be construed the bruising had undergone only 2 changes before healing.

      But I refrained from mention of the Oxford comma in my post simply because, for the purposes of the novel’s breathing, all commas will carry the same weight.


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