Semicolons in Fiction

In the writing community there are a lot of mixed emotions regarding the use of semicolons in fiction. Some think it’s too formal. Others hate the look of it. And others don’t want to use it because they don’t understand how it’s used anyway. I personally am a semicolon fan and will use it when it’s necessary in my own writing. But fiction writing is a different beast from non-fiction, and often times the usual rules can be broken.

What is the rule?

The semicolon’s job is to separate two independent sentences that are closely related, where a period would make the flow choppier, or the second sentence might not be clear without being closely tied to the first. Here are some examples from my own writing:

No cars
passed him as he drove; only the occasional highway sign let him know they were
somewhere on earth.

Putting a
period here instead of a semicolon makes the flow choppier, which doesn’t fit
the slow and calm tone that was intended

But she did
not run from him like the boy did; she stood her ground, hiding a sheepish
expression.

Though this could work with a period as well, I chose the semicolon for more of a medium-sized pause. The second sentence is a continuation of the first, but I liked the feel of a stop without totally stopping. I could have linked them with a comma and conjunction such as “but,” however that would have put “but” twice in the sentence and I felt the first one was more important in context.

When should I use it?

This all
comes down to one very important aspect of writing: voice. All writers have a
unique voice, and for some writers the semicolon just doesn’t fit. And that’s
okay. Yes, it is a bit more formal, so if your book is more upbeat, comedic, or
if it is told in first person where the character has more of a relaxed, informal
voice, it’s okay to stay away from it. But if your story is more serious, dark,
or the first-person voice is more formal, use it.

As much of a
fan of semicolons as I am, I keep my love for it for my own writing. Fiction
writing is about voice and style, where breaking the rules is sometimes
necessary, and a good editor will respect your writing voice and style, no
matter what their personal opinions are.

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