Commas-the speed bumps of literature

Cute cartoon, right? But it’s very easy for almost anyone to become a psycho because the innocent-looking comma can be a devilish little bugger.

In the world of fiction writing, other punctuation symbols have fairly simple rules. Have a character asking a question? Slap a question mark at the end of the sentence. Character shouts in pain or surprise or even pleasure? Holy cow! Obviously, an exclamation mark goes at the end of the sentence.

But the comma? That little mark that looks like a period with a tail? That sucker isn’t so simple. How complicated can the comma be? Here’s a clue–if you look at the Chicago Manual of Style, you will find over thirty rules advising when to use the comma, and when not to.

Wait! Don’t give up and slide your manuscript over into the Recycle Bin just yet.

Now, when it comes to non-fiction, most of those rules are probably carved in stone. I honestly don’t know because non-fiction isn’t my specialty. However, with fiction, the rules are carved into toilet paper.

Wait! Can that even be done? Hold on and let me check. Be right back.

Okay, carving anything into toilet paper is incredibly difficult and very messy so that’s a bad comparison. Let’s just say the rules are more flexible when it comes to fiction. As a matter of fact, the rules can probably best be referred to as guidelines.

Here’s a simple one. CMOS (Chicago Manual of Style) 6.22 states:

When independent clauses are joined by and, but, or, so, yet, or any other coordinating conjunction, a comma usually precedes the conjunction. If the clauses are very short and closely connected, the comma may be omitted.

There are even a few handy-dandy examples provided… but we only need one.

We activated the alarm, but the intruder was already inside.

Because the clauses are short, we can omit the comma so we get

We activated the alarm but the intruder was already inside.

That still works, right? Losing that comma doesn’t suddenly make the sentence confusing or harder to read… and that’s the key.

A comma is basically a literary speed bump. It forces you (in a friendly and non-violent way) to slow down, but sometimes fiction writers don’t want to slow the story down. When the intruder is in the house or the monster is getting ready to leap from the shadows or the feisty detective is about to solve a murder, the author wants to keep the reader on the edge of their seat. Slowing down and taking a break right in the middle of the action is the last thing either the writer or the reader wants.

Is is okay to drop the commas in a long sentence? Sure. If dropping them serves a purpose and their absence doesn’t turn your exciting prose into a jumbled and confused mess, because the name of the game in fiction writing is making reading easy for the reader.

Of course you don’t want to go crazy and drop all the commas in your manuscript because you risk going psycho and cooking your family and your pets. And unless you’re writing horror, you probably don’t want that.

Still not sure when you should use commas or skip them? Luckily, it’s not something you have to worry about because Picky Cat offers affordable proofreading and copyediting, and that means I can corral those clumsy commas while you get started on your next cozy mystery, horror, or paranormal romance.