THE TWO-COMMA RULE

You know me, I’m not a huge believer in rules, except for most of the time. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: There’s a big difference between knowing the rule and breaking it intentionally for creative effect and not knowing the rule in the first place and just making a mistake. In that spirit, I’m going to throw a rule at you but leave the same caveat open for all. Follow this rule, at least consider this rule, but break it as necessary to tell your story the way you want that story to be told.

Enough equivocating, let’s get to the rule:

Allow no more than two commas in any one sentence.

There is an author who shall remain nameless who is a brilliant storyteller, but the process of editing his manuscripts is akin to working in an old fashioned prison chain gang. The editor’s job, like the convict in a stone quarry, is to make big ones into little ones. Big rocks into little rocks, or big sentences into little sentences.

I teach an online Pulp Fiction Workshop and have long indulged here in my love of pulp writing, of hardboiled detectives and sword and sorcery. One of the hallmarks of mid-century American genre fiction was a lean writing style. Though there were some authors, like H.P. Lovecraft, who went in the opposite direction, I think you’ll find this true of authors like Chandler, Hammett, Dent, and most others.

And yes, I did notice that the previous sentence has six commas in it. It contains a list, and I’ll get to that in a bit.

I’ve also taught online courses in pacing, especially in terms of horror fiction, where I’ve described the occasional necessity for the abnormally long sentence. They deny your readers a chance to take a short breath, which the period at the end of a sentence calls for. But unless you’re going for that effect once you get to the third comma seriously consider simplifying the sentence.

For instance, the following paragraph is grammatically correct:

She lifted her head and listened intently, but the halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city, and the green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her, while a thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

Okay, maybe not perfectly grammatically correct, but I see this more often than you might think. Or at the very least:

She lifted her head and listened intently, but the halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city. The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her, and a thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

That’s a smidge better, but still what you see there are sentences that contain multiple ideas. There’s no particular reason for those sentences to do that, or to be long—to stop you from catching your breath. Honestly, it’s just lazy writing that if anything undercuts the surprise of each story element, especially the eerily glittering eyes of the woman and their emotional effect on Valeria.

Here’s how Robert E. Howard actually wrote it, in his classic Red Nails:

She lifted her head and listened intently. The halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city. The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her. A thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

weirdtales-1936-07

Looking at each sentence separately:

She lifted her head and listened intently.

Lifting her head shows Valeria (she) in the act of listening intently—it’s really just one idea, and zero commas.

The halls of Xuchotl were as silent as if it were in reality a dead city.

Some people would set off “in reality” between commas but I wouldn’t. This is zero commas and one idea: We had reason to believe Xuchotl is a dead city.

The green jewels bathed the chamber in a nightmare glow, in which the eyes of the woman on the floor glittered eerily up at her.

Here the comma separates a description of the chamber and a description of the woman on the floor. Those two elements are related: the glow is part of what’s interesting about the room and the woman’s eyes.

A thrill of panic throbbed through Valeria, driving the last vestige of mercy from her fierce soul.

Same thing here, with the comma separating the feeling Valeria is having and the effect on her of that feeling. This is happening, so the other thing immediately follows.

As I hinted above, the obvious exception to this rule would be lists. This is perfectly fine:

The head, bigger than that of a crocodile, was further extended on a long scaled neck on which stood up rows of serrated spikes, and after it, crushing down the briars and saplings, waddled the body of a titan, a gigantic, barrel-bellied torso on absurdly short legs.

That seven-comma sentence also comes from Red Nails. It is a slightly complicated list, and lists demand commas. This also comes at a point in the story where the action demands a longer sentence to deny you the space to take a short breath. You’re holding your breath—literally—waiting to see what happens next as this monster reveals itself.

My two-comma rule is another one of those suggestions that are meant to get you searching your own work and pausing briefly to consider the writing. If you decide that your seven-comma sentence, like Robert E. Howard’s, works right there then leave it alone. But I have a feeling you’ll find yourself spending some valuable time turning big sentences into little ones having had a second to think.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

Advertisements

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, characters, freelance editing, how to write fantasy, how to write fiction, how to write horror, how to write science fiction, intellectual property development, monsters, Publishing Business, Pulp Fiction, SF and Fantasy Authors, transmedia, Writing, writing advice, writing fantasy, writing horror, writing science fiction, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to THE TWO-COMMA RULE

  1. Steven Capps says:

    Awesome post, I really like this as a guideline for writing. I notice that sometimes my sentences drag.

  2. thepencilneck says:

    I disagree. A long and flowing sentence can have a rhythm to it, a sense of the emphatic, a grace and an elegance missing from a series of shorter sentences. While some sentences should be broken up, there are places where short sentences should be merged together. I think it becomes a matter of the writer finding his or her voice. One of the things I love about REH is his tone and his use of those labyrinthine sentences placed just so. But that’s me. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Writing Links in the 3s and 5…11/7/16 – Where Genres Collide

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s