Matt Gemmell

Fiction Style Guide

10 min read

This is mostly for my own reference, but you’re entirely welcome to use it. It’s a style guide for formatting written fiction. I’ll keep it updated according to my needs. This is purely for my own personal taste, and is addressed squarely at myself. Feel free to ignore any or all of it. In some ways, it’s an updated version of a piece I wrote a few years ago on writing fiction online.

I also recently put together a few writing tips for fiction writers, and details on how I write articles.

Hopefully this goes without saying, but this guide is for writing in English. I assume that some different punctuation conventions may apply for other written languages.

I wrote all of the examples below, sometimes borrowing characters or scenes from other authors for fun. You can use the ‘Show Author Marks’ feature (just below this article’s main title) to highlight the relevant portions of each example.

Emphasis

Only ever use italics for emphasis; never underline and pretty-much-never boldface1. Capitals should be used very rarely, and for extreme emphasis, shouting or otherwise.

He knew she would never forgive him for that.

Here’s a subtle but important point. Emphasis should be supplied by a character’s thoughts or emotions, implicitly or otherwise. The narrator should refrain from applying their own emphasis, unless they’re also a character.

The street was deserted. An enormous, jagged hole reached almost from one side to the other, exposing the pipework below.

In that example, no-one is around, so the enormity of the hole in the street isn’t emphasised. We’re listening to the narrator, and she doesn’t inject emotional colour without the presence of a character. To do so would seem amateurish and overwrought.

Simpson stopped, his mouth falling open in amazement. A jagged hole spanned almost the full width of the street. It was enormous.

This time, though, we have a character: Simpson’s mouth is agape at the scene before him. He is reflecting on the sheer size of the hole, so emphasis is appropriate and effective.

Thoughts

Express thoughts with italics, without any delimiting marks. Don’t use quotes, angle-brackets, tildes or anything else.

She’ll never forgive me, he thought.

Emphasis within thoughts should remove the italics.

She’ll never forgive me, he thought.

In summary: thoughts are in italics, and emphasis toggles italics.

Subconscious, conflicting or alternate thoughts

Stephen King has a useful convention whereby he expresses thoughts that are either contrary to or in addition to the narrative. He uses the technique to add a new perspective without having to explicitly identify it as such, creating insight or unease in the reader. It’s the equivalent of a little voice in the back of your head.

To do this, use parentheses around italics in a paragraph of their own, in the middle of narrative.

Suddenly, the car’s (eyes opened) headlights came on.

(This car is presumably Christine.)

The paragraph breaks are necessary. They create a sense of interjection and separateness. Don’t use a dash to ‘cut off’ the beginning of the thought (nor to cut back in afterwards). The idea is that these thoughts occur simultaneously, in parallel.

It’s worth saying that this technique can look weird the first couple of times you see it, and people might not quite understand what you’re after. If you’re writing pulp horror, I think you’re safe. Perhaps less so for other genres.

Dreams, flashbacks and altered states of consciousness

Use italics for the entire section, and include such sections sparingly. Follow the rule about emphasis toggling italics. For an enhanced sense of tension or inevitability, consider using the present tense.

Strongly consider using appropriate scene-breaks (I’ll write more about those later) around the section.

Crowe leaned his forehead against the window, grateful for the coolness of the glass, and closed his eyes against the lit-up New York cityscape before him. He felt the familiar headache starting, like a vise gripping his temples. It was on nights like this that the dream came.

* * *

He runs through the sweltering, sand-choked streets without knowing where he’s going. Suspicious and frightened eyes follow his every move. He has to keep moving, and reach the extraction point. He glances down, seeing the spreading bloodstain on his shirt. Not good. Surely it can’t be much further. He doesn’t see the boy at first, even though they’re on a collision course. The young face is unlined, but twisted into a shout that Crowe can’t hear. Then he sees the grenade clutched in one small fist.

(Painter Crowe appears in Jim “James Rollins” Czajkowski’s SIGMA Force series.)

Speech

Use curly quotes around speech. Attribute the speech in most cases, but let rhythm be your guide. Avoid ambiguity about who’s speaking. Don’t let characters engage in verbal tennis-matches where the reader has to keep track of who’s speaking. Don’t worry about varying the actual verb of speaking too much. “Said” is fine, and readers notice it a lot less than writers do.

“Status report, Commander Data?” Picard asked, without looking up from his PADD. “All systems are functioning normally, Captain,” replied the android, rapidly pressing buttons on the Ops console. “We will arrive at the Neutral Zone in forty-seven minutes and twelve seconds.”

(Naturally, these characters are from Star Trek: The Next Generation.)

When attributing speech afterwards, put a comma inside the closing quote-mark2 (as with “Captain,” above). However, if the speech ends with an exclamation or question mark, omit the comma (as with Picard’s question). If a spoken sentence is split by attribution, try to split at a phrase boundary, except when creating a deliberate pausing effect. Use a comma before the closing quote-mark regardless of whether you’d actually have used a comma, semicolon or otherwise at the phrase boundary.

Try to avoid multi-paragraph speech. Use movements, gestures and mannerisms to pace and break the speech more naturally – people don’t just stand and chatter away mechanically. They pause, sigh, frown, fidget, glance at their wristwatch, or search for a word. Make your characters do those things too. Weave it into something visually believable.

If you absolutely must use multi-paragraph speech, open every paragraph with an open-quote mark, but only close the end of the entire speech with a close-quote (otherwise it’ll look like someone else has started speaking). But really, it looks awkward, so avoid it.

Signage, displays and environmental text or images

Unless there’s a contextual reason otherwise, environmental text and images should be centred on the page, with a blank line before and after.

Four Klingon warriors materialised on the bridge, disruptors drawn, and then glanced around in confusion. The ship appeared to be deserted. Every panel and display screen showed the same message, blinking ominously in red.

AUTO-DESTRUCT SEQUENCE ACTIVATED

(This is a version of events from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.)

A legitimate exception might be a scene involving a computer command-line interface, which would tend to be left-aligned in real life. And which would tend to be improbably natural-language-driven in fiction3.

Changes of person

If there’s a change in who’s speaking, thinking or acting, take a new paragraph. If the same person will be in focus for a while, take natural paragraph breaks regularly. Let rhythm, and to some extent the apparent density or sparseness of the text, be your guide.

“Will that be everything, then, sir?” “Yes, I think so; thank you,” said Neil. “Oh, and I have a coupon for the chutney, actually.” The shopkeeper nodded patiently, being careful not to let his expression change. Bloody cheapskate, he thought.

(This scene actually takes place frequently in real life; this is the Neil in question.)

Punctuation and style

Generally, remember that speech is a phenomenon for the ear, and should be written as such. This affects not only pace and rhythm, but also justifies some changes to the usual rules of punctuation and grammar.

Minimise use of semicolons; use two sentences instead, or reword. Yes, I deliberately used a semicolon there, and quite rightly too. They’re wonderful. This rule makes me sad, but it’s good advice nonetheless.

For possessives, put an ’s’ after the apostrophe even if the word already ends in an ’s’, because that’s how we say it. I know that this advice hurts, but the hanging possessive apostrophe looks fussy in fiction, and is harder to scan.

Danny took Tess’s hand, noticing the wedding ring on her finger. “You told me you sold this,” he said, with a grin.

(Danny had recently robbed three casinos.)

I bet you didn’t even notice it there. It was in “Tess’s hand”. Your readers won’t notice either, but they would pause for a moment at “Tess’ hand”.

Sounds and effects

Don’t attempt to render sounds phonetically; describe them instead. Some basic and widely-used onomatopoeic words are fine, like pop, beep or sizzle, but should be used sparingly.

The turbines whined and Pitt felt his weight abruptly increase as the helicopter lifted off from the deck. A rapid series of tones in his earpiece told him that there was an incoming message from Sandecker.

(Dirk Pitt and James Sandecker are of course borrowed from Clive Cussler’s NUMA series.)

As a society, we’ve also agreed that ricocheting bullets do not ‘sing’ under any circumstances.

Breaks

There are four sorts of breaks you might want to think about: paragraph, scene, chapter and part. You’ll always need paragraph and chapter breaks. Scene breaks are useful for pace, and switching between threads of narrative, but you can use chapter breaks instead if you’re willing to have dozens of ‘chapters’. Part breaks are only useful if you split your book into overall sections (almost always three).

There are two options for paragraph breaks: either take a new line and indent the beginning of each paragraph, or leave a blank line between paragraphs and don’t indent them. For long-form fiction, the convention is the former. I also find it easier to read in book-like situations such as print or e-readers. However, I think that blank-line-between looks better on web pages, for some reason, which is why the examples on this page use that style.

Scene breaks mark a change of place, time, or perspective. You’ll usually have several of them per chapter. It’s up to you whether to use them for perspective-changes between characters who are in the same location; it can be an interesting technique, particularly to create urgency and conflict.

Scene breaks can be either multiple blank lines, or a blank line on either side of a delimiter (such as three asterisks). Either is fine. The latter is less ambiguous, but I prefer the former since it’s understated and (to me) doesn’t necessarily imply the passage of time. Three of any kind of symbol reminds me of an ellipsis, and so I feel that they implicitly say “a little later”.

Chapter breaks should always take a new page, and then explicitly indicate that a new chapter has begun, with a “Chapter 2” heading or such. You can break your book into chapters however you like. Moving between major events or locations provides a natural place for a chapter break.

Part breaks are optional, but seem to be getting more and more common. The usual structure is you’ll have a prologue (often set in an earlier time period, if you’re writing a Dan Brown type of story), then you’ll have Parts 1-3, and perhaps an epilogue. How you split your parts is up to you, but a reasonable structure is:

  1. Introduce all protagonists and antagonists, the central dramatic tension of the story, and set the tale in motion.
  2. Develop relationships between characters, maintain tension, and advance the story towards the critical point of conflict. Perhaps end with a reversal or betrayal.
  3. Conflict, climax, and resolution. Bad guys die, good guys win.

A part break should always occupy a page of its own (not just taking a new page). If possible, put the part title on a right-hand page with a blank page facing it. This means that, at most, you may need to insert one fully blank (double-sided) page before a part title. The next chapter should begin on the next right-hand page, with a blank page facing it (i.e. the reverse of the part title page).

Closing thoughts

I’ll update this style guide as I find the need to, which will likely be (as now) when I’m procrastinating from actually working on a book. I hope you’ve found something of interest here, whether you agree with the guidelines or not.

I’m @mattgemmell on Twitter and also on App.Net.


  1. You can use boldface for environmental text, if you really must. There’s more about that below.

  2. When writing factual material, this also seems to be the American convention. Don’t do it; you’re altering the quote. Put attribution-connecting commas inside the close-quotes for fiction, and outside otherwise.

  3. >UPLOAD SECRET_FILE TO HQ