How To Write Fiction Without The Fuss: sentence structure and punctuation


Welcome to Part Fourteen of our popular fiction series. This week, Lucy looks at sentence structure and punctuation – important writing elements that apply not only to fiction, but to all good writing, so take careful note! For all the articles in the series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar on the right —>>>

How to write fiction without the fuss

Sentence structure and punctuation

Whether you are “showing”, “telling” or composing dialogue, your writing should communicate your meaning to the reader with maximum ease and clarity.

‘Be kind to your reader,’ was one of the best pieces of advice once given to me by an editor. By this, she meant that making prose simple to understand and easy to follow (however complex the action or ideas) for readers is the best way to keep them engaged in your story.

To do this, it’s essential to write grammatically and use punctuation correctly – not for the sake of sticking to rules, but because grammar and punctuation are tools of good communication. They provide a window through which the reader ‘sees’ your scenes: well-written narrative gives the reader such a clear view that they are not even aware of the glass through which they are looking; mis-punctuated writing with poor grammatical construction is like a dirty window that the reader is constantly distracted by, and through which they peer with difficulty in order to ‘see’ what’s going on.

Let’s go back to basics.

The sentence is the fundamental building block of prose writing. A sentence can be short or long, but its essential components are:

  • to start with a capital letter
  • to end with a fullstop/period, and
  • to contain a subject and verb (the subject is a noun or pronoun who/that carries out the verb)

‘I go.’ or ‘I am.’ are perhaps the shortest possible, if not the most elegant, sentences in the English language.

The house was falling down.

War had started.

Amy cooked the breakfast. (this last has an object, the breakfast, as well as a subject)

These are all complete, grammatical simple sentences. They comprise a single, independent clause.

Imperative sentences, such as exclamations – ‘Hello!’ – commands – ‘Get moving!’ –  and requests – ‘Please sit down.’ – are the only exceptions to the subject/verb sentence rule.

Simple sentences, like all these above, need no further punctuation. They are ideal for punchy statements, brusque dialogue and giving a staccato feel to quick action sequences. But your readers would quickly tire of an entire story written like this; with more complex sentence structures comes the greater need to punctuate carefully for sense and readability.

Compound sentences are easy enough: they are essentially two related, simple sentences stuck together with a conjunction, such as ‘and’, ‘but’, ‘or’, ‘because’, etcetera.

Amy cooked the breakfast although war had started.

This compound sentence, composed of two independent clauses (which could each be a stand-alone sentence), doesn’t require any internal punctuation. If, though, you add a third clause –

Amy cooked the breakfast, although war had started and the house was falling down.

 – adding a comma after the main clause makes it easier for the reader to comprehend.

As a general rule (though there are exceptions, one of which is the Oxford comma), do not put a comma before an ‘and’; always put a comma before ‘but’.

How to write fictions without the fuss

Amy cooked breakfast despite
highly dramatic circumstances!
Check out Lucy’s tips on how to get
the grammar, syntax and punctuation just right…

To join two related clauses/sentences without a conjunction – and so create a more enigmatic sentence – use a semi-colon.

Amy cooked breakfast; the war had started and the house was falling down.

(The context in which you have written this compound sentence should show the reader that these three clauses are related!)

It is incorrect to use a semi-colon with a conjunction, so you would not write: Amy cooked breakfast; although the war had started.

Compound sentences are useful for connecting facts and good to mix into your narrative style, but you need more variation than simple and compound sentences to express more involved ideas and situations.

Complex sentences are the next step up the prose ladder and the most dynamic and interesting kind of sentence – to read and to write. The most basic complex sentence consists of a main clause and a dependent clause. The main clause can stand alone, but dependent clauses on their own turn into mere fragments.

Anna, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, made the breakfast.

Here, Anna made the breakfast is the main clause, while ignoring the fact that the house was falling down is the sub-clause (and doesn’t stand alone).

The key to punctuating complex sentences is knowing where to place the commas.

This is not – as you may have been taught in school – about inserting a comma where you would pause when speaking. It is about separating the sub-clause(s) from the main clause. The sub-clause can come at the start or end of a complex sentence; in either case it only needs one comma to separate it off:

Ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, Anna made the breakfast.

Anna made the breakfast, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down.

If you place the sub-clause in the middle of the sentence, though, it must be separated by a comma on both sides:

Anna, ignoring the fact that the house was falling down, made the breakfast.

Too often, writers omit one of the commas around a central sub-clause, making a sentence hard, if not nonsensical, to read. I would rather see no commas at all than only one around a sub-clause.

Commas should be used in the same way to separate conjunctions: However, war had started. War had started, however. War, however, had started.

At the peak of sentence complexity sits the complex-compound sentence. As you might have guessed, this is a combination of compound and complex sentences. They have two or more main clauses, at least one dependent clause, and often need careful use of the full range of punctuation marks to make sense.

To engage and stimulate your reader’s imagination, use a variety of sentence structures in your narrative. You can get the most information across and develop more detailed ideas using complex or complex-compound sentences, but simple and compound sentences are good for straightforward facts, punchy dialogue and fast-moving action..

More about sentence structure and punctuation next week!

For all the articles in this series check out the category “Fiction Without The Fuss.” Click on <<<— this link or go to the sidebar up a way on the right —>>>

Lucy McCarraher

Lucy McCarraher


Managing Editor, Rethink Press.


Meanwhile, let’s perfect your non-fiction, too…

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”...over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English … INSTANT DOWNLOAD now available!
“How To Write Winning Non-fiction”…all you need to know to write a good non-fiction book and get it published
…plus take a look at Lucy’s novels here




  1. […] Welcome to Part Fourteen of our popular series. This week, novelist and publisher Lucy McCarraher looks at how to structure sentences and handle punctuation – essential in all good writing.  […]