First, you need to understand independent clauses. An independent clause is a complete sentence–subject, verb, (and most often) object. Simple independent clauses are what children start writing, although their usefulness isn’t limited to young writers. I used to teach first graders to write, and my favorite student story went like this:
My dog is big. My dog is brown. My dog is bad breath.
If you’re writing for an older audience, though, too many simple sentences will make you sound like a first grader. For example:
I’m going to the bank. We need some money.
This is choppy, and while you can get away with a little of it, too much is unwise. There are a variety of ways you could fix the above sentence (you could just join it with a because), but I think it would sound more true to actual dialogue if you slipped a semicolon in there:
I’m going to the bank; we need some money.
Note that the two sentences are related, as regards ideas. Other examples:
- She washed at the stream; she had to get the blood off her hands.
- She wiped her tears; they had no time for sorrow.
- The dog howled; it raised the hairs on the back of Jordan’s neck.
You can also use semicolons if one or both of the independent clauses are complex:
- She held her breath; surely John wasn’t going to quit his job, not after all he’d gone through to get it.
- The bank job was complicated but not actually difficult; Frank assured us all the bases were covered.
Important note: if the clauses are separated by a conjunction (I use the FANBOYS mneumonic: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) you would use a comma to combine the independent clauses instead.
- The dog howled, and it raised the hairs on the back of Jordan’s neck.
- She wiped her tears, for they had no time for sorrow.
Semicolons can be also used to link contrasting ideas, even if one of them is not an independent clause:
- Marcy had three parents; Susie, only one.
- Mary had a little lamb; Boris, a duck.
That will cover most of the uses needed for writing fiction. However, another correct use for semicolons is in a list which needs commas for correct punctuation. The semicolon is acting like a kind of super-comma here:
- Next month we’re going to Tacoma, Washington; Salem, Oregon; and then down to Eureka, in California.
- My three favorite dates are July 4, 1776; November 11, 1918; and December 25, of any year.
- We brought eggs, milk, and hot dogs; tents, sleeping bags, and pillows; and Maisie made sure to grab the chocolate bars, marshmallows, and graham crackers.
This last sounds somewhat stilted for use in novels, but I’m doing a post on semicolons, and you should probably be aware of the rule. Eventually, it may be needed. You never know.
The last one I lifted straight from Wikipedia because it’s hardly used except in academic writing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semicolon.
- “Between independent clauses linked with a transitional phrase or a conjunctive adverb. This is the least common use, and is mostly confined to academic texts.
- Everyone knows he is guilty of committing the crime; of course, it will never be proven.
- It can occur in both melodic and harmonic lines; however, it is subject to certain restraints.
- Of these patients, 6 were not enrolled; thus, the cohort was composed of 141 patients at baseline.”
I have no idea why this needs a special rule, since it seems to be covered by combining independent clauses, but I thought I’d put it in there. It certainly can’t hurt. It does at least make it clear that the semicolon goes before the conjunctive adverb.
A cautionary note: Don’t go wild with semicolons. Keep it to a couple per page whenever possible, and less could be better (depending on content and readers). This is particularly difficult for me because I seem to think in semicolons, but annoying my readers is not my goal. This is one of the reasons I strongly recommend using beta readers.
I hope this was helpful. Keep writing. 🙂