Saturday, May 21, 2011

On Punctuation Gimmicks

Here's a good question from the comments. Tinlizzie says,

Off topic here but I had a question. I recently came across a book (reasonably well reviewed and published by a reputable house) that drove me nuts because the author substituted dashes for quotation marks.

Uhm, excuse me? Although the book did have pretensions to being more, it was basically a mystery/thriller and I was rather surprised that this was allowed to get through the editing process.

What are your thoughts on the apparent trend in *inventive* punctuation and structure that seems to be rising in publishing today? I, for one, can't stand it.

After all, if you think you're Faulkner, chances are you aren't Faulkner and should abide by the rules.

Well, yes. I'm no fan of bling -- my pet term for punctuation gimmicks that stand out on the page like sequins on a dust rag -- and this kind of punctuation definitely falls into the bling category. (Unless you're writing in French for the French market, in which case, allez-y.) (Past rants on bling: ellipses, colons v. em dashes, hyphens, and Alicia's open discussion of the punctuation in Cold Mountain.)

But your question hints at something else, and maybe it's worth mentioning here. You hint that Faulkner wannabes and other literary types might be able to get away with this, and it's worth examining why this would be the case. If we're all operating with a basic set of punctuation rules, why would litfic writers ignore those rules?

One of the fundamental differences between litfic and its commercial siblings is that litfic expects its readers to be sensitive to the manner of presentation. Things like word choice, diction, punctuation, sentence rhythm, paragraphing, and so on are all manipulated to achieve certain effects. And it's anticipated that the reader will expect these kinds of things in the text, much the same way a murder mystery reader expects a dead body or a romance reader expects a happily-ever-after ending. Litfic readers don't just remain awake to the possibility that form will be manipulated to achieve effects. We delight in it. (Or, at least, I do when I read litfic. And my fellow litfic fans appear to read it much the same way. Extrapolate from there.)

With books on the commercial end of the spectrum, however, it's expected that story will take supreme importance over anything that might distract from story. We routinely cut long passages of thematic description, for example, that would survive the knife in a more literary book. We are ruthless about pruning bling and other distractions so that the reader will never blink while turning the pages. We want them to be so caught up in and breathless with anticipation over the story that they might not hear a ringing phone.

In between these two ends of the spectrum is a middle ground where writers aim to incorporate some of the effect-generating flourishes of the literary crowd with the mass-pleasing story emphasis of the genre crowd. The book you describe might have been hoping for a shot at this middle ground. It's interesting terrain, and there's plenty of room for books to succeed in both commercial and critical terms. Past books of this ilk which we've discussed on this blog include An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (brilliant manipulation of first person unreliable narrators), Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (footnotes, intrusive narrator), Mr. B Gone by Clive Barker (incredible meta) -- I'm sure there are more, but I'm too lazy to look in the archives to remember what else we might have discussed.

In any case, as Alicia did when she questioned the dialogue punctuation in Cold Mountain, the important thing for all of us is to remain hyper-aware of the effect these kinds of things can have on the narrative. Litfic writers incorporate them because of those effects, and genre fic writers avoid them because of those effects, and middle grounders try to walk the tightrope between those two positions.

But for me, regardless of the type of book, my preference is still to avoid this kind of bling dialogue punctuation because it's a distraction without a purpose. Some find this kind of dialogue (without quotation marks, that is) to read more softly, as if it's incorporated seamlessly into the rest of the narrative. I don't. I take that beginning dash as a speech signal no different from an opening quotation mark. And I find the lack of a close-quote extremely distracting because I will find myself looking for the moment the dialogue ends and some other narrative element begins. There might be signals, such as verb tense shifts or paragraph breaks, but sometimes it's not clear. If I don't consciously stop to find those signals, then I'm likely to read everything as if it's being spoken by a character. Like this:

--But nobody wants to walk to school in the rain. Heavy rain, too, likely to break daffodil stalks. And it would ruin her hair, and she didn't want Jason to see her with a disgusting rain-do.

So the first (present tense, dashed) sentence is dialogue, that's pretty clear. And the last (past tense) sentence is interior monologue, also evident. But is the second fragmented sentence part of the dialogue or part of the character's interior monologue? It could be either. It takes me out of the story, and for me, at least, the dashed dialogue doesn't lull me into blending the dialogue into the narrative. It just confuses me because I no longer know what I'm reading.

All of which is to say, there are rules, and there are ways to break the rules, and there are those of us who will wish you would find other rules to break instead. Not sure that really answers your question, but that's my take on it.



Anonymous said...

Someone in my writers' critique group, where I'm the only romance writer, said that he only wanted to see quotation marks, periods and commas. (I'll assume he meant to include question marks, but his position on exclamation marks may be different.)

"Ah, c'mon, Joe -- you gotta let me have en-dashes," I protested.

Here's my problem. I want my dialogue to convey speech. Not real-life speech -- where people use "um," "like," and "you know" as so much filler, like bread crumbs in sausage -- but speech the way people speak it in real life. And in real life, some people taper off at the end of a thought, while others finish a sentence so crisply you're in no doubt they've finished talking.

I understand that the semi-colon looks too dry, too professional, too evocative of a college term paper. I understand that parentheses have to be used sparingly, lest they over-do that sense of one thought being tangential but imbedded in another. I understand that the colon is altogether too strange a beast for genre fiction.

I will try to get rid of as many gimmicks as I can, but I have to be able to convey a pause -- because that's just the way people roll.

Julie Harrington said...

avoid this kind of bling dialogue punctuation because it's a distraction without a purpose.

Yep. And that's exactly my stance on it, especially when I put on my big girl Reader Shoes and not my writer shoes. As a reader I don't have to want to guess what I'm reading. Confusion is the kiss of death. If an author confuses me and makes me tired while reading, it's work, and I work enough during my normal day. Reading should be entertainment/relaxation time. I should enjoy it, not want to hand-feed the book through my shredder.


Anonymous said...

If I pick up a book with a lot of punctuation gimmicks I won't read it. It might be a wonderful story but it is so difficult for me to wrap my head around that I don't bother. I love historical fiction but Cold Mountain irritated me. So I didn't finish it.

If you are going to use so bling in your writing make sure it doesn't affect the flow of your writing or the reader's ability to understand your prose. After all clarity is what is most important.

Coolkayaker1 said...

I greatly enjoy the writing of Cormac McCarthy, and his body of work over 40 years--including National Book Award winning All The Pretty Horses, and Pulitzer Prize Novel 2007 The Road--do not have punctuation. At all. Oh, sure, an occasion comma, but no quotations, no apostrophes, nothing.

The link above (if works, otherwise cut and paste) is his only video interview--ever!--and he agreed to do it after Oprah selected The Road for her book club choice. In it, he specifically explains his reasoning for lack of punctuation, which "blocks up the page."

Two personal points.

I emulate Cormac, to some degree, as we all mime those authors we love in our own way. But, after careful thought, I have elected not to use his punctuation style. If even every other agent, editor and contest judge dislikes the style, then I lose half of the readers for my piece based on a stylistic decision alone. Not good for a budding writer.

And, second, Picasso is an example of the artist pushing limits once the skills are evident. His most revered works are those with Cubism--you know, the 3-D images of faces and people that are very stylized, almost like cut-outs and layered abstracts to form a face and all its images on a flat painting (that's the theory, anyhow). Well, early Pablo Picasso paintings are traditional, realistic humans in real life settings. If one were to know only his more "famous" Cubist designs, the early stuff doesn't even seem to be Picasso. Ah, but it is, it is. A proficiency is revealed first, then came the "artsy stuff" that made him legend.

We can all learn from Cormac and Pablo about when, and when not, to use certain styles. I appreciate this original post and the links to past posts on this subject.

Edittorrent said...

@coolkayaker1 Cormac McCarthy. Great example. He writes highly stylized prose, very tightly controlled in every aspect. I personally thought his punctuation choice was related to the way he was manipulating point of view, something he did masterfully in All The Pretty Horses. It was a deeply internal book, and the way the first person narrator responded to events and dialogue was all tied to that deeply internal style. It all worked together. Great writing, and a great example of how a punctuation choice can work to enhance the overall style of the book rather than detract from it.

But yeah, it was kind of irritating, even if it was brilliantly done.


Edittorrent said...

@Magdalen. Okay, but people don't speak in punctuation marks. What you're talking about is cadence, which is best be achieved through diction. Commas convey pauses, as do periods, without the distraction of non-grammatical punctuation.


green_knight said...

I must have missed Alicia's post first time around - I found it confusing. After most of a book of it, I probably wouldn't take much notice, but why make it harder on the reader?

Magdalen, what you want are em-dashes (the long ones) - and I agree, they enrich text.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Cool and T. Can't handle Cormac McCarthy's lack of punctuation. Yeah, he's got a Pulitzer and I don't. And if his writing is so tight, how was the film able to condense his first seventy pages of ALL THE PRETTY HORSES into three minutes and not lose anything? His novels make great movies (except THE ROAD which was rather thin), but maybe that's because the film makers add valuable things like attributable dialogue.


Anonymous said...

Here is a belated thank you since I asked the question and then ended up offline and didn't even see it answered. And yes, you did answer it.

Here's the funny thing, I read Cold Mountain and didn't even pause at the punctuation. The same goes for some of the other books (and techniques) you mentioned. In those cases, they just seemed to be an integral part of the writing.

That, I guess, is the real test - if it jumps out at you it needs to go.