A Dash of Style - a new book

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

Intellectually, stops matter a great deal. If you are getting your commas, semicolons, and periods wrong, it means that you are not getting your thoughts right, and your mind is muddled.

-- William Temple, Archbishop of York, as reported in The Observer, 1938

Punctuation is not only for grammarians. Nor is it only for historians, or for the intellectually curious. Punctuation is, in fact, needed most by the audience for whom, ironically, a punctuation book has yet to be written: creative writers. This means writers of fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, poetry, and screenplays, and also includes anyone seeking to write well, whether for business, school, or any other endeavor. This is the audience I endeavor to reach in my new book, A Dash of Style.

I believe most writers do not want to know the 17 uses of the comma, or ponder the 4th-century usage of the semicolon. Most writers simply want to improve their writing. They want to know how punctuation can serve them--not how they can serve punctuation. They have turned to books on punctuation, but have found most painfully mundane.

A Dash of Style offers a fresh look at punctuation--as an art form--and in this series of articles over the next four weeks, we will endeavor to do just that. Punctuation is often discussed as a convenience, as a way of facilitating what you want to say. Rarely is it pondered as a medium for artistic expression, as a means of impacting on the content--not in a pedantic way, but in the most profound way, where it achieves symbiosis with the narration, style, viewpoint, and even the plot itself.

Why did Ernest Hemingway lean heavily on the period? Why did William Faulkner eschew it? Why did Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville rely on the semicolon? Why did Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver embrace the period? Why did Emily Dickinson embrace the dash, Gertrude Stein avoid the comma? How could the punctuation differ so radically between these great authors? What did punctuation add that language itself could not?


There is an underlying rhythm to all text. Sentences crash and fall like the waves of the sea, and work unconsciously on the reader. Punctuation is the music of language. As a conductor can influence the experience of a song by manipulating its rhythm, so can punctuation influence the reading experience, bring out the best (or worst) in a text. By controlling the speed of a text, punctuation dictates how it should be read.

A delicate world of punctuation lives just beneath the surface of your work, like a world of micro-organisms living in a pond. They are missed by the naked eye, but if you use a microscope you'll find they exist, and that the pond is, in fact, teeming with life. If you work on it, you will become sensitive to this habitat. The more you do, the greater the likelihood of your crafting a finer work in every respect. Conversely, the more you turn a blind eye, the greater the likelihood of your creating a cacophonous text, and of your being misread.

Writing a new work (or revising an old one) with a fresh approach to punctuation opens a world of possibilities, enables you to write and think in a way you hadn't before. Ultimately, you'll find that working with punctuation is not about making you a better grammarian, but about making you a better writer.

Along these lines, I will not exhaustively catalogue every punctuation mark, nor will I examine every usage of every mark discussed. Apostrophes and slashes can be left to grammarians. What interests me are the most important uses of the most important marks, those that can impact a text creatively. I am not concerned here whether an apostrophe goes before or after an "s," or whether a colon precedes a list; I am concerned, rather, whether adding or subtracting a dash will alter the intention of a scene.

The benefits of punctuation for the creative writer are limitless, if you know how to tap them. You can, for example, create a stream-of-consciousness effect using periods; indicate a passing of time using commas; add complexity using parentheses; capture a certain form of dialogue using dashes; build to a revelation using colons; increase your pace using paragraph breaks; keep readers hooked using section breaks. This--its impact on content--is the holy grail of punctuation, too often buried in long discussions of grammar and history.

As a literary agent I've read tens of thousands of manuscripts and I've come to learn that punctuation, more than anything, belies clarity--or chaos--of thought. Flaws in the writing can be spotted most quickly by the punctuation, while strengths can be extolled by the same medium. Punctuation reveals the writer. The end result of any work is only as good as the method used in getting there, and there is no way there without these strange dots and lines and curves we call punctuation.


From Chapter 6: Quotation Marks (The Trumpets)

"Although the authorised version of the Bible is abuzz with speeches, dialogue and discussion, there is not a single quotation mark in sight. This would hardly do today."
-- Graham King, Collins Good Punctuation

Quotation marks are the most visible marks in the world of punctuation. They are raised above the text, dangling conspicuously; they come in pairs, offering twice the impact; and their presence often demands the indentation of a paragraph, allowing them to be roomily indented from the margin. As if all this were not dramatic and eye-catching enough, they also often work in a pack, with one pair of quotation marks following another, cascading down the page, each demanding a new paragraph and new indentation. They add visibility to visibility until they dominate the page.

Quotation marks are also unique in that they indicate the end of one world (prose) and the beginning of another (dialogue), and as such are one of the most powerful tools with which to propel content into the limelight. Indeed, to discuss quotation marks--their presence, absence, overuse, underuse--is to discuss dialogue itself. And their usage, of course, is not just limited to dialogue: they can offset individual words or phrases to indicate irony, sarcasm, or a special meaning. Indeed, it is impossible to hear these siren calls and not pay attention. As such, they are the trumpets of the punctuation world.

How to use them
Quotation marks are more flexible than most writers assume. Often they are used in a merely functional way, which is a pity, because they can subtly enhance your writing. Some of the ways they can be used:

* To alter the pace. Dialogue is the great accelerator. Nothing has its power over pace, whether to speed a text or slow it down. Open any book and you'll find the reading experience accelerates greatly when you reach a stretch of dialogue; read a screenplay and you'll find yourself turning pages two or three times faster than with a book. Traditional dialogue cannot be indicated without quotation marks (in English, at least--quotation marks are not the norm for dialogue in Spanish, French, Italian or Russian literature) and in this sense, the two are co-dependent.

Thus, creatively, the presence of quotation marks accelerates the pace of your work. This can be useful in places where the pace slows, for example where there are long stretches of prose. Alternatively, removing quotation marks will slow the pace significantly. This can be useful in places where the pace is too fast, where a reader needs grounding and time to process.

Consider this example from Tobias Wolff's story "Mortals":

"So what happened?" the metro editor said to me.
"I wish I knew."
"That's not good enough," the woman said.
"Dolly's pretty upset," Givens said.
"She has every right to be upset," the metro editor said. "Who called in the notice?" he asked me.
"To tell the truth, I don't remember. I suppose it was somebody from the funeral home."
"You call them back?"
"I don't believe I did, no."
"Check with the family?"
"He most certainly did not," Mrs. Givens said.
"No," I said.

Notice how the abundant quotation marks accelerate the pace, keep it moving at a fast clip (of course, this effect is compounded greatly by the short lines of speech). It feels as if the dialogue fires back and forth, with little pause in between. The result is a much faster reading experience. Of course, one would not want to maintain this for an entire book, but after a long stretch of prose, a stretch of dialogue like this allows the reader a rest stop. In Wolff's case, it also evokes a clipped, matter-of-fact tone, which brilliantly captures the newsroom atmosphere.

* Quotation marks can allow a break from prose. Every book really offers two worlds: the world of prose and the world of dialogue. They do a dance, speeding up the work, slowing it down, setting the stage for a scene, letting it play out. Readers are subconsciously aware of this, and will sometimes scan the prose until they find a stretch of dialogue; when really impatient, as when caught up in a thriller, they might even first scan down to the dialogue to see what happens, then back up to the prose. It's as if prose and dialogue are two different entities living in the same book.

Dialogue allows the reader a visual break from prose, from sentences that can stretch across the entire page. Reaching a stretch of dialogue is like stretching one's legs after a long car ride: it gives readers the renewed vigor they need to get back onto the road, into the thick world of prose. Such a break would not be possible without quotation marks and their requisite spacing.

There are many more uses (and misuses) of the quotation mark to explore in depth. We will do so in next week's installment. In the meantime, let's turn to some writing exercises. Throughout the book A Dash of Style I ask you to make punctuation your own, to grapple with it by way of numerous exercises in a way that you haven't before. When you do, you'll discover that working with punctuation can actually spark new ideas for your writing.


* Look over the dialogue in one of your books (or short stories, or narrative non-fiction works) and choose a moment where a character pauses, yet where this is not indicated. Break up the quotation at the appropriate moment by encapsulating one pair of quotation marks with a "he said" or "she said" and then adding a new pair to continue the dialogue. What impact does it have? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* If your work underuses quotation marks (and thus dialogue), rethink your character choices. Either adjust your current characters, or go back to the drawing board and create new characters that--collectively--have a lot to say to each other, a lot to get off their minds. Put them in a scene together. What impact does this have?

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