Excerpt from A Dash of Style

Posted by Noah Lukeman on

In last week's installment of my book, A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, we discussed the power of quotation marks, their ability to accelerate the pace of a work, and to allow a break from prose. They have many additional creative uses which are often overlooked; let's examine a few of them:

Quotation marks can help indicate a passage of time.

Most writers just routinely use quotation marks to open and close a line of dialogue; they rarely consider the placement of the marks within a line of dialogue. For example:

"I love you, don't you know that?" he said.

This is the standard usage, as it should be. But quotation marks needn't always be so straightforward. They can be rearranged within dialogue to create subtle effects. One such effect is to create the feeling of a passage of time. Watch what happens when we break up the quotation marks:

"I love you," he said, "don't you know that?"

Now there exists a slight pause between "I love you" and "don't you know that?" which might better suit the scene, depending on the writer's intention. This can be taken even further:

"I love you," he said. "Don't you know that?"

Here a period follows "he said" and "Don't you know that?" is begun with a capital, indicating a new sentence. This suggests even more finality after "I love you," and an even longer passage of time. Through the rearrangement of quotation marks, we have created a whole new feeling for the same line of dialogue. Of course, the quotation marks couldn't achieve what they do here without some help from the comma and the period. We are beginning to see how interdependent punctuation marks are (explored in depth in the book).

Here's an example from John Smolens' novel, Cold:

"All right," she said. "You can come inside."
He began walking immediately, his legs lifting up out of the deep snow.
"Slowly," she said. "And put your hands down at your sides where I can see them."

By breaking up the dialogue with additional sets of quotation marks, Smolens makes us feel the pause within the speech, makes us feel time slowing down as she sums him up and decides what to do.

Quotation marks can help create a feeling of revelation or finality to dialogue.

For example:

He said, "I love you, don't you know that?"

Prefacing the dialogue with "he said" is a usage rarely employed, as it should be. It is not for everyday use, as it draws too much attention. Still, there are times when you might want to have the option. Placing the quotation marks in this way suggests that the dialogue to follow will be more measured, more final, possibly even a revelation. The effect is subtle. If we insert a colon, its effect becomes more apparent:

He said: "I love you, don't you know that?"

Notice the feeling of finality that comes with this; it feels as if this line of dialogue will conclude a scene--indeed, it would be hard to continue dialogue in the wake of this.

Stephen Crane goes so far as to conclude his story "The Little Regiment" with a set of quotation marks:

After a series of shiftings, it occurred naturally that the man with the bandage was very near to the man who saw the flames. He paused, and there was a little silence. Finally he said: "Hello, Dan."
"Hello, Billie."

The colon preceding the first line of dialogue really makes us feel the pause, while the paragraph break before the final line makes us feel it even further. In context, the fact that these quotations come at the very end of a long paragraph (abridged for this excerpt) makes us feel their weight even more. It is a powerful way to end a story.

Quotation marks can help break up long stretches of dialogue.

Just as long stretches of prose can be tiresome, so can long exchanges of dialogue. The pace can become too fast, causing the work to feel ungrounded. If you have a character who is long-winded, for example, or prone to making speeches, his or her rants can weary a reader. Consider:

"I can't see anything at night since my operation. The doctor said the glare would go away, but it hasn't. Big surprise. I've never met any doctor who told me the truth. Doctors are all alike. I swear, I'd be happy never seeing one again. Care for a brandy?"

This is a lot for a reader to take in at once; more importantly, it is disconcerting, as the speaker changes topics without pausing. But by manipulating the quotation marks, we can provide a natural rest and give readers the energy they need to go on:

"I can't see anything at night since my operation. The doctor said the glare would go away, but it hasn't. Big surprise. I've never met any doctor who told me the truth. Doctors are all alike. I swear, I'd be happy never seeing one again," he said. "Care for a brandy?"

If you opt to break up the dialogue this way, the break must come at an instant when the speaker might naturally pause in speech, for example, at a moment of liking something to sink in. In real life, few people speak in uninterrupted speeches; natural pauses abound in dialogue, when speakers shift in their chairs, cross their legs, sip coffee, or look out of a window. It is your task to find them.

Breaking up dialogue with quotation marks serves another purpose: it can help clarify who's speaking, which might be necessary in a long back-and-forth between multiple characters. Consider:

Jack and Dave entered the room.
"Do you have any scotch? I could do with a drink."
"I don't think so. Check in the cupboard."

You never want readers to waste their precious energy on trying to work out who is speaking. Inserting a few extra quotation marks, though, can make all the difference:

Jack and Dave entered the room.
"Do you have any scotch?" Jack asked. "I could do with a drink."
"I don't think so. Check in the cupboard."


Jack and Dave entered the room.
"Do you have any scotch? I could do with a drink."
"I don't think so," Dave answered. "Check in the cupboard."

Notice how you only have to break up dialogue once, and it clarifies everyone who is speaking. Either of these is acceptable, although it's preferable to identify who is speaking immediately so that the reader doesn't have to waste any energy deciphering.

Sometimes quotation marks can have the greatest impact by not appearing at all.

When dialogue is called for, quotation marks are expected; but if they are absent, it has a strong effect. To convey dialogue without traditional quotation marks, you need to either use some other mark, like a dash (which I don't recommend and which we'll explore in depth later), or paraphrase in reported speech. For example:

She said she didn't want to talk to me any more.

There are times when paraphrasing can be quite effective. For one, paraphrased dialogue is filtered through another character's viewpoint or recollection, which means it becomes equally about the character conveying it. For instance, in the above example, did she really say "I don't want to talk to you," or was that the narrator's perception of it, or is he or she downright lying? It's like the game of telephone: by the time the message gets to you, it is often changed in at least some way. Who changed it--and how--is often more interesting than the dialogue itself.

Finally, quotation marks needn't only be used for dialogue.

They have a creative usage outside the realm of dialogue, which is to couch individual words or phrases to indicate they are not meant to be read literally. They can alter the way you read a word or phrase in many ways, for example, to indicate irony or sarcasm. As Lynne Truss says in Eats, Shoots & Leaves, quotation marks "are sometimes used by fastidious writers as a kind of linguistic rubber glove, distancing them from vulgar words or clichés they are too refined to use in the normal way." For example:

Yeah, it was really "cold." I had to shed two shirts just to stop sweating. It's the last time I listen to her.

The banker's "smile" sent shivers down my spine.

Quotation marks round individual words might also indicate that we are reading someone's interpretation of a word or phrase:

My piano teacher gave me another "lesson." We played for two minutes, and he spent the rest of the hour trying to chat me up. What a jerk.

Let's look at some examples from literature. Dan Chaon uses this technique well in his short story "Big Me":

Before that, everything was a peaceful blur of childhood, growing up in the small town of Beck, Nebraska. A "town," we called it. Really, the population was just less than two hundred, and it was one of those dots along Highway 30 that people didn't usually even slow down for, though strangers sometimes stopped at the little gas station near the grain elevator, or ate at the café.

By putting it in quotation marks, the word "town" here is not meant to be taken literally; indeed, Chaon goes on to explain exactly what that "town" consisted of. Elizabeth Barrett Browning uses a similar technique in her "Sonnet 20" from Sonnets from the Portuguese:

Say over again, and yet once over again,
That thou dost love me. Though the word repeated
Should seem "a cuckoo song," as thou dost treat it,
Remember, never to the hill or plain,
Valley and wood, without her cuckoo strain
Comes the fresh Spring in all her green completed.

Here she quotes her lover, and then plays on the meaning of that quote, transforming it into an analogy of spring, and of something transcendent.

In any of these ways, quotation marks can transform a word or phrase into something which it is not.

In next week's installment of A Dash of Style, we'll examine more examples of usages of quotation marks from classic literature, and begin to examine the danger of potential misuse. In the meantime, here are a few more exercises to keep you working with quotation marks:


* Choose a stretch of dialogue that feels like it goes on too long. Use the above technique to break up the quotation marks at a moment where the reader might grow weary. What impact does it have? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* Choose an exchange of dialogue that involves multiple characters, one where it might be hard to keep track of who's speaking. Use the above technique to break up the quotation marks at a place where the reader might be confused, following the quotation with "NAME [fill in the name of your character] said." Does this add clarity? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

* Choose an area of your work that has a disproportionate amount of dialogue. Delete some of the dialogue. Paraphrase it as reported speech instead, having one character convey to another what someone else said. What difference does this make? Can you apply this technique elsewhere in your work?

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