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What’s In A Quotation Mark?

Quotation marks are odd things. I guess this is true of most punctuation marks, but I find quotation marks especially odd.

Ostensibly there to mark the difference between prose and spoken dialogue, they dress the words up, label them as special, as different, and thus direct the reader how to read them. For me, as a reader, it’s the most overt direction a writer gives to the me, instructing me, telling me the characters are talking now! Pay attention!

So for me as a writer, it’s the most conscious I am of my writing as I’m writing. It is worth mentioning how much I enjoy Elmore Leonard’s golden rule for writing:

‘If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.’

And this is where I struggle with quotation marks. I have no problem reading them; it’s a convention of how we punctuate our stories that dialogue is practically expected to be held within quotation marks. We notice when they’re not there.

The first time I discovered that writers could do this was when I read James Joyce. I was probably too young to do so. Within the first pages I was thrust into dialogue like this:

– History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?

– The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.

Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:

– That is God.

Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!

– What? Mr Deasy asked.

– A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders.

The lack of quotation marks is obvious. So too is the insertion of dashes to mark what is spoken with what isn’t. Joyce also, as per convention, attributes the dialogue to the speaker for clarity. But what is unusual in this scene is that the two characters are talking over noise from kids playing football in the fields outside. Their noisy interjections, though in a sense they are ‘spoken’, are provided as description. Joyce is layering his dialogue, creating a hierarchy between different spoken sounds. He forgoes one clarity in favour of arriving at another.

Cormac McCarthy is the obvious choice here, for a writer who forgoes conventional punctuation. His pared-back, lean and aggressive prose is reflected in how he uses punctuation, particularly quotation marks. Basically, he doesn’t. Not unless it’s necessary.

McCarthy acknowledged the effect of Joyce on his own writing, preferring the approach to writing where ‘you don’t blot up the page with weird little marks.’ And it’s not just quotation marks – sometimes he forgoes (or forgets) commas for pages at a time. Again, with McCarthy, he’s aiming for a different reading of the spoken word.

She opened one of the packs of cigarettes and took one out and lit it with a lighter. Where have you been all day?

Went to get you some cigarettes.

I dont even want to know. I dont even want to know what all you been up to.

He sipped the beer and nodded. That’ll work, he said.

I think it’s better just to not even know even.

You keep running that mouth and I’m goin to take you back there and screw you.

Big talk.

Just keep it up.

That’s what she said.

Just let me finish this beer. We’ll see what she said and what she didnt say.

It’s pretty difficult to miss the rhythm and flow of the conversation from here. McCarthy erases the need for the reader to process the quotation marks between the action and the dialogue, so that it all just becomes one moment. Joyce’s hierarchy is now a plateau for McCarthy, with words and deeds given equal value.

McCarthy also eliminates the contraction apostrophe, where don’t becomes dont, and the abbreviation of going becomes goin. But later he includes it, for that’ll and it’s. So this is not just a blatant omission, he wants to achieve a certain effect by withholding certain conventions. I’m unsure why that’ll remained though. It’s not like thatll is all that different to dont, except that McCarthy probably didn’t like how it looked, aesthetically, rather than how it read. I mean, look at all those consecutive lines, blotting up the screen.

When I’m writing, though, I struggle to get to that point where I can’t hear myself writing it. It reads, and sounds according to Leonard’s rule, too much like writing. I have to trick myself to liking it. This happens especially with dialogue. And the only way I could get myself to like my dialogue was by hiding it. Not showboating it with quotation marks. So I went in and deleted them all.

But don’t get me wrong, I’m not against quotation marks at all. This is purely about writing insecurity. I hope to put them all back in as the confidence grows.

The interesting thing was, I found I was able to write dialogue better. I could see it just as words again, and not get too caught up in making something read like a representation of how someone could talk if they were a character on a page.

I’m not sure where publishers stand on punctuation, and using and abusing the conventions. I like to think that if it makes sense, if the sense of the writing can still be read, then you can do whatever you damn like. But maybe that’s a bit easier to do when your name is McCarthy or Joyce.


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