NewBook Wakes Up

NewBook has acquired impulsion (in horses, the compressed desire to go forward…the horse is “between legs and hand” or “on the bit”.)  It’s pushing me now to write more , a very good sign, even if, in the end, it means dumping a lot already written.   Sunday the 29th, it was at 52,500+ a bit words.  Right now (2 pm April 1, 2020) it’s 56,600+ words.  That’s not up to my normal writing speed back in the day, but it’s a jump to a more normal level (over 1000 words/day) and if it keeps up and stays “alive” and also interesting for my alpha reader, then I may be able to say the concussion’s effect on my writing is pretty much gone.   (The proof will be not only the finishing of this book, but equivalent progress on one after that.  Yes, I’m growing ambitious.  Ambition in the Time of Pandemic…but there will be no description of enemas in this or any other book I write.  Just sayin’.)

A mildly technical point of writing (since I feel confident writing this won’t take away from the book’s energy), and that is punctuation rules vs. fiction.  You all, being sensitive and intelligent readers, know that rules of grammar can be violated in dialogue.   If a character needs to speak ungrammatically, the character should speak ungrammatically.  How characters speak is part of characterization; it informs readers (without infodump) that this person’s background is a particular social class, a particular culture, a particular mix of background and experience.  How much flexibility characters show in their speech also reveals character–do they have more than one register or not?   And do they readily shift registers to make conversation more comfortable for the person being talked with, or do they stick to one (when they could change) because they don’t want to make it more comfortable?   Most of us have experienced conversational partners that were willing and able to converse on our level, and ones who insisted on using theirs and making the difference between us ever more distinct.

But punctuation is a tool in the writer’s box that functions to enhance a reader’s grasp of character in a different way–it stands in for the rate and rhythm of speech, not just the vocabulary chosen and the grammatical construction.  Punctuation can help readers understand what the character sounds like.  To do that, however, the writer must use punctuation in ways most formal guides to it consider wrong.  The writer must use dialogue punctuation consistently–establish a code readers can count on, scene to scene and book to book.  It may well be different from the code other writers establish, but for it to work, readers must know what the major marks (other than period, which is always full stop) mean.

The writer has available the comma, semi-colon, colon, dash, ellipsis, inner quotation marks, and parentheses.   Within dialogue, the comma need not indicate grammatical units (restricted and unrestricted clauses, for instance) but can function as a pause indicator that serves for a breath, but with the intent of going on in speech.  (Churchill wrote this way for his speeches; that’s where I got the idea that the grammatical comma and the expressive comma could be used differently.  They were used differently in the 19th and early 20th c. by many.)  It can set off groups of words in an utterance that do not conform to grammatical rules.  It can suggest state if mind in repetition  “I was wondering, you know, maybe I shouldn’t say this, but…”  in a character who typically runs thoughts (or partial thoughts) together.

The semi-colon in dialogue can indicate a certain formality or didactic character quality, a lecture-intent character.  This person doesn’t want to be interrupted, and thus won’t signal a longer pause (the arrival of a connection like “thus, so, on the other hand, etc.” where the other character might get a word in.)   The topic will usually be abstract and complex and the grammatical forms will reinforce that.   “Strict adherence to experimental protocols is essential; anything less risks the reputation of the entire university, Mr. Jones.”  If read aloud, that will sound different from the two sentences ending in periods, which has a different prosody and a longer pause in the middle.   In dialogue the two sentence version might be part of a lecture to a class; it could be purely informational, without any emotional bias towards those in the audience.  The semi-colon version is clearly a stinging rebuke (and possibly the prelude to expulsion or being fired.)

The colon is regaining some of its former uses now, but it is particularly handy in dialogue for maintaining forward impulsion…not just a pause but a full stop that isn’t going to stop the speaker.  “I’ve told you a hundred times, Jay: if you do that, you’re through.”  “They were there, and then they weren’t:  simply gone, no one knew where.”   It’s like a stumble and recovery on a steep staircase.  It’s a more abrupt full stop than the period.  It’s a yank on the reins, and then a kick in the ribs.  The voice does not drop to stop the utterance, as it does with a period.   The period rounds out the prosody of the utterance; it’s  halt ridden with tact.

Dash and ellipsis are related, but quite different, as they signal rate of speech, with appropriate changes in prosody.  A dash in dialogue is a sudden break, but a definite pause before a topic change, an emotional outburst, and (in paired dashes) a completion of the idea.  “I was wondering–damn! I spilled the coffee!–if you knew what happened at the meeting.”    An ellipsis is a break that suggests indecision, timidity, uncertainty of any kind, exhaustion.   “I don’t know, Sandra…I just thought…maybe…we could arrange something.”   “I’m just…finding…it hard…to breathe…in this smoke…”   The ellipsis finishing an utterance intensifies the sense of uncertainty and internal struggle to express something.  When not at the end of a sentence, it expresses internal struggle of the preceding thought fragment.

Internal quotation marks tell the reader that the words inside them were spoken by a different character than the one speaking in the text, and so that character will probably *say* them differently.   “I can only tell you what Bob told me.  He said, ‘I am sure that Craig is the embezzler, and I can prove it if you’ll let me put up a hidden camera.’ I know what you think of both of them, but those were his words, and you needed to hear them.”

One way to work with punctuation for maximum effect is to read all your dialogue aloud and mentally (or actually) punctuate it differently until you hear the effect you want.   “You scum!  You think you’ll get what you want?”  (angry and fast, hot anger),  “You scum. You think you’ll get what you want: think again.”   (angry and slow, cold anger, threat)   “Carla said Benny was going to be there by nine and she would meet him.” (excited, running thoughts together.)  “Carla said Benny was going to be there by nine.  She said she’d meet him.”  (thoughtful.  No pressure of emotion.)

And be ready to tell certain kinds of copy editors to STET.

4 thoughts on “NewBook Wakes Up

  1. Fascinating. The thought that goes into the punctuation. I would be curious to hear from your other readers if they notice it in your reading. I must confess that I don’t. This is not your craftsmanship but my inadequacy.

    At any rate, stay sane and persevere.

    Jonathan, slowly going mad up here in New Hampshire

    1. You’re not supposed to *notice* the punctuation…it’s supposed to work to improve the story flow without your being aware. If it sticks out, it’s wrong (even if it’s formally correct.) So no, your not noticing is not reader inadequacy at all. This is what I noticed (and what in the long run turned me away from) some writers’ stylistic quirks. The quirks got between me and the story. Hemingway’s very short, very stark sentences, for instance, become noticeably repetitious, like the sentences in books for kids who have trouble with reading. I’m a story-oriented reader; I can enjoy style for its own sake *after* I’ve got the story. But for readers who are style-oriented, with the story a secondary pleasure, my approach to both writing and reading can be wrong.

  2. Your comment makes sense – and I expect a lot of hard work for the author. I guess that there are a lot of things you don’t notice when reading a well written story – it just sort of flows along and brings you in.

    Stay Sane,


  3. Thank you for being such a wonderful writer, and for sharing insights about your craft.

    If you’re using MS Word and speech-oriented punctuation – Good luck!

    That’s to express 2 thoughts:
    1) Word is a pestiferous tyrant unless you turn off automatic grammar checking.
    2) I’ve never thought consciously about punctuation for speech versus punctuation for straight prose. Thanks for new insights.

    I use a hyphen with the same way in prose and written conversation, but mine always has spaces around it and is probably an archaic usage. Which is related to the next insight you gave me.

    I was also fascinated to discover where I probably got my “overuse” of commas: early to mid-twentieth century British mystery writers! (I read a lot of them long before I matured enough to read Churchill).

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