Monday, November 28, 2022

Rules, Breaking Rules, and Quotation Marks

 by Thomas Kies

When I begin a Creative Writing class, I write two things on the whiteboard.  The first thing I write is the word “Rules”

I tell the class that I’ll talk to them about what I know about the rules of writing, such as they are.  For example, when you’re submitting work to an agent or to a publisher, your manuscript should be double spaced and in twelve-point Times New Roman type font. 

I’ll talk to them about using adverbs judiciously…or not at all. 

I’ll show them that to be a good writer you need to be a good reader.  Read everything you can get your hands on.  Read critically.  What was it about that last book you read that you like and what didn’t you like?  Could it have been made stronger? Was there something the writer could have left out?

We discuss how to create engaging characters complete with good traits, flaws, physical descriptions, and backstories.  We talk about how even the villains have some redeeming characteristics. 

We experiment with dialogue, showing what characters are doing while they’re speaking and not using dialogue tags like “He said” and “She Said”.  

So, after I write the word “Rules” on the whiteboard, I immediately follow it up by writing the words “No Rules”.  Because in the end, most writers break the rules.  Although, it’s often at our own peril. 

I’m reading a writer right now who breaks a boatload of rules.  I’m wading through Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger, his first book since releasing The Road back in 2006. 

One rule he breaks?  Quotation marks.  He simply doesn’t use them.  In his Oprah Winfrey interview, he says MacKinlay Kantor was the first writer he read who left them out. McCarthy stresses that this way of writing dialogue requires particular deliberation. You really have to be aware that there are no quotation marks and write in such a way as to guide people as to who’s speaking.

Other writers who refused to use quotation marks were E.L.Doctorow and James Joyce.

Apostrophes…doesn’t use those either.  In his New York Times Book Review piece, John Jeremiah Sullivan said, “McCarthy does that, he takes out the apostrophes. He told Oprah in a 2008 interview that he doesn’t like semicolons and quotation marks either. They clutter. Too many “weird little marks.” But the problem with clutter is distraction. And what is distracting are words that lack punctuation where ordinarily there would be some.”

I’m about two-thirds through The Passenger. Am I loving it?  Yes and no. McCarthy is a remarkable writer and I find some of the passages in this book are sheer poetry.  The dialogue is crisp and snappy,
but I have to work at figuring out who is saying what and yes, I find it a distraction.  It’s still a hell of a well-written book. 

My lesson? If you’re going break the rules, you best be a really good storyteller. 


nonie said...

In XVIII novels in that period's editions, quotation marks are not used.You are lucky if you get a - to signal the start of a new contribution by another speaker. Most times it is easy enough to follow. Sometimes reading progress is stopped whilst the reader tries to figure out who is speaking.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thomas, I'm annoyed when writers skip quotation marks.