Wednesday, June 26, 2019

New Punctuation?

So let's talk about punctuation.

Like all writers, I have preferences.

Actually, preferences may not be strong enough a word.

I have rules. Things I do, over and over.

My rules may be a little unorthodox, but they work for me, and my readers don't seem to mind.

I like the Oxford comma. Without it, things can get confusing. For example, consider my favorite blogs: Stomp Out Racism, Children Are Precious and A Newbie's Guide To Publishing.

Obviously the Children blog and this blog are not racist, but without the Oxford comma, it could be misinterpreted.

Sometimes I don't use a comma even when I could and maybe should. This sentence is an example; I could have used a comma after Sometimes, comma, and could.

I often omit commas when using nouns and pronouns. I think Hey Phil! and me too! read better than Hey, Phil! and me, too.

I dig run-on sentences even though they should be broken up into smaller sentences because I believe writing has a beat and a flow like music and sometimes you want that extended guitar solo sentence to get a point across or make the reader feel something.

I like dashes. One of my things is to use a dash to interrupt action--

--then continue the dash on the next line. Breaking the flow can be as effective as a non-stop flow.

I like the semicolon; it's like a super comma that holds the sentence together, unlike a period which brings things full-stop.

Not a huge fan of exclamation marks. I try to limit each novel to a handful and always go back and check to see how many I can remove.

Occasionally I like the exclamation point/question mark jumble. Especially when a character is like WTF?!??!

When time passes in the same scene (I prefer scenes to chapters--savvy readers know I rarely use chapters) and my POV doesn't change, I'll put an extra line of space between paragraphs, or separate them with a centered #  #  # or *  *  *.

Hammet turned to him, a smile playing across her lips. "Do you think you can tame me, Tequila?"

"I can give it my best shot."

*  *  *

Hammett's fifty foot Viking sports yacht was worth about half a million US dollars, according to its former owner, who mentioned that before she killed him.

I don't like speaker attribution.

Speaker attribution isn't punctuation. But it functions in an identical way. Punctuation is used to help us understand the meaning and intention of words and sentences. Speaker attribution--he said, she asked, they screamed--helps us understand who just spoke, in a similar way.

I've used speak attribution for much of my work, because it's easy. People say it is invisible; we view it the same way we view a period, subconsciously noting it and arranging the story we see in our heads accordingly.

But he said really is a waste of space, a waste of words, a waste of time.

The work-around I've used (I've done several stories and novels without any speaker attribution) is to insert action to make the reader aware of who just spoke.

"It's a simple trick." Joe picked his nose and wondered how that got up there. "And it brings extra imagery to the scene."

A part of speaker attribution I particularly dislike is he thought.

In a first person point of view, it isn't really necessary. Depending on the story rules you set at the beginning, internal monologue may have nothing to distinguish it at all, other than the words themselves. Often, limited internal monologue is used, the writer can put it in italics, without needing attribution.

I hope the readers understand what I mean.

But interior monologue in third person POV gets tougher to pull off without interruption.

I'm a staunch believer in "One POV per scene". I don't head-hop in the same scene--unless it is set off properly, usually by using a new scene heading (I prefer to name my scenes by the character, location, and time, rather than by chapter), or in rare cases I separate fast-paced head hopping with the triple hashtag or triple asterix, like I do when time passes.

But when writing WHAT HAPPENED TO LORI (currently free on AMAZON) I encountered a problem I'd never run into before.

I have three main POV characters, and three minor ones. All are in third person.

When you do interior monologue in third person, your choices are italics, or speaker attribution, or both.

Unfortunately, the amount of interior monologue in WHTL was so excessive in this story, that over one third of the book would be in italics, and all the he thoughts/she thoughts was wasting words and space.

These were duplicitous characters who lie to each other, to themselves, and even to the reader.

I had entire pages of italics.

This was the opposite of invisible. It was glaring and obvious and repetitive and it irked me. And on an ebook, where old folks like me crank up the font size to Jumbo because of our failing vision, a page of italics and become four pages of italics, and then it no longer looks like italics.

This wasn't the smooth storytelling I wanted.

So I got to thinking.

We use quotation marks to set off dialog.

Why can't there be a similar mark to set off interior monologue?

So I tried using the tilde. ~

~Will a tilde work to set off inner thoughts?~

It sort of worked. But when I tried to get the advice from some friends on Skype chat, the double tilde drew lines through the words.

That made me think of the formatting problems I could face when releasing an ebook, with page after page of strikethrough words.

Damn coding.

But thinking of coding, made me think of the obvious.

The diple. <

The French use the double diple <<, aka guillemets, to set off dialog instead of using quotation marks.

<Maybe I can write a book using single diples for interior monologue.>

What really sold me on it, though, was how the diples could do more than just show inner thoughts. They became an essential element of the story, with a big twist ending for readers paying close attention.

<That's actually cool.

<Why not give it a go?>

So I went back and adjusted the first 30k words to use diples rather than italics and he thoughts, and then I began to write using diples.

<Wow. It's soooooo easy writing with diples.>

After a few thousand words, using diples became so natural that I wished I'd been doing it my whole life. To be able to pop into a character's head so quickly and easily and obviously made the writing tighter, smoother, and faster-paced.

I still had a problem, though. Would readers find it as invisible as I did?

Just to make extra sure readers knew this was intentional and not some formatting error, I decided to put an author note at the start of the book. Here it is:


Storytelling isn't static. It evolves.

Movies have been enhancing their artform for over a century. Black and white films became color, which became Cinemascope and 3D and IMAX. Silent films became talkies, which became stereo and surround sound and Dolby Atmos with dozens of speakers. 

Are these just gimmicks? Maybe. 

But they also assist in immersing the viewer in the story.

For the sake of immersion, WHAT HAPPENED TO LORI utilizes some unique punctuation. 

The diple. <

The diple dates to ancient Greek writing. It has been a staple of computer language, and Internet communication, for over forty years. 

Quotation marks announce dialog to the reader. WHAT HAPPENED TO LORI uses the diple to announce characters' thoughts.

<I hope it enhances the story, rather than distracts.

<If not, I hope you can forgive me.

<I also hope you forgive me that this is only half a book. This is the first 90,000 words of a much longer novel. So be warned; it will end on a whopper of a cliffhanger.

<Are new punctuation and cliffhangers just gimmicks? Maybe. 

<But this will pay off. In a big way.

<Trust me; you can't possibly imagine what happens until you read it for yourself.>

And off I went.

Early reader response has been encouraging. People quickly get used to it, and the diples become invisible, just like any good punctuation mark.

But when I pull the Big Reveal at the end of BOOK 2, people will be like "Oh, shit! That's why he did it! I should have guessed it!"


But of course nothing is truly win-win. I fully expect some readers to hate the diples, and to hate the book. Some already have.

I'm cool with that. I get irritated by Cormac McCarthy's lack of punctuation, because it isn't alerting me if someone is speaking so I have to reread the sentence to get the meaning.

I believe the only reason to reread a sentence is to savor it. Not because you can't understand it.

But McCarthy sells a shit ton more than I do, so my opinion hasn't hurt his popularity.

If some people want to hate the diples, it's cool.

If you want to hate the diples, it's cool.

<But I bet you also move your lips when you read to yourself.>

Ha! I jest. You can dislike a new style of writing and your opinion is valid and I won't judge you.

<You pinhead.>

See the potential yet?

When used for lying and hypocrisy, it's so simple. When used to share info with the reader, it's so simple. When used to add tension to a scene, it's so simple.

Read WHAT HAPPENED TO LORI, currently free, and let me know what you think.

<And by all means, try a writing exercise using diples for interior monologue.

<It's a lot more fun than you might think...>


Ted Cross said...

I've been using the < > in my novels to offset all dialogue done using wi-fi in mind interfaces, where people aren't speaking aloud.

JA Konrath said...

Great minds... or Cunningham's Law.

Which books, Ted? I'd like to take a look.

Paolo Amoroso said...

Joe, can you please explain the difference between text with only an opening diple and text enclosed in an opening/closing diple pair? I mean the difference between this:

<I hope it enhances the story, rather than distracts.

and this:

<Trust me; you can't possibly imagine what happens until you read it for yourself.>

tonyl said...

Fifteen or so years ago, in a collection of beginner stories, I used the <> pair in a manner similar to Ted Cross, to indicate telepathic conversations.

The few readers (no need to torture anyone else!) didn't find that convention worthy of comment. I suspect readers will accommodate it just fine, once they figure it out (or read the note explaining it).

Thanks, as always!


Great tips. I've used Stephen King's "On Writing" as my bible for the last, nearly 20 years. The Elements of Style work great too but I enjoyed your comparison between new punctuation in novels compared to the progress of films. Have you ever read any Mark Z. Danielewski's work or Steven Hall's novel, "The Raw Shark Texts"?

Ted Cross said...

The Immortality Game is my first novel using those tags to offset dialogue. I'm currently writing a sequel that also will use them heavily.

Ted Cross said...

Sorry, I should have also mentioned that my book formatter changed the < > to a slightly different character set so that it wouldn't mess with any HTML tags while he was formatting the book. They looked the same but are slightly stretched--sorry I don't know what they are called.

JA Konrath said...

Paolo, when using quotation marks the rule is to leave them open until the dialog ends. If there is a paragraph in the middle of dialog, you remind the reader that it is still dialog by repeating the quotes, and only use ending quotes when the full dialog has ended.

Same principle with the diples.

JA Konrath said...

They looked the same but are slightly stretched

Guillemets. They're used instead of quotes in France to set off dialog.

Was your book translated into French? If so, I'm really curious what they used to differentiate the two.

Ken Lindsey said...

I can't read Cormac McCarthy because of his issues with punctuation. I tried in high school, gave the book back to the library immediately without getting through a chapter. Tried again as an adult, and may have been even more repulsed than the teen version of me was. Oh well, lots of folks like it and I can always hope they make decent movies.

Ted Cross said...

No, only English so far. I wish I could expand into other languages (especially Russian, given the setting), but I don't have the resources on my own. One day, hopefully.

Paolo Amoroso said...

Thanks Joe, got it.

bettye griffin said...

Love the Oxford comma. Dislike excessive exclamation marks.

Some writers try to avoid dialogue tags by having their characters constantly move about to the point where I get dizzy (He stood up...he sat down...he ran a hand through his hair...he slammed his palm against the table, etc.). To me it's best to have a healthy balance of both, and of course in many cases neither is needed.

The expression that really gets to me is, "he/she thought to himself/herself." I mean, think about it.

Domino Finn said...

You were concerned about formatting issues with the tilde so decided to go with an html opening bracket?!?! :) I jest...

All the various brackets are great for this sort of thing because we're all familiar with parentheses as clear asides. I've even seen authors use different bracket types to identify the speaker, but that gets a lot more dicey and specific.

JA Konrath said...

Domino, I think the easiest fix for speaker attribution would be to give different characters different color dialog, so they were instantly recognized. But that might be intrusive.

Yeah, the diple could definitely cause problems via html. But so far so good...

Jack Knapp said...

I've been using the diple since the beginning, 2013 for me (Combat Wizard). My characters were psi's and after a while, quotation marks and italics simply didn't do the job. Later on, I used them for radio communications. The primary character used quotation marks while speaking, the person responding via radio got diples and when more than one was involved, I used italics.
Necessary if you publish in audio format; it tells the narrator who's speaking.
I've also found it necessary to include the name of the character, usually early in the conversation: "I understand," Mac said. "What should I do next?"
In part, I do that because I caught flak from readers who couldn't tell from the context which character was saying what.
If you publish in audio format, you'll likely need to do the same.

JA Konrath said...

Thanks for chiming in, Jack. I keep one POV per sections, so the diples always belong to the POV character.

John Ellsworth said...

I'm not that experienced with reading diple text, but with thought attribution in TPPT we read, The thought can be the thing thought Hammet. Whereas, in using the diple, the third person past tense thought becomes a third person present tense thought. A clever shift to enhance immediacy in the transaction. Nicely done, JAK.

Edmund de Wight said...

I've struggled with italics or 's/he thought' for a long time. I've used both and also relied on tense shifts to signal it, i.e. in a past tense narrative my character's inner voice is present tense because, well, they're thinking it right then.
Diples could work well, although as a person who was in the computer industry I've had it ingrained to not use characters with special meaning to computers. For example in Unix, the # means something to the processor so it shouldn't be used outside its proper usage.
Diples signal HTML code in my head so I would worry that their use would have a negative effect in ebooks or web previews of the text.
I assume you've had no issues with this? It sounds like a great way to highlight internal monologue without making it too in-your-face.

Rashkae said...

Since the other grammar nazis haven't shown up yet, I'll get this show on the road.

That is not an Oxford comma. There is no Oxford comma in your example. The comma between Racism and Children would always be required.

The Oxford comma, had there been one, would have been before the and:

For example, consider my favorite blogs: Stomp Out Racism, Children Are Precious, and A Newbie's Guide To Publishing

It's controversial, but I think using it can make sentences more clear. What if one of your favorite blogs included the word "and" in it's full name?

As usual when I post something like this, I expect I made about 20 mistakes. Feel free to mock them.

JA Konrath said...

That is not an Oxford comma. There is no Oxford comma in your example. The comma between Racism and Children would always be required.

Uh, Rashkae, that's the point I'm making. There was no Oxford comma in my example, which gave the sentence a different (and horrible) meaning.

So I shall now mock you.

Mock. Mock mock.


Rashkae said...

Yup, excellent example that flew *right* over my head. I well deserve anything you can throw at me :)