Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Modifying a Longstanding Tradition

Something really stuck in my mind about the novel I recently read (Tabloid City by Pete Hamill) - not the plot or the writing, but the… punctuation. 

Instead of quotes to indicate dialogue, the book uses a beginning dash.  See a few sentences here in which the tabloid’s editors, Briscoe and Logan, are talking about a murder being investigated by a young reporter called Fonseca:

      -Where was I? he says.  Oh, yeah.  The Fonseca kid got the mother.  Her son was admitted to Stuyvesant two years ago.  Now he’s shot dead in the street. 
     Briscoe sees six photographs of a distraught thin black woman pointing at a framed letter.
     -That’s the mother, Logan says.  The letter is from Stuyvesant.  When he was accepted.
     She is staring into the camera, her face a ruin, holding a framed photograph of a smiling boy in a blazer. The woman is about thirty-five, going on eighty.
     -The quality sucks, Brisco says.

No quotes, even after the tag line.  This very small change was a very big distraction.  Instead of feeling like I was part of a newsroom conversation, the dash set me back, as if I were outside the room, maybe even outside the building, straining to see in the window.

Picture books have successfully upended the traditional page by twirling sentences, mixing fonts and color, images and text.  Graphic novels now mix ‘handwritten’ sections with different fonts and interspersed cartoons.  I find these very effective.  They enhance the visual experience on each page.

Changes in punctuation tend to be few though.  Punctuation should be ‘seen and not heard.’  Less is more.  Take Where the Wild Things Are:  the punctuation is so minimal, that the story flows beautifully, like a wave rolling gently over your toes.    

That said, one dash is technically less than two “quotation marks”.  Still, the dash felt like a dagger into my pleasure.  It limited my emotional attachment.

Maybe I’m too traditional.  Maybe I’ll get used to it. I have noticed it in at least one other book.  Punctuation evolves to meet changing needs:  how does an author identify an email, a text, or a tweet?  Character thoughts can be displayed in italics or quotations, or neither.   But dialogue has been around a looong time. 

As it is for a student in a big lecture hall, it’s better to remember what the professor said, not what he was wearing.  When the attire is what sticks in the mind, maybe the speaker should consider a change.

What do you think? What conventions are evolving in YA or MG that you like?  Dislike?  Who drives this – editors or authors? 


  1. This summer I read Rules of Civility by Amor Towles and the punctuation for dialogue was also a dash. I think it makes a cleaner looking page, but for some reason it caused me problems when there was a long section of eight or ten dialogue exchanges. I could certainly get used to it.

    Don't know if editors or writers are driving this change. Wonder what is being taught/recommended in graduate writing programs around the country?

  2. I just consulted my trusty Chicago Manual of Style and it states "Em dashes are occasionally used instead of quotation marks (mainly by French writers) to set off dialogue. Each speech starts a new paragraph."

    I have the 15th Edition -- anybody care to share what is in the 16th Edition on this subject?

  3. Well, there you have it -- ok'd by the Chicago Manual of Style -- thanks Judy!
    I wonder if it's on the increase? Glad to hear you don't mind it Gale. I guess I'll have to get used to it!