A while back, I texted my daughter.
Dinner is ready.
Her: Are you mad at me?
What? Why? I'm just saying that dinner is ready.
Her: Your period is really angry.
Perhaps you’ve encountered this yourself. These days, if your text message doesn’t end in an exclamation point, you come off as terse, and even (apparently) supremely pissed off. So, I guess dinner is ready! Hooray! Who knew we’d ever eat again?! *confetti emoji*
But there is something interesting about this phenomenon that applies to fiction writing–namely, while we toil over the perfect word choice to create the right mood and to elicit the intended emotions, those little flicks and curls are sitting there, waiting to do their own heavy lifting. They look small. But they can be mighty.
Here is a non-exclusive list of ways you can use punctuation to impact the emotion in your dialogue and narrative voice.
The Punchy Period:
Using full stops more frequently can add power and energy to your words. They can be used to emphasize an authoritarian voice because periods give the dialogue more control. For example:
“Today, you will be gathering stones from this field, beginning now and working until the sun goes down, and you hear my whistle.”
– versus –
“Today you will gather stones. You will start now. You will continue until the sun sets. Listen for my whistle.”
In which example does the prison guard command the most respect? In which example can you best hear the guard’s speaking voice? For most people, the answer to each of those questions is the dialogue with the most full stops.
But frequent full stops can also be used to indicate uncertainty, surprise, or the inability to understand; for example:
It was a ship. There. On the horizon. Yes. He was almost sure of it.
– and –
She stood. Right in front of him. Not at home with her mother. Not where she should be at all.
Frequent full stops can also show despair, like this example from Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín:
“Would you like me to call Miss Bartocci?” she asked.
“I don’t know what it is.”
“Are you sad?”
“All the time?”
Try using frequent end stops whenever you want to deliver an emotional punch.
But wait! There’s more.
The Colorful Comma:
The skillful use of commas (instead of periods) can create instances of narrative voice intended to lull the reader, or to indicate a youthful voice, or even a regional accent. A classic example of the quiet, lulling effect is the opening paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale ofTwo Cities:
- It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—
But it doesn’t have to be so. J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is an example of how comma splices can be used to agitate and show the thinking of a youthful character:
- If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
And here is William Faulkner using the comma splice to indicate a lilting Mississippi accent in his story, The Bear:
- He was ten. But it had already begun, long before that day when at last he wrote his age in two figures and he saw for the first time the camp where his father and Major de Spain and old General Compson and the others spent two weeks each November and two weeks again each June. He had already inherited then, without ever having seen it, the tremendous bear with one trap-ruined foot which, in an area almost a hundred miles deep, had earned itself a name, a definite designation like a living man.
In short, experimenting with the interchange of full stops and commas is a good way to find your character’s voice.
The Elusive Ellipsis:
The ellipsis, three dots in a row (…) holds the place of text that is omitted or unspoken. It begs the reader to fill in the blank. It, too, can be used to create voice because what is unspoken can be as powerful as what is said. Perhaps the unspoken words create a flirtatious scene, or perhaps the character is shy or uncertain.
Jennifer blushed, surprised that he’d remembered her name. “So, is this seat…?”
“Taken?” He moved his hat from the bus seat and laid it in his lap. “Not anymore.”
Try using the ellipsis in your meet-cute scenes, or when you have a character that’s a fish out of water.
The Multifaceted Em-Dash:
The em-dash is a personal favorite of mine. I often use it to set off explanatory asides (rather than using parentheticals), but my favorite use is to make dialogue sound realistic by having people cut each other off, not necessarily in a rude way (though sometimes), but in the patterns of normal speech.
“Oh my gosh, Flora. I was just at the post office, and you would not beli—”
“I know! I saw the poster, too.”
“Who woulda thought the homecoming king was an honest to goodness bank robber?”
Em-dashes can also be used to used to show breathlessness: Marie bent over, hands on her knees. “You said— We were only— Going to run— Two miles.”
A great example that combines both the youthful cadence created by commas and the interruption of the em-dash is this passage from the middle grade novel, Anya and the Nightingale by Sofiya Pasternack (Nov. 2020):
- She remembered him eating the cheesy bliny with a smile, and then—flash—she could see him dangling from Sigurd’s fist, eyes bulging, choking, feet swinging beneath him, and then—flash—Sigurd by the river, the hand he had choked Father Drozdov with bleeding, his eyes bleeding, his teeth stained—
The em-dashes set off Anya’s chaotic and disjointed thoughts, and the final em-dash suggests more injuries too painful to remember, or a child’s self-preservation in stopping herself from thinking about it anymore.
My final example is the rush and teetering chaos of using no punctuation whatsoever.
“Ohmygosh ohmygosh ohmygosh I can’t believe this is really happening I just woke up and the sky is falling.”
While unintentional run-on sentences are frowned upon, the intentional non-use of punctuation is a fantastic way to convey a rush of emotion.
To me, one of the most interesting recent examples of no punctuation is Sally Rooney’s omission of all quotation marks from her dialogue in Normal People:
He sat up and looked down at her.
You were tempted for a second there, she said.
I tempted you.
He was shaking his head, smiling. You’re such a strange person, he said.
I can’t speak to Rooney’s intention, but as a reader, this omission of quotation marks emphasizes how much the characters are in their own heads. Even with their frequent miscommunications, the lack of quotation marks makes it seem like the communication is practically telepathic.
What are your favorite ways to convey emotion with punctuation? Are there any examples you’ve read that have really packed a punch?