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How to Communicate Without Words

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.
“Then what?”
“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:

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:

And here is William Faulkner using the comma splice to indicate a lilting Mississippi accent in his story, The Bear:

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):

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.

No Punctuation:

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.

     Not really.

     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?

About Anne Brown [1]

Anne Brown (@AnneGBrown [2]) writes adult romance (paranormal and contemporary) under the pen name "A. S. Green," for which she is a USA TODAY Best Selling Author. She began her publishing life with young adult ("YA") fiction, and is the author of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Random House/Delacorte Press), GIRL LAST SEEN (co-author/ Albert Whitman & Co.), and COLD HARD TRUTH (Albert Whitman, April 2018). She is represented by Jacqueline Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates. Anne was a proud contributor to Writer Unboxed's AUTHOR IN PROGRESS as well as a presenter at the 2016 and 2019 UnConference. She has been a guest blogger for WU since 2010.