Why excising quotes in our fiction is nothing to fear
While I was in the MFA at Mills College in the 90s, I omitted quotation marks in my fiction. Wherever characters spoke on the page, it was without inverted commas. This was a stylistic preference for me, however, I wasn’t a pioneer in the approach.
I attended secular school and thus, began publishing my short stories in the general market. Literary journals sponsored by universities across the US published my short fiction and they never questioned my excising of quotation marks. Perhaps because they read Cormac McCarthy, notorious for excising quotes, or they read Saramago.
I never went back to quotation marks in my writing, as much as they may seem conventional to many readers, writers, and publishers. There is something comforting about the quotidian in writing I know, but breaking rules—typographical ones for that matter—seems to be brought into question.
I recently attended the SoCal Christian Writers’ Conference at Biola University. Upon showing my manuscript to an industry professional, I was asked, Why do you not use quotation marks for dialogue?
Good question. I would ask it myself if I was used to seeing them in everything I read. But I’ve been far too comfortable omitting quotation marks in my fiction’s dialogue that being questioned about it caught me by surprise. When you’re not questioned about why you practice what you do in your writing style, it is easy to not expect dissent. Eradicating quotation marks, for me, became reflexive just as using them is for those who do.
I’ve read several books in the general market that are devoid of quotation marks. You may spot a short story or two who practices this and pulls it off well enough that one doesn’t notice it. As a reader, it was easy to fall into the story without a reproach. Here’s an amazing use of omitted quotations from novelist McCarthy:
He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.
He’s going to die anyway.
He’s so scared, Papa.
The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.
The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.
You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.
The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.
He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.
― Cormac McCarthy, The Road
Some readers and publishers don’t mind prose with the quotation marks omitted.
In the McCarthy excerpt above, it appears the characters are separated by their own line breaks, another device that distinguishes who is speaking. Who is speaking is declared also by association with an action from said speaker and it is done in a tidy way. Even though It may seem excessive to split up who is talking into their own paragraph, this separation is also true in the traditional use of quotation marks.
Still, there seems to be notable disdain for this style of writing. On one hand, a writer can successfully omit quotation marks in dialogue because the prose is spare and lean. However, prose that is stream-of-consciousness, cerebral, or lush in language can exemplify excellence in the narrative voice despite the omission of quotes. It is all perception.
Dialogue without quotation marks continues the stream-of-consciousness by maintaining the pace of the narrative, pushing the flow forward without compromising exclusion. That is, dialogue becomes part of the narration in storytelling, not apart from it. This applies to both first person and third person point-of-view.
With quotation marks, however, the pace is slowed down when the reader’s eye stumbles over quotation marks that interrupt the flow and rhythm of the narrative. This is more jarring than not having to hit the roadblock of typography in a passage of dialogue. The excising of quotes is a valuable device that paces the narrative in a concise and solid manner.
Imagine for a moment McCarthy’s passage above rife with quotation marks. It won’t sound the same, will it? There is something very significant that occurs when our eyes glaze over a set of typographical marks. We compartmentalize and create distance. This could even be said about italics too. We know that to be true.
So what happened at the MFA when I dared to omit quotation marks?
One of the reasons for omitting quotation marks in my writing was because I had read enough works of fiction that convinced me that stylistically, it was the right choice for my own writing. It wasn’t even conscious, I could say. It was like I sat and wrote and didn’t think too hard about it…again, emphasizing the stream of consciousness that permeated my early work. Later, when I became more comfortable writing dialogue scenes and developing the character voice, I noticed that the experience was the same. I gave myself permission to break from the convention to use quotes and thus, my writing has been devoid of them ever since.
One bilingual best-selling writer in the general market put it this way:
I think the structural stuff, like the no quotation marks, is just metonymic for something else. My characters say a lot less than most people remember them saying. I don’t write dialogue well. What I write really well is silence, the things that the characters don’t say, the gaps between people’s sentences, the ellipses between what we feel, what we see, and what we recognize. I think that’s where it all comes in. And of course, I am someone who works in two languages. It’s not having quotes, not having italics, not having any of these things that separate the spoken word from thought-word, from narrative-word. For me, it’s also how I think about memory, how I think about language…but the way that memory works in my stories has everything to do with why there could easily be confusion between the spoken word and the imagined word.
I didn’t get too much push-back in the MFA when I introduced my writing during a workshop. I know it may have been odd to some—they told me so. I did, however, get valuable feedback from allies in the class who mentioned the dialogue without quotation marks kept the characters in the work closer to the narrative. I recall one ally who said that she had to work a little harder when she read my work, which was a compliment in our MFA circle. She said that anytime a writer breaks-away from convention in this way, readers will have to learn a new way of reading. It becomes a mental exercise.
I didn’t hold the hand of my readers in the MFA and as the ally voiced it clearly one day during a workshop, Don’t expect Eréndira to spoon feed you when you read her work.
I appreciated that response. I appreciated that a reader would develop a keener eye for what is spoken in prose, and what isn’t.
Eliminating quotes in a work of first-person fiction (or even non-fiction for that matter) is intended to invite the reader into a deeper level with the voice of the narrator. Becoming closely aligned with the distinctive voice of the narrator when she speaks enhances the experience of entering the world of the story and storyteller in a profound way without undermining the effect of story and purpose. Someone online said this about quotation marks in dialogue: “I think they can interfere with the rhythm of the sounds of the language in our mind’s ear.”
Some readers of Christian fiction or industry professionals in the Christian marketplace may not be ready or willing to journey through unconventional typographical styles from emerging prose writers. That is fine. I can read a great work littered in quotation marks and find the experience wonderful as others might as well. But I believe that if the Christian market is willing to bend on certain conventions of what Christian literature is and how it is defined, then I’m quite sure that the omission of quotation marks in a work of literature deserves consideration. There is enough room for that type of experimentation, which by no means diminishes the name of Christ.
More takeaways from the SoCalCWC17 conference: