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You Don't Need Quotation Marks (And You Can Quote Me On That)

Christopher J. Yates is the author of the novels "Black Chalk" and "Grist Mill Road." Neither book uses quotation marks. In this guest post, he explains why. 

By
Christopher J. Yates, Writing for
6-minute read
grist mill road

Let me quote a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s "No Country For Old Men" to illustrate well-written, non-annoying quoteless dialogue (a scene made famous by the Coen brothers’ movie). In this scene Chigurh, a psychopathic contract killer, has just pulled into a filling station in Texas:

     He got change from the proprietor and made a phone call and filled the tank and went back in and paid.

     You all gettin any rain up your way? the proprietor said.

     Which way would that be?

     I seen you was from Dallas.

     Chigurh picked his change up off the counter. And what business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?

     I didnt mean nothin by it.

     You didnt mean nothing by it.

     I was just passin the time of day.

     I guess that passes for manners in your cracker view of things.

     Well sir, I apologized. If you dont want to accept my apology I dont know what else I can do for you.

     How much are these?

     Sir?

     I said how much are these.

     Sixty-nine cents.

     Chigurh unfolded a dollar onto the counter. The man rang it up and stacked the change before him the way a dealer places chips. Chigurh hadnt taken his eyes from him. The man looked away. He coughed. Chigurh opened the plastic package of cashews with his teeth and doled a third part of them into his palm and stood eating.

     Will there be somethin else? the man said.

     I dont know. Will there?

Now, apart from simply being a great scene (in both novel and movie), the thing that strikes me about this passage is how cleanly it reads without the use of extraneous grammar. The result of McCarthy’s (non) technique is that he writes prose that feels very cool (in a temperature/mood sense). Some readers might even feel that McCarthy’s writing and punctuation (or lack thereof) comes across as cold. But this is absolutely deliberate.

The lack of punctuation produces a desirably immersive effect on the reader.

The point of writing this way is twofold. Firstly, the lack of punctuation produces a desirably immersive effect on the reader. McCarthy excludes all distractions from the page so that reading his prose is like having the freedom to cross a field without fences, with no demanding gates and their awkward latches. Because the effect of fencing off direct speech with “” marks, whether the author desires to or not, is to remove it from the surrounding prose, almost to highlight it, as if in magic marker, in a way that suggests it is something different from the rest of the text. And yet dialogue is utterly integral to most stories.

Secondly, McCarthy recognizes that punctuation is an artificiality. When we use this artificiality to prevent confusion, to avoid tripping up our readers, punctuation is both desirable and necessary—for example, when an apostrophe indicates the difference between possession and a plural. However, frequently punctuation is used to instruct a reader how to read a piece of prose—pause here; this word is “sarcastic”; attention, someone’s about to speak; hey, now they’re no longer speaking; I really want to emphasize this point!

I believe fiction works best when the novelist hands over half the creative control to their readers, allowing them to paint their own pictures, hear their own choice of character voices, pause when they want to, and decide for themselves if something is sarcastic or emphatic, for example. Stripping punctuation to its bare bones might seem radical to some (perhaps the movement should be called punk-tuation) but it’s actually a transference of power away from the author.

Now, I understand that certain readers prefer more of a hand-holding approach, a little more spoon-feeding. But while some people love the realistic brushwork of Renaissance art, others prefer the more blurred perspective on life offered by Impressionism, allowing the viewer to fill in some of the lines, and also some of the emotions, for themselves. We do not say that one of these methods of painting is wrong and one of them right. They are simply different techniques. (Although certainly there were those who viewed Impressionism as an annoying affectation when it was first foisted upon them.)

Everyone has surely experienced watching a movie after reading a novel on which that movie is based. Often the feeling one is left with as the story unfolds on the screen is that the characters look wrong and sound wrong. This is because a movie necessarily imposes its choices upon the viewer. Personally I prefer the freedom of a good book, its lack of such impositions. In the pages of a novel the reader can interact with its author, both of them sharing such roles as director, cinematographer, leading lady, and dialect coach.

And this absolute freedom is why I, as a novelist, choose to write dialogue naturally, without any weird little marks blotting my characters’ conversations.

Well, that and the fact that, annoyingly, I think it looks really cool, Skip.

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About the Author

Christopher J. Yates, Writing for Grammar Girl

Chrisopher J. Yates was born and raised in Kent and studied law at Oxford University before working as a puzzle editor in London. He now lives in New York City with his wife and dog. "Black Chalk" is his debut novel.