When To Use Quotation Marks In Fiction

Of all of the punctuation available to writers in fiction, there’s really only one I’m on the fence about.

Quotation marks.

That’s pretty much it.

I like the period, question mark, comma (in moderation), and a limited use of the exclamation mark. I like the apostrophe, I dig both the possessive and a really good contraction.

There are a couple I’m ambivalent about, primarily because I almost never find a use for them. These are things like the colon and the semi-colon. They’re nifty looking, and I have absolutely no idea when it’s proper to use them. Perhaps I should qualify that: I have no idea when to use them in fiction. In non-fiction (I do a decent amount of technical writing at work) I use them quite a bit.

(See what I did there?)

Some punctuation, like the parenthesis, I love because it totally captures how my mind works. My inner monologue has a lot of asides and side-hand comments and tangents.

But quotation marks? Well, that’s a tough one.

When I first started writing fiction, there was the standard use of the quotation mark. Somebody said something, I marked it off by with quotation mark. Pretty standard American stuff. I found that using the apostrophe to indicate dialogue threw me off when I read it. Cannot tell a lie, it’s among the reasons it took me a couple of attempts to get through The Lord of the Rings.

I never really took to the Irish way of indicating dialogue, with a dash. I’ve never researched it, can’t tell you where that started or why they do it that way, but Irish writers have a tendency to indicate the beginning of dialogue with a dash and then the dialogue happens, and then somewhere it just sort of ends. I’ve never seen it outside an Irish writer, but I’m not terribly well read despite my English lit degree, so maybe it exists elsewhere.

What does strike me, though, is no use of quotation marks. The first time I encountered it was when I read The English Patient, by Michael Ondaatje. I found it incredibly hard to follow and I feel it made my enjoyment of the book suffer. (I didn’t enjoy the book anyway, but that’s a different issue.) Then next time I encountered this was in The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. Holy mother of god, what a book. The lack of quotation marks made such an impression on me, the way the stark visual of the page reflected the stark bleakness of the story. I was hooked.

Which then brings me to my conundrum: to use quotation marks or not to use quotation marks?

When I wrote How It Ends, I wrote in a standard way, using quotes and commas and periods and the like. I read The Road while editing How It Ends and it changed the way I approached my fiction. That’s a whole separate topic, but I don’t want to digress too much. While editing, I ended up stripping out a huge amount of punctuation. This led me to rewrite portions of the book in a different way, since the punctuation that might normally have guided a reader through the book was suddenly gone. It’s like hiking on a trail through the woods and having the blazes removed. You better make sure that trail is in good order and easy to find and follow, or you’ll be sending out rescue crews to find lost hikers.

Eventually I put the punctuation back, but the removal of the punctuation altered the course and flow of the book, hopefully (and I feel) for the better.

So do I like the use of quotation marks in fiction? Or do I dislike them?

For me, the answer is: both. If the story is the right kind of story in which to have the quotation marks removed, then by all means, get ’em outa there. I have a story like that that I may one day polish and publish. (Maybe. It’s a really dark one.) But unless the story is the right kind of story, and the prose you write is strong enough to stand up without crutches, then I think you’re safest using quotation marks to indicate your dialogue.

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