Don’t Quote Me on That

If you decide to quote me after all, for crying out loud, use quotation marks. One of my biggest pet peeves, as in stuff that really peeves me off, is writers who write dialogue but refuse to bind the words with quotation marks. It’s like marking your property with disappearing ink and then expecting the folks next door not to build a pool in your yard.

I know unbound dialogue is a popular trope for some writers. Cormac McCarthy writes lengthy pages of dialogue without benefit of quotation marks, as in his book, All the Pretty Horses. Which, by the way, I loved. So does Michael Ondaatje in another of my most favorite books, The English Patient. Neither of the boys in this club like tags either.

So here I am trooping along in a Mc or Ond story, and I encounter pages and pages of dialogue between Shem and Flopsie without benefit of quotation marks at the beginning and ending of dialogue, and with almost no tags at all. After a while, I’ve lost the character stream and am thinking, “Wait, who’s talking now? I can’t remember.” So back I plod through pages of the story and over the mountains and through the fields, trying to find a place where a person’s name comes up. Then I have to tramp through the lines of dialogue. Let’s see, this one is attributable to Shem, so the next one must be Flopsie, and now we’re back to Shem. Oops. This is not a line of dialogue but internal reminiscence, and the next one is actually narration. What is it with this cute Irish boychik and this nice Canuck boyo that they can’t spend a few pennies on quotation marks so this old Yankee dame can read their books more easily?

It would also help if both authors tagged once in a while. I don’t mean every line of speech, and certainly not with fluff like, “Shem said impatiently”, or “Flopsie answered angrily.” But enough name tags that I can identify who’s talking now and who’s talking next without having to keep a score sheet next to me. If either of these writers drops me a line, I’ll send them hand-penned tag sheets, no extra charge for the serifs.

Obviously I’m not going to make any headway with convincing respected, adored, brilliant, and published writers. They won’t even bother to laugh because they’ve never heard of me and never will. They’ll continue to write dialogue unbound by quotation marks because it’s their shtick, and their readers recognize their work by their quirky traits. Same with the character tags they can’t be bothered to attach. They must find me an inattentive ditz not to be able to figure out when Shem or Flopsie are speaking.

All this does not, however, give you or me permission to veer off the beaten track and venture into the country of Imakemyowngrammarrules. Writing is a hard enough track to plow. Leaving divots for readers to fall into is dangerous, especially for writers of my ilk: not yet published. Here’s the rule for us: reader falls into a grammar divot, reader crawls out of the book.

I heed the rules of writing because I want my readers (My readers? Funny old broad – I don’t have any readers yet, but I’m planning ahead.) not to be distracted by figuring out the parts that are dialogue or who is talking, but to focus on the story. Which I hope one day to publish.

If you’re Ondaatje or McCarthy, you can write your own rule books – hell, you’ve already done so. You, No Name Schlub, (like me) should stick to what works for precisely that reason – it’s what works. You will build readers who make comments on Good Reads, such as, “The book was a pleasure to read.” That’s worthy of a few quotation marks and character tags, and I’m certain you don’t want to peeve anyone off.



Image courtesy: Clip Art




8 thoughts on “Don’t Quote Me on That

  1. Absolutely. Learn and follow the rules – until you’re good enough to rewrite the rules.

  2. Andrew, you made me laugh.

  3. Makes me whacko when I read something and there are no quotes. I lose interest…

  4. No quotation marks for dialogue? How is the reader supposed to know a character is talking? Of course, if it is an audiobook, maybe that would make a difference. Still, weird.

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