I'm headed into more creative territory, where writers also view punctuation as a series of pauses and stops that can order a reader’s emotional response to the work.
Noah Lukeman wrote a book about it: A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation. Think punctuation is too dry to hold your interest? Think again. This book kept me reading until its final period, which comes shortly after this insight:
If you cultivate awareness and are willing to learn, punctuation will perpetually teach you something new about yourself. As we learned throughout the book, punctuation reveals the writer, and revelation is the first step toward self-awareness. If you are willing to listen to what the page is telling you about yourself, and humble enough to change, you will become a better writer.
I find this claim irresistible.
Here are three excerpts from writers who, throughout history and across genres, have used punctuation and the rhythm it induces to provoke an emotional response from the reader. Read them aloud—it’s almost impossible to do so with a flat affect.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1843
True!—nervous—very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses—not destroyed—not dulled them. Above all was my sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily—how calmly I can tell you the whole story.
Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun, 1939
He was lying in the water of a river that ran through home long before he came to Los Angeles long before he met Kareen long long before he went away on a bunting-covered train with the mayor making speeches.
It’s fine Kareen floating here. Lie back more like this like that. Isn’t it nice Kareen I love it I love you. Float Kareen keep your head out of the water so you can breathe. Keep real close to me Kareen isn’t it swell floating here not going anywhere and not even caring to go anywhere? Just letting the river take care of things. Nothing to do and nowhere to go. Being on top of the river cool and hot and thoughtful yet not thinking a thing.
Stay closer Kareen. Don’t go away. Closer closer Kareen and watch out for the water coming over your face. I can’t turn over on my stomach to swim Kareen I can only float so please don’t go so far away. Kareen where are you I can’t find you and the water was coming over your face. Don’t sink Kareen don’t let the water come over your face. Come back Kareen you’ll choke you’ll fill up like I’m filling up. You’ll go down Kareen watch out please watch out.
Regina McBride, The Land of Women, 2003
When she closes her eyes, Fiona recalls the pale smells of her mother’s skin and hair; a smell like new muslin washed in salt water and left to dry in the wind. She tries to remember her mother’s voice, and the pitch and treble of it passes through her, the rhythm of it so clear that for the shock of a moment they are returned to one another in the way they had been when she was small, connected by frail strings.
The first-person ramblings of a sane man!—is it so? Drug-addled, panicked memories from a quadraplegic bombing victim. A tender rush of memory, its commas painted in by hand with the thinnest of brushes.
Purposeful choice of language and the artful use of repetition enhance these passages, but what strikes me is the punctuation, which has inspired my own creative uses. As Lukeman says in the last line of his book: "Punctuation is here to point the way."
Were you moved by these passages? Did reading them aloud excite your emotions; alter your breathing? Do any other examples of such techniques come to mind that you could share? How might you use these techniques in your own work?
Check out this related post: Creative. Period.
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service, and the author of The Art of Falling, a novel by Sourcebooks. Her monthly series, "Turning Whine into Gold," appears at Writers in the Storm. Connect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.