Friday, May 2, 2014

Busted—Authors Caught Exciting Emotion with Creative Punctuation

Punctuation orders thought and clarifies communication. There are rules for its use, which I will leave to our Style Maven to share.

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, 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 StormConnect with Kathryn at her Facebook Author Page and Twitter.


  1. Thank you Kathryn. Punctuation; the means of guiding the reader to replicate the writer's intentions. And, here, I've used a punctuation mark unused in some English speaking communities and threatened by others. The semi colon; a middle strength pause falling between comma and colon and denoting a type of sub clause that follows from the preceding part of the sentence, is a part of it, yet which does not simply complete the thought but adds a slightly different dimension. Sorry, I've been writing poetry this morning and, as we all know, poetry uses or abuses punctuation according to the skill, design or, sometimes, ignorance, of its employer. Yes, punctuation, or its lack, can be substantially responsible for the mood of a piece of writing.
    Thanks for an interesting and thought-provoking post.

  2. Your use of punctuation bolstered the beauty of the writing in this comment, Stuart. Preaching to the choir on the semi-colon; I find many wonderful uses for it. I'm not a fan of it in dialogue, though. Punctuation introduced for the purpose of pause length alone, as in dialogue, can be handled by other marks. Semi-colons are hard to "hear," yet are great for creating meaning.

    1. An interesting observation, Kathryn. I tend to use them in dialogue, as in narrative, to guide the reader. But, their slightly contentious nature can cause some readers irritation, I know.

  3. Creative punctuation (and misuse) gives me headaches and I think all of these examples would be stronger without them. But I'm a purist. :)

    1. Wow!—and I can't imagine them achieving what they did without it! Just goes to show, folks—this is a subjective business. Different strokes for different folks!

      Diana your comment raises an interesting point, though, about working relationships. Stylistic differences are something important to consider in your choice of an independent editor, though. There would simply be no point in me hiring a "purist," who would waste her time ironing out all my creative punctuation, when it was an integral part of my vision. I did have agents reject me because of writing style. You have to know what you're going for, and find an editor who can support your vision.

      So if you've included something non-traditional in your manuscript, it's best to draw it to a prospective editor's attention before you part with your money.

  4. I'll never look at the lowly comma the same way again, but then, I never looked at it the same way before. It's use, and misuse, has been a never ending mystery to me; from the first essay I ever wrote to my last tome. It's a love/hate thing I've got going here.

    1. Christopher, you speak for many, I'm sure of it. Reading your work aloud can take you a long way toward correct use in creative writing. If you must pause so the reader can understand, you probably need a comma. (If the Style Maven is flinching as she reads this, I now leave a better explanation to you!)

  5. This post has set me to pondering, Kathryn. Old dogs, new tricks, etc. :-)

    I like the quote from Poe and think it accomplishes exactly what the author intended (at least from my 2014 perspective).

    The lack of internal punctuation in the example from Trumbo bothered me on first read. But upon perusing it a second time, I rethought my initial response. Sentences are traditionally separated by periods, but the absence of other punctuation gives the reader a sense of individual thoughts running together without pause created by nouns of address, etc., and then a tiny instant before the next thought. This creates a mood, a feeling that would not exist if all the "appropriate" commas were in place; and the scene becomes almost surreal.

    McBride has combined the senses with punctuation to pull the reader into the scene—and quite successfully so, as the reader "feels" what the character is experiencing.

    When Lukeman states that punctuation points the way, he speaks a profound truth, reminding us as writers that we possess a powerful tool—punctuation marks—to create visuals on a par with videos and motion pictures. With different punctuation, all the above examples would read differently, and the reader's response would change accordingly.

    I really like this post, Kathryn. As a bit of a non-traditionalist myself (but also an editor who cringes when punctuation is blatantly mishandled), I do use those wonderful little marks creatively from time to time to achieve the desired response from the reader.

    1. I left Trumbo's previous sentence about the river in for context: first the run-on, third-person narrative that evokes a long river, then the switch to experiential first-person and the panic that sets in when, even among short sentences, our POV character (and we) can't seem to catch breath. I agree, Linda, that it grows on you with further study.

  6. I especially liked the quote from The Land of Women. I love books that make you stop and re-read a paragraph because they are so well put together that you go back and read it again.

  7. Thanks for the book recommendation!!

  8. I like playing with punctuation just to see how many different ways I can present the same picture/ moment in a story. My sister (who edits my work when it's not scary), disagrees. She prefers punctuation to remain exactly where they ought to belong and thinks creative punctuation is irritating misuse.


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