To Quotation Mark or Not to Quotation Mark

If you read a lot of fiction–particularly literary fiction–you’ve no doubt read stories and novels that don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. I’ve seen this described as pretentious and/or annoying but, as a writer who has forgone quotation marks on more than one occasion, I believe it can be a highly effective technique… if used in the right kind of story.

So, what’s the right kind of story for quotation-mark-free dialogue? I’ve developed a theory. A theory that began when a fellow writer questioned why in the world I was writing a novel with lots of dialogue and no quotation marks.

We had just workshopped my opening chapters and a few people had noted that one character was occasionally phrasing things in the same voice as the main character. The fellow writer suggested that my lack of quotation marks may have been the cause of my voice-drift and that, if I were to adopt the standard dialogue punctuation, I would be more focused on making sure each character spoke in their own voice.

My fellow writer was on the right track. The voice-drift was definitely related to my choice not to use quotation marks, but not in a cause-and-effect manner. Rather, they were both coming from the same narrative choices. The problem wasn’t that I was being inattentive. It was that I hadn’t yet refined (or figured out, really) the POV and narrative voice of the novel.

Before this fellow writer’s comment, I hadn’t thought about why I’d chosen to go quotation-mark-less (it had simply felt right). I think I told my fellow writer that my choice had something to do with “destabilizing the reader,” which was just me trying to b.s. my way out of a question I couldn’t answer. Nonetheless, the choice, I knew, wasn’t wrong. It just took me a while to figure out why it wasn’t wrong and what that meant for the POV and voice of my novel.

The theory I developed is this: the closer the POV is to the moment-by-moment internal workings of a character’s mind and the more a narrator is concerned with expressing the lived-truth (rather than the pure facts) of the story, the better a no-quotation-mark story works. I came to this conclusion for several reasons.

In regards to POV, the closer a story is to the inside of a character’s head, the more unfiltered it should feel. If you think about how we experience the world, what people say and how they look and the emotions we’re feeling are all jumbled together. Removing dialogue quotes can help create the sense of this unfiltered experience. Everything flows together.

As for the “lived-truth” aspect, the removal of quotation marks removes a sense of factual certainty. Dialogue and summary of dialogue combine together in a way that can’t happen with the hard-stop of quotation marks. Are the characters actually saying those exact words or is the dialogue more of an emotional interpretation of the words being spoken? A narrator who mainly wants to present what seems true to the character doesn’t care about appearing factually accurate. But the more a narrator wants to say “this exact thing happened,” the more useful quotation marks become. They feel definitive. More like a transcript than an interpretation.

In the case of my novel, I was moving toward an extremely close 3rd-person POV in present tense. The narrator basically sits inside the character’s head and is giving the reader the character’s interpretation of events rather than giving a direct description of events. At the time of the workshop, I hadn’t come close to perfecting this POV or voice. But figuring out why I felt going without quotation marks was right helped me get things a lot closer to where they needed to be.

I know this theory is incomplete (and surely flawed), but I find it useful, particularly in revision when I’m getting a better sense of what I’m trying to do. As writers, we always want to find ways to heighten the effect of a story. What we do or don’t do with quotation marks can play an important role in that.

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