Some of you may have despaired that the Devil's Engine had gone the way of the spring. It's a new season, you might say. It's time for idling! (Or slacking, even? Josh? Mark? Anyone?)
Yet "the devil finds as much mischief for idle hands in Emeryville as anywhere else," as L.M. Montgomery said (or would have, if she'd ever been to Emeryville). And here we are--as mischievous as ever--where the discussion of fiction continues!
In "Punctuation as Score," John Metcalf remarks:
"Punctuation both for the fiction and non-fiction writer is primarily punctuation for the eye; the eye translates the symbols into stops and emphases. Yet at the same time, the fiction writer must also write for the ear; he must contend with the problem of dialogue. For many writers of fiction there is a conflict between ear and eye; the conventional symbols do not translate fully all the nuances of the voices that speak on the page."
What difficulties do you encounter when punctuating dialogue? Do you share Metcalf's sense of conflict, and if so, what measures do you take to resolve it?
I have a hard time punctuating the hiccups in dialogue--the points where the speaker restarts the sentence 4 words in, or trails off briefly because she's looking at something, or is waiting for a response but then gets nervous and keeps talking. Because those things don't happen anywhere except dialogue, and they are technically ungrammatical, there's no formal rules about how to indicate them. I am wildly over-reliant on the em-dash (—). I think it's more or less generally accepted that the em-dash makes a more abrupt stop, while the ellipses (...)--the dash implies that the sentence would've gone on had something not stopped it (that something could be internal), while the ellipses seems to indicate a running out of steam or words or will to continue. Sometimes it's hard to tell which is happening in the scene; you have to know the characters really well and hear it their words in your head, and still it can be unclear. I've also seen writers treat these punctuation marks in other ways in fractured dialogue, which bends my mind a little bit. Because these rules aren't really codified, you can kind of do what you want with them, always with the caveat that it has to work for the reader.
I write mostly for the ear. It’s all about sound and rhythm. So I struggle with this a lot. I use italics to suggest an alternate voice, sometimes inside a character. Sometimes another voice is woven in, as in my story “Freak Waves,” which combines a third-person narrative with statements of scientific fact. I try to avoid speech tags (he said/ she said) to create rhythm but without pushing this so far the reader gets confused. Sometimes I do push this too far. But I love dialogue. I love dialogue that makes no sense. I love the weird collisions between different registers and voices that occur constantly in life, and which make up our consciousness. The simultaneous development of dual timelines or narratives, the mental interruptions of signage, overheard conversation and triggered memory: all of these are different voices, and thus, in a way, forms of dialogue. I prefer not to comment on any of it too directly. On the down side though I usually have to reformat my dialogue (and fiction) a lot so it’s at least somewhat navigable—and have