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The Art of Literate Punctuation

by Rebecca Abrams

In How Fiction Works, James Wood, Professor of the Practice of Literary Criticism at Harvard University, makes the useful assertion that ‘Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us towards it, whereas literature teaches us to notice.’

The opening paragraphs of John Banville’s Dr Copernicus, a fictionalised rendering of the life of the fifteenth-century mathematician and astronomer, provide ample evidence of just this kind of careful schooling of the reader’s attention.

The novel begins with two short sentences: ‘At first it had no name. It was the thing itself, the vivid thing.’ The focus is vague and concentrated at the same time. We do not know what ‘it’ is, or whose choice is the word ‘vivid’. In step with the as-yet-unknown narrator, we are being initiated into a mysterious world of absolute certainties — or maybe absolute uncertainties; it is too soon to tell. The text is making demands of us, as a good teacher does.

The biblical resonance is unmissable, but we do not yet know what to make of that either, so we tuck it away and keep reading. We do not even know if ‘it’ is the subject or the object. An answer comes in the third sentence: ‘it was his friend.’ Ah, so a male narrator! A few lines later we find the narrator ‘wrapped in his truckle bed’. A child then, maybe even an infant?

And so the schooling continues, with the utmost urgency and compression. The same phrase — ‘it was his friend’ — occurs twice, at the start and end of the first paragraph, each time closed with a full stop. Unadorned. Immutable. The repetition invites us to notice this. But between the first and second descriptions of ‘the thing’, we discover there are ‘others, nearer to him, more vivid still than this, they came and went, talking, but they were wholly familiar, almost a part of himself.’

And there in a single paragraph, in the very first paragraph, is the whole novel in embryo! In just ten lines, we are learning how the world might look to a scientific genius capable of solving the deep mysteries out there in the darkness, comfortable as they are his ‘steadfast’ companions, unlike people, who are distracting and disastrously unpredictable. Banville makes us wait another two pages to be sure about ‘disastrously’, but ‘came and went’ rings a sly warning.

In the seminar I teach each year on narrative strategies for the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University, I often start by presenting my students with Wood’s maxim — literature teaches us to notice — appended with a question: what exactly does it teach us to notice, and why? What is the purpose of all this careful directing of our attention? Why these words in this order? Since my students want to be not just good readers but good writers, I also invite them to consider how a particular text teaches us to notice. What happens when the narrator of Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black slithers from ‘you’ to ‘she’ to ‘we’ to ‘I’ in the space of the first two pages? What is the verb ‘invades’ doing there in the opening line of James Joyce’s story Eveline, in a paragraph heavy with passive constructions? What is the impact of those three terse repetitions of ‘Shut up!’ in Alphonse Daudet’s The Beaucaire Stage-coach?

The general reader need not trouble too much with any of this: if it works, it works! But anyone wanting to write fiction most certainly does. And what I have noticed in the ten years of teaching this seminar is that students frequently struggle with answers to these questions, not because of an insensitivity to language (which they usually possess in spades), nor from any particular difficulty analysing a text, but to something altogether more intriguing and more hampering: a marked reluctance to talk about the author.

While most creative writing students are perfectly happy, not to say eager, to describe what they are trying to do in their own stories and novels, as soon as we start to consider what the author might be up to when they direct our attention this way or that, a distinct queasiness enters the room, like an unwanted guest at a christening. We have clearly arrived at a zone of discomfort. And in relation to creative writing, discomfort is always interesting.

A novel or short story, as James Wood says, must instruct the reader ‘how to adapt to its conventions … its own reality level’. But skilful directing of the reader’s attention does a good deal more than simply orientate us; it also draws us into the interior worlds of the characters, often unknown even to themselves, rousing our curiosity and creating connections between us and the characters. And yet, to talk explicitly about who is doing this directing, rousing and connecting is, apparently, both disturbing and disruptive. How crazy is that? A bunch of writers sitting in a room together (or this year gathered on a screen together) talking about writing, and no-one (except me) wants to mention authors? It is like pretending there are no cooks in the kitchen.

This is not a trivial matter. Erasing the author has a flattening and distancing effect on how we read a text. My students are able to talk confidently and perceptively about themes, metaphors, linguistic register, and a whole host of other interesting and relevant things, but what gets left out is the embodied experience of reading — and, for that matter, of writing. The text as we experience it, physically and emotionally, moment by moment. The invitation to enter into a relationship that we actively construct in collaboration with the author. When we leave out the author, we are left with tales and tellers, a reader/narrator binary.

But it is not the narrator who gives us the nameless vivid thing moving in the darkness, the unstoppable invasion of evening, or the intensifying anguish of the silent passenger on the stagecoach to Beaucaire. It is the author, damn it! A successful work of fiction is not a skeleton to be excavated and coolly examined: it is a dynamic and evolving encounter, which can quicken our pulse, make us laugh out loud, bring tears to our eyes. Crucially, it is a relationship that arises from the interactions between not two, but three distinct elements: reader, narrator, and author.

To understand what, why, and how literature is teaching us to notice, we need to attend to how all three of these elements are relating to one another at any given point in the story. This is what I call the RAN Rule, the invisible but traceable (to invert a phrase of Wood’s) three-way relationship between reader, author, and narrator. This is the concealed doorway into the story’s engine room, where the boiler gets stoked, good and hot, where the narrative energy is generated. This is what keeps us turning the pages of a story, until there are no more pages to turn.

In his new book A Swim in A Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading and Life, the acclaimed short-story writer and novelist George Saunders offers an exhilarating close-reading of seven short stories by Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. The book is based on the creative writing classes Saunders has taught for over twenty years at Syracuse University. Sentence by sentence, he tracks the way these stories evolve in the mind of the reader, how our attention is directed, rewarded and thwarted with painstaking care; how these writers ensure our expectation of satisfaction is met, but never in quite the way we expected.

Saunders, in addition, offers the student of writing a generous sprinkling of useful principles and maxims: ‘Specificity makes character’; ‘Honour efficiency’; ‘Always be escalating’; ‘Imagine structure as a form of call-and-response.’ A story is ‘a continual system of escalation’ in which ‘something new always has to be happening, something relevant to that which has already happened.’

I have been waiting a long time for this book. Not for its excellent maxims, much as I like them, but for the way Saunders unapologetically throws open the concealed door, heads down into the heat of the engine room, and gets chatting with the head-stoker. An engineer before he became a writer, Saunders is clearly at home in the engine room, and what he finds there is both intention and intuition. A story’s success, he writes, derives from the writer’s ability to discern ‘the instantaneous, felt, juxtaposition of elements,’ and to elicit that same response in the reader.

The way Saunders reads a text will be familiar to many writers and readers, but his way of discussing a text is largely absent from books and courses about writing fiction, which cleave to (exaggerated) reports that the author is (still) dead. Saunders, instead, is continually encouraging us to talk about authors and ask what they are up to. Why did Tolstoy make these particular creative choices? Why does Chekhov introduce a river here, a new character there? Why did Turgenev decide these were the best words in the best order?

Saunders does not simply track how the story evolves in the mind of the reader; he places that evolution in a constantly shifting dynamic between author and reader, because this at heart is what a story is: ‘the most effective mode of mind-to-mind communication ever devised’. And as he explains in his chapter on Gogol’s The Nose, the narrator’s role in this communication is distinct from the author’s: ‘Every story is narrated by someone, and since everyone has a viewpoint, every story is misnarrated (is narrated subjectively) … no fixed, objective, “correct’’ viewpoint exists… All narration is misnarration.’

What Saunders does not talk about in this otherwise wonderful book is punctuation. It is a surprising omission, given the attention his hero Chekhov gave to this aspect of literary craft. He does allude to punctuation, however, in a remark about the ending of Chekhov’s story The Darling, where he observes how the story ‘has increased its meaning into its very last line, and even into the white space afterward.’

Ah, the white space after a full stop. So unobtrusive, and so potent.

Chekhov translator and biographer Rosamund Bartlett, in her fascinating essay, “Notes in a Musical Score”: The Point of Chekhov’s Punctuation, cites a letter written in 1888 in which Chekhov tells a budding young writer, Nikolay Khlopov: ‘You have a habit of scattering punctuation marks, which should serve as guideposts to the reader, like buttons on the uniform of one of Gogol’s municipal mayors. There are too many dots and not enough full stops.’ Nine years later, Chekhov was advising another would-be writer, 18-year-old Rimma Vashchuk, ‘to learn the proper and literate use of punctuation.’ One of his own early stories, The Exclamation Mark, published in 1885, is an exuberant parody of illiterate punctuation, but Chekhov was entirely serious in his advice to Khlopov and Vashchuk, and applied it scrupulously to his own writing.

‘No iron can pierce the heart with such force as a full stop put just at the right place’, wrote the Russian writer Isaac Babel, a man who had seen first-hand in the Russian civil war what damage an iron could do. But despite being a phenomenal resource for the writer who knows what to do with it, the ‘art of literate punctuation’ is almost completely overlooked in contemporary advice on creative writing.

A rare exception is a 2018 article by A.L. Kennedy, How To Use Punctuation, in which she enjoins students of writing to attend to punctuation and what it can do: ‘Your words on the page represent your voice, perfected and rendered into a handy form of musical notation for your reader’s mind to sing. Words are part of speech, but there are also necessary pauses. Punctuation expresses them and also tells your reader when to breathe. Think about that for a moment – punctuation lets you control someone else’s breath.’

Really good writers almost always have a really good ear. They listen for the rhythm and beat of their prose, know how and when to vary the pace, the pitch, the tonality. But Kennedy is getting at something else here — she is identifying the way punctuation can actively bring the author, narrator and reader into relationship with one another. The RAN Rule, in other words.

The first page of Kennedy’s novel Paradise is the best masterclass I have ever come across on ‘the literate use of punctuation’. Every year I give that page to my students, having first carefully removed all the punctuation marks. They get twenty minutes to punctuate it themselves and then we go through the passage, line by line, comparing their choices with Kennedy’s. There is usually a bit of scepticism about this exercise at the outset, but by the time we have finished nearly everyone is in a state of awe at the precision of Kennedy’s punctuating; her subtle patterning of colons, semicolons, commas and full-stops; the powerful deployment of paragraph breaks, and how all of these elements are profoundly in service to the authorial task of building a relationship with both the reader and the narrator.

The beauty of this opening passage is that the words alone reveal relatively little about the narrator. Age, class, gender, location, situation — all a blank. (This is a novel abounding in blanks and erasures.) We pick up a few clues from the narrator’s word choice (educated) and tone of voice (sardonic, detached) but not much else that is certain. From the narrator’s description of things — an ‘over-large clock’, a ‘dirty ceiling’ — we can hazard a guess that we’re in a room. But where or what this room is (hospital, prison, hotel, school?) and why the narrator is there are still far from clear at the end of page one.

It is only as we start to re-punctuate the opening passage as Kennedy intended that the pieces start to fall into place. She teaches us to notice not just through the juxtaposing of words, but through the spaces between the words — the pauses, the silences, the resting places, the breaths. She draws us into the disoriented and disorientating world of her narrator not by observing it, but by enacting it; by controlling the reader’s breathing so that — if we are really attending — we inhabit the same physical and mental state as the narrator. This is the RAN Rule in action: author, narrator and reader in close and intimate communication.

This first two sentences of Paradise read as follows:

‘How it happens is a long story, always.

And I apparently begin with being here: a boxy room that’s

too wide to be cosy, its dirty ceiling hung just low enough to

press down a broad, unmistakeable haze of claustrophobia.’

Why a comma after ‘story’ and not a dash, or a semi-colon, or nothing? (My students come up with all these options.) Why a paragraph break after ‘always’? What is happening in that long empty space? Because something is happening. Kennedy put it there on purpose, so it must warrant attention. The reading eye is so greedy for words that we can easily rush past that white silence, but once we start seeing the punctuation and hearing the pauses, we begin to notice what is going on. If we allow ourselves to wait in those narrative lacunae, we learn gradually, beat by beat, the contours of this narrating consciousness. We start to feel its edges and limits, its evasions and difficulties.

Kennedy is guiding us with the precise delicacy of a neurosurgeon. The colon after the word ‘here’ (not a full stop, not a semi-colon, not a dash) is sublime. It makes us wait for a fraction of a moment before we see what the narrator sees: ‘a boxy room that’s too wide to be cosy…’ The colon enacts the unseen movement of the narrator, a gathering of energy, an effortful lifting of head or eyes towards that dirty ceiling. The rest of the sentence is heavy with words and sparsely punctuated, as airless as the room is to the narrator. We feel the airlessness too, in our bodies, as our internal voice reading the lines labours to reach the next full stop and inhale. Or rest. Or look away. Or whatever it is that’s happening in that blessed moment of stillness.

The last sentence of this paragraph is an inversion of the first: ‘Above, is a generalised sting of yellow light.’ The comma after ‘above’ creates a short pause, just long enough to contain a brief upward glance at the coming ‘sting of yellow light’ before the energy runs out altogether and the narrator relapses into silence with another paragraph break. We, along with the narrator, are back where we began: here. Wherever here is.

What is going on, we want to know? We lean into the space, the silence. We begin to fill it (because readers, like nature, abhor a vacuum) and, if we’re following the punctuation as well as the words, we are starting to embody the narrator’s own physical discomfort. And usually about half-way through re-punctuating the first page of Paradise, the penny drops. The narrator (gender still unknown) is suffering from the after-effects of a colossal bender, and coming round, painfully hungover, in a room of some kind, with not the faintest idea how they got there, or what time of day or night it is.

Breath by breath, through a meticulous and wholly literate use of punctuation, the author has brought the reader into the closest possible connection with her narrator, not only the physical circumstances but the hidden interior landscape of that character’s world. As George Saunders says, successful writing is ‘the cumulative result of all this repetitive choosing on the line level, those thousands of editing micro-decisions.’

The author is dead! Long live the author!

REBECCA ABRAMS teaches creative writing at Oxford and is the former Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Brasenose. She is rumoured to be the author of six works of fiction and non-fiction.

Art by Kathleen Quaintance


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