Guest Post—Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega “To Quote or Not to Quote: Can quotation marks in fiction be excised?”

The views of this guest poster do not necessarily reflect the views of the blog host.

It’s my pleasure to have my friend Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega on the blog today! Eréndira has published fiction in Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, and others.

I recently attended the SoCal Christian Writers’ Conference at Biola University. Upon showing my manuscript to an industry professional, I was asked, “Why do you not use quotation marks for dialogue?”

I attended public school and thus began publishing my short stories in the general market. While I was in the MFA at Mills College in the ’90s, I never used quotation marks in my fiction. Literary journals sponsored by universities across the US published my short fiction and didn’t question my excising of quotation marks. Perhaps because they read Saramago, or possibly Cormac McCarthy, notorious for excising quotes.

Here’s an example of omitted quotation marks from McCarthy:

He was just hungry, Papa. He’s going to die.

He’s going to die anyway.

He’s so scared, Papa.

The man squatted and looked at him. I’m scared, he said. Do you understand? I’m scared.

The boy didn’t answer. He just sat there with his head down, sobbing.

You’re not the one who has to worry about everything.

The boy said something but he couldn’t understand him. What? He said.

He looked up, his wet and grimy face. Yes I am, he said. I am the one.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

In this excerpt, the characters’ lines of dialogue are separated by line breaks. Who is speaking is declared also by association with an action from said speaker.

I’d become so accustomed to excising quotation marks that the question at the conference caught me by surprise. It seemed there was a notable disdain for this style of writing.

Personally, I believe that omitting quotation marks in dialogue makes the prose spare and lean. In stream-of-consciousness narrative, it moves the story forward at a smoother pace.

I had read enough works of fiction like McCarthy’s that I was convinced this style was the right choice for my own writing. I gave myself permission to break from the convention.

I didn’t get much push-back in the MFA when I introduced my writing during workshop. Some students told me it felt odd. However, my allies in the class mentioned that dialogue without quotation marks kept the characters in the work closer to the narrative. One ally said she had to work a little harder when she read my work, which was a compliment in our MFA circle. Another said I didn’t hold my readers’ hands. Don’t expect Eréndira to spoon-feed you when you read her work.

Eliminating quotation marks in a work of fiction invites the reader into a deeper level with the voice of the narrator. It enhances the experience of entering the world of the story and storyteller.

Some readers may not be ready to journey through unconventional typographical styles from emerging prose writers. That’s fine. I can read a great work littered in quotation marks and find the experience wonderful. But I believe that the omission of quotation marks in a work of literature deserves consideration.

About the Author: Eréndira Ramirez-Ortega has published fiction in Day One, The Cossack Review, The Black Warrior Review, and others. Her essays are featured in The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, The Tishman Review, Cordella Magazine, Front Porch Commons, and many others. She has work forthcoming in The Sunlight Press and West Branch. She is writing a novel and homeschools in Southern California. Find her here: Twitter // Website // Facebook // Instagram

The full version of the above post can be found here.