Essays > Published on September 17th, 2011

Nuts and Bolts -- Punctuating with Gesture and Attribution

How often do you stand stock-still with another frozen, paralyzed person and hold a conversation?  Maybe only during the hottest moment of the hottest argument you’ve ever had.  Maybe never.

Probably never.

Watch yourself.  Watch a movie.  Look for the specific bits of physical “business” that characters perform as they speak.  Look for the tasks that keep their hands busy, and create a distraction from the conversation at hand, thereby adding tension and visual interest to the scene.

Two people talking gets almost instantly boring, no matter how clever and witty their dialogue.  Even stage plays, with very little room for action, use gesture and expressions to pace the dialogue and add another layer of meaning to what’s being said.

Despite the fact you seldom just “talk” to someone, and despite watching a million actors peel apples or drive cars or brush their hair while they speak their lines – too many writers will depict long passages of nothing but quotes. 

Yes, this can look smart on the page.  Like free-verse poetry.  With no physical action or sensation or attribution (those “he said/she said” markers that keep events organized in the reader’s mind).

If your work seems flat, or confusing or dull – add the physical businesses or “pauses” that will create tension.  The way a moment of silence during a piece of music, it makes you wait, expecting the next note, and creates a sense of relief and payoff when that note finally arrives…  that’s how gesture and attribution can control timing better than standard punctuation:  a comma or period or semicolon.

Inserting a bit of physical action – maybe one step in a process that’s completed over the course of the scene (remember, breading the pork chop during the Suicide Hotline scene in Survivor?)  --  that lets you control the exact length and intensity of the tension before that next “musical note” or moment of communication thru dialogue.

Inserting attribution:  “So?  Now that you’re dead,” he says, “what are you going to do with your life?”    Just attribution gives a bland moment of quiet in the reader’s mind.  Compared to the quote, the simple pronoun and verb don’t occur.  My bet is the reader doesn’t even subvocalize them.  Doesn’t even read them.  More likely, the reader’s vision ‘jumps’ those two words or ‘skims’ them, landing even harder on the most important part of the quote.

Now the homework.  I almost hate to say this, but:  Watch some movies. 

I’d tell you to watch some live theater, but it’s pretty hard to find.  As a compromise, you might look for movies based on plays:  The Glass Menagerie or Suddenly Last Summer are easy to find.  But whatever you watch, be aware of the action or task or gestures that the actors use to space-out or pace their dialogue.  These can be as subtle as eye movements, or as obvious as arriving in a scene late, therefore panting and apologizing and sweating from their hurry.  Or entering from a rain storm, giving them lots of coat shaking and hair mopping or umbrella furling. 

Only television seems to do this poorly, especially soap operas.  There, actors still seem to stand still and say lines back-and-forth for the camera.  The equivalent of stiff, boring fiction.

Then, watch yourself and the people around you.  What do you do as you speak or listen?  Do you leaf through magazines.  When you’re on the telephone, do you speak while petting the dog?   Dusting the furniture?  Picking your ear and sniffing your finger? 

Then, start using physical business and attribution to better control your passages of dialogue. 

For now, I’m about halfway through the mail that arrived from November.  Most letters postmarked before Nov. 20th have been answered, but a few might still be in the stack.  More mail arrived postmarked in the last two days of the month -- the 29th and 30th --  than in all the previous 28 days, combined.  This last-minute bubble swamped my goal of answering everyone before Christmas, but my goal is now to respond to all the letters by Valentines Day.

About the letters, some have made me laugh out loud – which almost never happens for me.  And some have been so heart-breaking, I’ve had to leave them behind for an hour, to recover.  All in all, truth or fiction, it’s fantastic storytelling.

My play, called The Come Back, is going very well, and the first-draft is almost done.  Right now, two friends are proofreading the typeset pages of Haunted.   If everything goes as planned, I’ll be in Cologne, Germany for the book festival in Mid-March.  And in Madison, Wisconsin at the end of January.  I hope everyone’s gotten started on their goals for the year. 

Welcome to 2005.  And again, thank you for reading my work.

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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