Pretentious Punctuation in Fiction: When to Use It and When to Leave It

When you are writing narrative, remember that you are NOT writing an academic paper. Cleanse yourself of pretentious punctuation and haughty vocabulary. They are pretentious and modern protagonists are rarely pretentious enough to warrant them. Very few protagonists can get away with pretentious diction and punctuation. Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is one character who can.

Humbert Humbert is a writer, a linguist. This is part of his characterization, and therefore, phonetic spellings and colons are part of his character’s voice. He thinks in phonetics and proper punctuation, though, he still reflects a sense of creative and cadence-based syntax:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact, there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style…. (Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita)

In Lolita, Humbert Humbert is a caricature of himself, a walking irony of sinfulness and baseness packaged in proprietary. It is the irony of his characterization that makes his propriety essential and effective. For this reason, Nabokov’s lofty language not only works, it sets a standard by which many authors and works seek to emulate in their own organic ways, but again, even an emulation of Humbert Humbert will rarely call for pretentious characterization. When exploring your character’s linguistic needs, first explore her/his upbringing, schooling, socializations. If your focus character, regardless of point of view, is not pretentiously linguistic then why write the narrative, regardless of point of view, with pretentious linguistics? Unless the pretentiousness forms an essential and aesthetic intention that is organic to the narrative—as opposed to the writer’s desire to prove some linguistic prowess—simplify the language and let the narrative, characters and scenes take the reader’s complete focus.

Remember, the way language is written on the page will color the way the reader gives tone and voice to the character. Punctuation should not be a way for you to prove to the reader that you are a great linguist and you know that a semi-colon or colon belongs in that particular spot. The language and punctuation are not merely a bridge to the cipher of meaning. The language and punctuation are part of the cipher itself.

Below, you’ll find a reading link for Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Read the opening lines and explore how these opening lines reflect the aesthetic and organics of Janie, the main character and protagonist, as effectively as Humbert Humbert’s opening lines in Lolita. 


Reading Exercise


Writing Exercise

1. Choose a current narrative you have in revision. Choose a single scene. This can be an opening scene or a scene later in the narrative, as long as it includes predominantly narrative rather than dialogue.

2. Now, explore the narrative’s origins. Is this scene and narrative more closely tied to a particular character within the overall work? It doesn’t matter what the point of view is, decide which character most closely connects to this narrative scene.

3. Next, rewrite this narrative section as first person dialogue. Allow the character to speak the scene. Imagine that your character stands upon a stage, alone, and is giving a soliloquy of this scene in her/his own words.

4. Set the scene aside for a few days and let it rest. Give it time to marinate in your mind while also creating some objective distance.

5. After a few days, return to the scene and rewrite it again so that the point of view matches the original intention of the work. If the original scene was in third person, remove all the first person pronouns from the rewrite. If the original scene was written in first person, limit the pronoun usage so to create better flow.

6. Set the scene aside, again, and let it rest a few days.

7. Now, study the rewrite for textural flow within the longer work. How does the new scene work within the longer story and/or chapter? Do you notice a deeper characterization within the narration? How does this feel? If it feels organic, try another scene and follow these same steps.

NOTE: Though it is always wonderful when happy accidents occur due to breaking rules, you might want to keep each rewrite closely tied to your main character, unless you are writing a frame within a frame or some other compilation structure.


rae.headshotRae Bryant’s short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals, released from Patasola Press, NY, in June 2011. Her stories and essays have appeared or will soon be appearing in print and online at  The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence, Italy. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. She has a Bachelors in Humanities from Penn State with a concentration in Eduction and English Literature and minors in Art, History and Philosophy. In addition to her Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins, she completed graduate coursework in Curriculum and Administration at Penn State. She has been teaching and lecturing for over twenty years in campus classrooms and at writing conferences. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association and is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.