I recently watched a movie called Lawless. It’s a period crime movie that takes place in Franklin County, Virginia during the 1930s,lawless specifically during Prohibition. It concerns itself with the three Bondurant brothers, Forrest, Howard, and Jack. They’re bootleggers, and they have something of a mythic quality about them that says they can’t be killed.

It’s a great movie, based on a book called The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant. Notice the last name? No, he didn’t give his characters his last name out of vanity. It’s a novel based on a true event, namely that of his grandfather and two great uncles. They were the Bondurants mentioned above.

I liked the movie enough I decided I wanted to see what the book was like, so I jumped on my local library’s website, saw they had it, and reserved it. Last Thursday, when I made my weekly trip to the library (and forgot to post to my blog, darn it), I picked it up. Didn’t look at it too closely till I got home. I’d been looking forward to reading this book and seeing how the movie differed from it.

Now I’m not sure I want to read it. Turns out there aren’t any quote marks in here. The guy thinks he’s Cormac McCarthy.

If one writer does this, that’s one thing. It makes him stand out. And, for the most part. Mr. McCarthy’s writing is good enough to back up this little quirk he has in his writing.

That doesn’t mean others should pick up the habit. I mean, really, what’s wrong with observing the rules of punctuation? I realize the writer isn’t supposed to intrude on the story (though I question that more and more lately. If not for the writer, we wouldn’t have the story in the first place). But by leaving out quotation marks, you’re intruding. It throws me out of the story. Quotation marks are already pretty much invisible, but let’s not make them literally invisible, okay? I like having that visual cue that says, “Here comes some dialogue.”

wettest countyWhen I see a writer do something like this, I have to wonder if they’re so insecure in their writing they have to come up with some kind of gimmick to distract you from their writing flaws. Or maybe they’re hoping to overwhelm you with their cleverness: “Oh, look, he’s doing this neat experimental thing, He must be really cool.”

And Matt Bondurant has degrees, one of which is in English. You’d think this kind of thing would offend his sense of the language.

Look, I get things like dropping gs and misspelling words to show dialect in dialogue and internalization. It makes the characters unique and gives us something to identify them with. But even that should be limited to just enough to give the reader the flavor without making it look like a bunch of gibberish. Some dialects, such as the one I call hillbilly that’s spoken where I live, would look like a foreign language if written phonetically: “Yew jest go up ’at t’ere hill an’ aroun’ th’ corner till ya git up ’ere ’bout uh mile er so an’ yew’ll see it t’ere onna left.” And that’s a mild example I came up with off the top of my head (I’m not good a pop quizzes).

I’m seriously considering not reading Mr. Bondurant’s book now.

Why can’t we just write, folks, and leave the gimmicks, at least these weird ones, off the page? Let me enjoy your story for itself and for the way you write without throwing in weird magic tricks to distract me.

What do you think? Do you like these gimmicks, or do they drive you nuts? Or somewhere in between?



3 thoughts on “Gimmicks

  1. Author and Speaker Pamela Foster

    I see this more and more, Gil. The first time it threw me too. Now, I don’t know. I’m getting used to it. It’s a trend to be sure. And, like you, it’s not apparent to me why this improves the story. I suppose they’re teaching it in MFA programs and we’ll see it more and more. As for me, I’ll leave the quotations marks in the story.

    1. gilmiller Post author

      Obviously, I’m not real fond of it. And yeah, it seems to me the people who do it have MFAs. It’s like it takes an education to do this lol. One author whose writing is really good uses an em dash to denote his dialogue. Bottom line for me is that it’s author intrusion and I don’t care for it. I have to concentrate too much to know when the characters are speaking and it’s distracting.

  2. dukepennell

    I’ll throw my vote in with yours, Gil. The rules are there so we all know what’s being done on the page, and making the written word understandable to a reader, without the author being there to explain what it all meant, is hard enough.

    Robert Louis Stevenson said “Don’t write to be understood; write so you cannot be misunderstood.” Or words to that effect.


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