Today’s Coolest Thing in the World

Story Code

Nora thinks I know a lot about pop culture. If I do (and I don’t, really), it’s because I start my day looking at the compilation feeds from a few different websites. The New York Times, the New Yorker, the Creative Independent… it’s like a little diary of what’s out in the world, from Federal policy to new recipes. So I follow one, and then through the miracle of hyperlinks, end up somewhere else, and all of a sudden have found things I have no reason to have found.

Here’s today’s. The freelance science-and-culture writer Clive Thompson put together a little web tool that allows you to paste in some block of text, hit “submit,” and have it return instantly with all of the alphanumeric characters removed, only the punctuation remaining. He’s posted an article about it at Medium, and it’s truly awesome. The graphic at the top of today’s post is from the first chapter of my new novel & Sons, and there’s something just magical about seeing your own work through some other structure.

There’s large scale and small scale understandings that we can take from that graphic. Look, for instance, at the fourth line, where we see four consecutive em-dashes. (—). When I look back at the text, I see that I use those as markers of parenthetical commentary, but they aren’t all of the same sort. Sometimes, they’re used to give a specific list—of materials, of options, of alternatives—within a single category. Sometimes they’re used—pay attention, now—to shift perspective within a sentence, like a quick camera shot. And sometimes they’re used to give a definition—a more plainspoken explanation of something complex—to demonstrate that there’s some knowledge that the characters take for granted but the reader probably won’t. So when you see a bunch of those in close quarters, it’s an indicator that the narrator is more actively guiding the reader through unfamiliar territory. Where it’s nothing but a string of periods and commas and question marks and quotation marks, it’s full scene, and the narrator expects that you’ll be able to track it just fine without the voice-over.

The 3,089 punctuation marks that were counted in my 32-page story were:

  • Periods: 836.
  • Commas: 927
  • Quotations, or “: 536
  • Apostrophes, or ‘: 536 also
  • Question marks: 78
  • Exclamation marks: 18
  • Em-dashes: 126
  • Paired parentheses (): 4 pair
  • Colon: 8
  • Semicolon: 8
  • Slash, or /: 5
  • Ampersand, or &: 7 (not surprising in a story called & Sons)

You might think that nearly a hundred punctuation marks per page is a lot, but it’s not as surprising as you think. They’re supposed to be invisible, you don’t notice them when you’re reading OR when you’re writing. (We just saw eight of them go by right there.) Anyway, there’s a lot of stuff we could talk about from that quantitative breakdown, but here’s the ones that stood out for me.

More Commas Than Periods. Clay’s an educated guy, he qualifies his sentences, thinks out loud toward a closer approximation of what he’s thinking.

Commas and Quotation Marks Are In Inverse Frequency. Where I look at strings of commas, quotation marks are in short supply. Conversely, where there’s lots of quoted dialogue, there aren’t many commas. This strikes me as fairly reasonable for the ways that most of us have conversations. We say something. Then maybe we say another thing. Then somebody else says something.

Lots of Apostrophes. And mostly these aren’t possessives. Mostly they’re contractions, which isn’t surprising in a dialogue-heavy story, but which also comes through in Cale’s narration to the reader as well. He’s a farm kid who hasn’t fully entered white-collar culture, and he’s just as likely to say can’t and wont and didn’t and we’re and you’re when he’s at work as he is back at the farm. Poker players like to talk about tells, the little involuntary motions we make when we’re excited or nervous. The use of contractions is Cale’s tell, and his colleagues on the faculty probably all feel it, even if they never overtly notice it. It’s a little culture marker that he’s not really one of us.

The Exclamation Marks All Come Together. There are eighteen of them total. Eleven happen within two pages, when Cale and his sister Ray are presented with their dad’s will and they both have to come to terms with his posthumous anger and disrespect and manipulation. They don’t like it, and they start barking at the lawyer and at each other. (Maybe we should just call ! the bark mark, because that’s what people do when they use it. They’re barking.)

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that quantitative analysis of writing should in any way become a standardized mode of literary criticism. But patterns are patterns, and they probably indicate something. We learn how to write by writing. But we learn how we write by looking back at what we’ve written, with whatever tools are in the box. If the patterns we find match our intentions, we’re probably doing what we intended. But if the patterns surprise us, we now have an analytical tool with which we can go back into the text, like spelunkers, and figure out what’s down there.