Punctuation is Music

Jan 19, 2023 8:01 PM

If you want to improve your writing, match your punctuation to the mood.

Punctuation is to writing as music is to movies. In The Joker, the renowned composer Hildur Guðnadóttir used the cello in the opening scenes to create empathy with the protagonist. But then, as The Joker’s dark side and inner turmoil was revealed, the orchestra got louder and louder. The angrier he was, the bigger the orchestra became. Through it all, the music reflected the audience’s perception of him: simple, naive, and not particularly cool.

But Guðnadóttir used a different musical style for her HBO series, Chernobyl, where her score communicated the sense of confusion and creeping fears that people feel after a nuclear disaster. Words weren’t enough to express grief and sorrow. To illuminate those emotions, Guðnadóttir used real-life recordings of an old radioactive power plant. And in doing so, she matched the series’ retro-futuristic vibe.

Like Guðnadóttir, the writer Robert Caro is famous for adding symphonies of punctuation to his books. If a non-fiction book is going to endure, he says, it should match the quality of prose you find in novels.

In his Pulitzer-Prize winning biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, Caro wrote about the State of Texas’ Senate election in 1948. After the first primary, Johnson was 40,000 votes behind his opponent. He was in the hospital at the time. There, in the midst of frailty, he yearned to make up the gap in votes. To describe Johnson’s situation, Caro typed with an index card at the top of his desk which read: “Is there desperation on the page?”

Caro knew that neither facts or stories were enough. Only punctuation could adequately show Johnson’s anguish — his fight, his frailty, and his desperation.

Reflecting on the scene, Caro said: “You have to have a mood… I had to show the desperation in the rhythm, in the choice of words, because just putting down the facts wasn’t enough. This chapter was about a desperate man and his last chance.”

Like Caro, you should use punctuation to match your mood. If the scene is tense, keep your sentences short. Be quick. Maintain momentum. Go. Go. Go. But alternatively, when you want to slow the pacing of your prose, add commas and other kinds of punctuation that ask the reader to stop, pause, think, slow down… and reflect.


Thanks to Sid Jha and Daniel Jonas for their help with this note.

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