When we hear the word “apostrophe,” most of us think of the punctuation mark denoting possessives and contractions. However, it also refers to a poetic device that can lend strong emotion to your prose.
We use apostrophe when we have our characters addressing dialogue to an absent party. Sometimes, the addressee is another character who is simply not present in the scene; other times, the addressee is a personification of an abstract concept, like love or death. John Donne’s sonnet Death, be Not Proud is frequently cited as a stunning example of this device.
In prose, apostrophic speech is neither so structured nor so lengthy as it tends to be in poetry. A character may address a line or two to an absent lover, a deceased brother-in-arms, or even a rainstorm that won’t leave the neighborhood. In these moments, we see characters expressing their innermost thoughts in their own words. Apostrophic speech in prose tends to be intimate and emotional; it gives us an opportunity to show the character expressing emotion without telling the audience that “Jane wished she could tell Deborah how much she’d meant to her.”
Apostrophes should be used carefully in fiction, because it’s easy to turn a powerful emotional tidbit into an awkward, unrealistic segue from your story. The shorter your apostrophic lines are, the better – especially when you’re first experimenting with the device. As you develop a feel for apostrophe, you’ll be able to use longer lines without breaking the flow of your story.
Although dialogue between characters should make up the vast majority of the speech in your prose, there are some things that a character can’t or won’t say to another character’s face. These things can be conveyed efficiently and powerfully by briefly using apostrophe. Although it can be a difficult device to master, it can help you develop your characters through showing, rather than telling, what’s on their minds.