You know how sometimes we say something sarcastically, and do the double-finger twitch that's supposed to symbolize quotation marks? How do you write that in non-dialogue text (narration)? Not describing that a character is talking like that and doing those things with his fingers, but as part of the non-dialog text.


He gave him a "playful" look.

(Would this be correct?)

P.S. Please don't tell me to describe what the character's eyes looked like (showing not telling). I know that already. This is just an example. I'm asking what I (the writer/narrator) could do to express sarcasm in the text.

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    I've edited your question to make it clearer what you're asking. I was all set to answer with how to show sketch-quotes in dialogue, when I reread your question. Dec 14, 2017 at 16:34
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    I'm struggling with what it is you are trying to convey, could you clarify? Perhaps it needs more context about what might be happening with the characters. Who is being sarcastic? Is it the person giving the "playful" look or is it the narrator? What does a sarcastic playful look convey?
    – Spagirl
    Dec 14, 2017 at 17:26
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    @Spagirl It's not really important to the question. 'Playful' is just an example. The OP wants to know how she, the author, can be sarcastic within narration. If you're finding the question confusing, remove all ideas of characters from the equation. They aren't part of the question. It should make sense then. Dec 14, 2017 at 18:35
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    @ThomasMyron I understand that ‘playful’ is an example, but it has to have meaning to work as one. Characters cannot be excluded from the concept of sarcasm, it requires a person.
    – Spagirl
    Dec 14, 2017 at 19:22
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    @Spagirl, yes. And that person is ME, the narrator/writer. Dec 14, 2017 at 19:22

4 Answers 4


This is one of those instances where figuring out how to show is simply too tedious and detracts too much. It is far easier and far better to simply tell.

The first thing to realize is that there is no 'right' way to do this (unless it's in a style manual you are following). You're idea of simply putting quote marks there is a good one. And quite honestly, I can't think of any better way to do it.

He gave him a 'playful' look.

The only thing I might do is use the single quotes rather than the double. Double quotes makes it look too much like dialogue for me.

This technique does everything you need it to, and that's ultimately all that matters. It conveys the point to the reader quickly, clearly, and in the fastest manner possible. Honestly, trying to think up a different way to do this would probably yield an unclear or slow method which would be worse.

Go with the quotes.

It should be noted that this is my opinion, and not backed by any formal style guide that I know of.

  • In US English we always use double quotes. Single quotes are used to nest quotes inside of double quotes. Using single quotes just makes your sentence look like it was written in British English. Dec 14, 2017 at 21:34
  • Hmm. I didn't know that about US English. I've always used single quotes outside of dialogue. In the end it all comes down to what works best for the story. Dec 14, 2017 at 22:04

Call them air quotes. Enclose in single quotes, you can emphasize it with further characterization. "She said she was 'devastated'," Julie said, with air quotes. "Right, right? Because I thought, then why were you laughing?"

Don't use "air quotes", use actual quotes, and call the gesture air quotes.

  • Thank you, but as I've explained in the question, I wanted to know how to use air quotes outside of the dialog. As if I (the writer/narrator) was using air quotes. Dec 14, 2017 at 16:15
  • @KlaraRaškaj The same way, except the narrator's body movements are never described (unless you are using a first person POV). Just use single quotation marks. The gesture is derived from actual literature that does that, uses single quotation marks around a word to indicate it should be taken sarcastically or not literally. That said, in normal 3rd person narrative, the narrator HAS no emotions, they report and describe the feelings of others, not themselves.
    – Amadeus
    Dec 14, 2017 at 16:57

Don't use quotation marks.

They just look as if you don't know what word to use. It makes you (the author, not the narrator) look lost for words. That's not your intent.

One option is to change the sarcastic part to something that makes it clear that the intention is sarcastic:

He gave him an oh-so-playful look.

A neutral narrator wouldn't say it like that, so the sarcastic tone comes through clearly.

Another option is actually to use air quotes in the same way people use them when you cannot see them: say them out loud.

He gave him a quote-unquote playful look.

Both options are perfectly fine, it's really more a question of the character of your narrator which one they would use. In my mind, the second option sounds a bit more "gossipy", while the first one sounds more sardonical and mocking.

I realize that the question is quite old, but I do think the accepted answer has unintended connotations and is therefore a bit problematic.

  • Your options seem okay, but I wanted to imply the sarcasm in the narrator's tone of voice, not with the words he uses. Apr 11, 2019 at 17:34

Simile / Metaphor

To express that the narrator is being sarcastic as opposed to a character, I might use a (sarcastic) simile or metaphor.

Doug winked playfully. Alex stared back with the cheerful levity of a rabid badger.

This gets across:

  • Alex was upset
  • The narrator is approaching the situation with tongue-in-cheek

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