Thursday, April 1, 2010

Bending Grammar Rules in Fiction

You may have found places in your story where perfect grammar doesn’t necessarily sound right, but choosing exactly where to use good grammar and when to drop into “conversational” style can be a tricky skill to develop. Knowing when your work will be more effective with a modification of your grammar depends on how well you understand good grammar to begin with.

The Short and the Long of It All

Although fragments and lengthy sentences are opposites, they can be used to create similar effects in fiction. They should be used sparingly if they are to have impact.

Fragment Sentences

Fragments are most commonly found in dialogue, which helps it sound more realistic. In the narrative, fragments can be used either to speed up the text or to slow it down depending on how you use them and the context of their placement.

Fragments can balance complex sentences in action scenes, helping to draw attention to specific points in the scene while the rest of the action becomes a blur of activity.

Unwieldy Sentences

Sometimes the writer wants to include several concepts in one sentence. This can work well in action sequences, and fight scenes especially, because of the need to convey speed in changing actions. However, some writers use this technique poorly as a way of avoiding overusing the characters’ names or “he/she”.

The following is a grammatically poor sentence containing six concepts and possibly five different locations (as well as comma splicing of run-ons):

“She woke and had a shower, throwing on her blue dress as she rushed out the door and boarded the train, arriving at work just in time for the meeting.”
Try to visualise each action you present as you read your manuscript. If you find your character attempting to do a shopping list of actions in one sentence, you need to slow down and separate that sentence. Break the list of actions up with dialogue or thoughts, and delete anything that drags the story instead of providing information about character or plot.

In the sentence above, the writer would have to decide whether it is important to show the character waking, showering, and dressing, or whether to start the scene with the character barely making it into work on time.

Unwieldy sentences like these often give you a clue that what you’ve written is filler material that can be tightened up. Save complex sentences for important choreographed action that needs to flow.

What grammar rules do you find it necessary to bend or break in your writing?

---------------------------------------------Elsa Neal
Elsa Neal owns, an online magazine for writers. Visit her website to download her free mini report on the Ten Most Frustrating Grammar Rules and How to Remember Them. Read her writing insights at her Fictional Life Blog. Elle is based in Melbourne, Australia, and is currently learning how to raise a happy family.

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  1. Good post, Elle. Thanks.

    Having been an English teacher, I had a difficult time writing fragments. Now, I do it when appropriate.

    I still struggle with a particular pronoun-antecedent agreement question. For example, sometimes saying "his or hers" becomes cumbersome. It's simpler to resort to "theirs." If there is a practical way to reword the sentence, I'll opt for that.

    Write on!

  2. LOL I'm still working on adhering to grammar rules rather than breaking them.
    I avoid incomplete sentences outside of dialogue. For me personally, reading a book with a lot of short, choppy sentences is awkward. So I don't use them in my own books.

  3. Elsa, I love to break rules. I use fragments, in narrative as well as dialogue. Sometimes I use too many and have to "repair" whole paragraphs.

  4. That example was definitely a confusing sentence to follow. I try to vary my sentences and chop up the long ones when needs be.

    Bold Boomer Broad

  5. Great post!

    As for me, I'm still learning the rules, so most of the times when I break them, it's not intentional.

  6. I break rules, but, hopefully, I do it consciously. Mostly, I do it in dialogue so it reflects real life.


  7. I use fragments to avoid long sentences. Then I overuse semi-colons to stick them together.

  8. Sharon,
    I know the feeling. If I have any doubt that a reader will understand I broke a rule deliberately for effect I tend to fix it rather than risk it.

    Singular "they" and "theirs" never bothered me, though, until I realised how much it bothered others.

    L. Diane,
    They are awkward, and it works when awkward (or quick, choppy, etc.) is what you want to convey. But the effect is lost with overuse.

    It's good to be able to spot when you've gone into fragment overdrive. Save the best for effect.

    LOL. I had to make the message obvious. One concept per sentence is a good rule to stick to most of the time.

    Thanks. One day it will be intentional. :-)

    Dialogue is a really good way to practice bending the rules. If your narrative is pristine it can really make the dialogue pop.

    I love semi-colons too; they are definitely an under-utilised tool.

  9. I'll use poor English on purpose to show the attitude. For instance, I'll use 'real' instead of 'very'.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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