YOUR STORY IS YOUR MESSAGE: YOUR MASTERY OF THE LANGUAGE IS YOUR MESSENGER.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Practical Benefits of Grammar for the Professional Fiction Writer in Telling Effective Stories

       Fiction writers play fast and loose with the rules of standard grammar and usage all the time. Indeed, creative writing wouldn't be very creative if novelists and short-story authors couldn't leave out a conjunction, use a dependent clause as a sentence, or commit any other crime against grammar, be it misdemeanor or felony, any time they think it's called for.    
       One can't hand down prescriptive edicts to you that must be obeyed at the risk of being cast into grammar hell; you're a storyteller, and by that virtue you aren't obligated to follow "the rules." But you need to understand that using nonstandard English constructions will have consequences, either favorable or otherwise.    
       We're all educated throughout 13 years of schooling in the structural order, spellings, punctuation, and more-or-less universally used idioms and slang (idioms and slang that we all know and occasionally use no matter what region of the country we call home) of what the linguists and grammarians who write Language Arts textbooks call “current standard American English,” and we expect to hear or see it when we listen to or read what others say or write. It's what makes bayou Cajuns and West Virginia mountain people—me, for example—and Texicans and all of the other speakers of the 26 distinct dialects of our United States able to step out of those dialects and communicate with one another in a common flavor of English. No matter how unintelligible some our regional slang, idioms, constructions, and pronunciations might be to some folks in some other region, we can all speak and write the standard American English we were all taught in school, and we can understand one another via this common medium of cultural communication.    
       When a writer does not present our language to us in the standard way we've been taught, we can get lost, confused, or, worst of all, irritated with the writer unless it's done skillfully. For example, English adjectives come before their nouns. We say “black crayon” or “long speech,” not “crayon black” or “speech long” (as Spanish speakers do). Now, when songwriters write about the “river wide” or the “mountain high,” we get along well enough with that nonstandard arrangement in the literary and poetic environment of the song. However, if, in an ordinary social setting, you were to say your friend Tim arrived in a “car black long,” the person you were talking with would probably make a face and say, “Huh?”
       When you play around with the standards, know there will likely be some effect because you've stepped out of the language structures readers have been taught and are familiar with. Know, too, that before you can have a reasonable idea of what effect breaking grammatical or stylistic “rules” might have, you first have to be familiar with those rules so you'll know when and in what ways you depart from them. You have to master the elements of conventional grammar and style in order to know what you're doing when you bend or break any of those elements at the behest of your literary muse.
       Then, too, there's an elemental question that fairly begs to be asked: if proficiency in the language isn't important to you and you don't work hard to excel there, why in the world are trying to insinuate yourself into an area of endeavor where language expertise is as elemental as a painter's brush and palette or a sculptor's chisel?

What do you think? 

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This blog entry was adapted from the Introduction of Writers' Devils: The Grammar Guide for Fiction Writers, by Dan Persinger, available in Kindle eBook format at Amazon

5 comments:

  1. I agree. Creativity is one thing. Being inconsistent with grammar might be just laziness. It's like fingernails on a chalkboard.

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  2. Of course! As I writer, I agree all the way. I break lots of rules in my fiction, but I know which rules I'm breaking--and why. At least I strive very hard to know what I'm doing! You can easily distinguish a book, full of broken rules, that is written by someone who doesn't know them from on written by someone who does, IMHO. There's no excuse for a writer to not know how to write. (Feel free to edit any mistakes in the above, Dan.) :)

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  3. More great stuf, Dan. Please keep it coming.

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  4. There is one rule I break all the time ... "then" is a conjunction as far as I am concerned. "He ran, then he fell" sounds to my ear as a perfectly good sentence. The Grammar Nazis say this is wrong, but that's because they're still using 1913 grammar books in 2013. The English language evolves and changes ... I wish these people would admit it.

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  5. Jim, I agree with you completely and use that construction frequently. The only "rule" I adhere to without fail is: Whatever works best.

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