Grammar and Fiction: Know When To Hold ‘Em; Know When To Fold ‘Em

By Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh

I often get ideas for blogs from conversations with other writers and readers. A few days ago, Stacy Bender, author of the Sav’ine Guard series and other books, and I were chatting about the importance of good grammar and punctuation in writing fiction.

As a 20 year veteran of teaching college writing, this becomes a landmine field for me. I took an oath to the Gods of Grammar that I shall forever defend proper usage, but, on the other hand, when do the rules get in the way of good flow, and where do we draw the line?

I’ve had many would-be writers tell me that proper grammar usage is inconsequential compared to the content, and others that tell me that it’s an editor’s job so why bother. One student told me that he thought English grammar was ‘capricious’, falling back on the theory that we make this stuff up as we go along. While I give him bonus points for the correct usage of capricious, English grammar does have set rules that actually follow a pattern.

On the flip side, I’ve seen writers get so mired in technically correct usage that the narrative, and sometimes the dialog, no longer makes sense. I once read a fairly popular book, which I won’t name, that did not contain a single contraction—even in dialog. The result was a stiff and nearly unreadable book where the characters sounded unrealistic and bordered on ridiculous.

It’s true; when it comes to fiction, there is a lot of latitude, but as they say–you have to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em.

Most writing teachers will tell you that you have to know the rules before you can break the rules, and that’s about right. This doesn’t mean that you have to have a degree in English to write a book. I’ve included a list of books you can use as reference if you think your grammar is weak, and even if you have a good handle on it, it pays to have a few good writing books on hand.

Learning to break the rules is an art form that takes some time to craft. Dialog is fairly easy; always remain true to the character. Huck Finn would not have been the captivating character that he was if he spoke in perfect form—in fact, it would have been very strange for a poor Southern boy in the 19th century to speak any other way than he did.

Narrative gets a little trickier. If you’ve written in first person, like Huck Finn, take care to keep the grammar patterns consistent even if it means breaking the rules. Third person generally will require more adhesion to standard grammar, but don’t fall into the trap of ‘perfect’ writing. Too many ‘whoms’ or correct usage of subject/verb agreement may not be the best choice for your narrative; it depends on the general tone and voice of the piece.

The bottom line is that you are writing for an audience; otherwise, you wouldn’t be concerned with publishing. When you are considering how much or how little to veer from standard English, consider how you want the readers to perceive both the dialog and narrative. Develop your tone and voice and stay true to your audience.

Suggested Reading:

The classic must have for any writer: Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

One of my favorites for good basics in a readable format: Stephen King’ On Writing.

Get things into perspective from a British point of view: Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves.

I recommend just about anything by Peter Elbow and William Zinsser especially On Writing Well.

Have at least one good style book on hand depending on your genre. I have all these: Modern Language Association, American Psychological Association, and Associated Press, and there are more depending on your audience and purpose.

For quick reference, the most reliable and up-to-date website is Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab.

Also, I’ve written an interactive manual for punctuation: The Befuddled Writer’s Guide to Punctuation.

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About Stacy Bender

Author of Ursa Kane and the Sav'ine series.
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