The “Rules of Grammar” and Novel Writing

Red PenI recently read a blog post/article about “breaking the rules of grammar” in novel writing and thought I’d chime in as it’s a common topic among authors that often stirs much controversy. First, I’d like to point out that everything in this article/blog is my own opinion. Moreover, there is no theorem or equation to prove or disprove any of this—it’s a conjecture-based subject, after all.

With that in mind, the article in question held that breaking (I believe the actual word used was ‘ignoring’) rules of grammar is justifiable when writing a novel so long as you simply ‘know the rules’ being broken. This sentiment seems to be shared by many aspiring authors, and while I strongly believe that grammar ought to be looked upon with more elasticity and flexibility in novel writing than with other forms of writing, I don’t think ignoring grammar altogether is a good way of putting it–it sends a mixed message.

Why? Because I’ve found that so many young authors take this reasoning as a justification to ignore these rules out of convenience. Don’t get me wrong, there are numerous (sometimes countless) occasions in books where correct grammar can and perhaps should be sidestepped. An author should not feel restricted by these rules. However, simply knowing the rules isn’t enough justification for avoiding them, which leads me to my first tip for serious novelists.

Be deliberate in your writing
I shake my head when I hear a young writer say he or she writes poetry because it’s ‘easy.’ Good poetry is anything but easy. Granted, there are fewer words that need to go on a page, but by the same token, there are fewer words to work with in getting your message across. This means every single word, as well as the tone and diction (etc.) of that word and line, must be purposeful, interlacing just so with the other lines and words to form the completed tapestry.

The same ideology, perhaps to a slightly lesser degree, ought to be applied to novel writing. If you’re hell bent on including fragmented sentences, ask yourself why. How does it fit in that particular scene? What does it accomplish? How does it affect the flow? Have you overused fragments to the point where it’s distracting? I don’t suggest racking one’s brain every time he or she is faced with breaking a rule, but these are questions that ought to be asked from time to time with the hope that they become second nature so the author can begin to identify when such questions are most necessary.

What it means to break a rule with purpose
To bring home this point, let’s look at a significant truth about novel writing as it applies to the human condition.

Write how you think/talk.
Most of us were taught in grade school not to write how we think or talk, which is a good rule of thumb when writing most anything formal, such as business letters, reports or technical articles. However, a novelist is faced with the unique task of doing more with their words than simply delivering a message:  he/she must find a way to manipulate the reader into feeling something for the characters. One of the most effective ways to do this is through narrative voice, which can require a different kind of fluidity than what is typically found in non-narrative forms of writing. Humans are by nature an empathetic species. For that reason, we respond best to a novel when we understand a character, not simply by knowing the facts of what they are dealing with (incidentally, the same reasoning can be applied to the Show vs. Tell argument, but that’s a whole other discussion).

Flavor vs. Facts
To further augment the point of writing to an empathetic reader, consider any funeral you’ve attended. What kind of eulogy are you most likely to remember? What kind will best reflect the life lived by the deceased? A eulogy that recites a factual/linear timeline of the person, or one that tells a story, be it embellished or not? The answer to both questions is the one that tells a story, because while the deadpan facts are perhaps more accurate, we don’t actually grasp much about life without experiencing the flavor of it. It’s the flavor that gives us context.

With these two things in mind, let’s take a gander at why breaking a grammar rule, such as the inclusion of fragmented sentences, can be effective. Simply put, we often think and talk in fragments. This is because so much of the context carried forth by the filler words of a complete sentence is already implied and understood without having to say them. Our brain is actually a fairly efficient instrument if you think about it.

Take this test. Go on…I’ll wait. It literally takes a minute or less.

See my point? Our brain fills in gaps and smoothens out inconsistencies as it perceives them in order to help us function. This is a critical aspect to recognize in your readers—and they ALL share this characteristic. This is why it’s OK and often best to break rules of grammar here and there—not for mere convenience. It’s not about simply knowing the rules; it’s about having the forethought to break the rules with purpose.

Another common phrase I’ve heard among authors is, “breaking the rules is OK if it’s done right.” I would apply caution to this thinking as well, as the question of what is “right” or “correct” will always be a subjective measurement. I contend the question should focus more on what is most effective with the mindset of balancing an impactful narrative voice with writing for clarity. In determining how the rules of grammar apply to this approach, think of them as a set of guitar strings:  pluck the right one at the right time and you have a sweet-sounding melody; pluck the wrong one, or one that ought not be plucked at that moment, and it disrupts the flow of the entire song.

I believe the key points to take from this are:

  • Understand your audience and how to trigger emotional responses
  • Break the rules of grammar with purpose (write how you think and talk without sacrificing clarity)
  • Write for experience more than simple facts

And remember that writing evolves—even the ‘greats’ are constantly learning. Like most things in life, as soon as you think you’ve figured it all out, you may actually be regressing because of it.


About authorphilpartington

Phil is a writing enthusiast of many years, having been published in numerous online and national print trade and sports publications over the past decade. He has spent the past five years delving back into the world of fiction writing, focussing on the fantasy, horror and suspense genres. Deshay of the Woods is his first novel.
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9 Responses to The “Rules of Grammar” and Novel Writing

  1. Dyane says:

    Reblogged this on Dropped Pebbles and commented:
    Some very good and useful information here. Check it out.

  2. Reblogged this on Tricia Drammeh and commented:
    Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  3. Wonderful article, Phil. Reblogged. Authors can’t always use grammatical correct sentences, particularly in cases or dialogue, or even narrative where we’re trying to establish Voice. In certain places, I’ll use incomplete sentences in order to underline a point, or to evoke a certain emotion. I absolutely agree that breaking the rules of grammar must be a deliberate tool that serves a purpose. We can’t just break the rules because we no longer care about grammar, or because we’re trying to rush a book from first draft to self-publication. Sadly, there are many authors out there screaming that only the story is important, and that since many readers don’t understand the rules of grammar, that’s an excuse for authors not to worry about it.

    • Thanks for the comment and follow, Tricia. It was recently pointed out to me that, while many authors are screaming that grammar isn’t important, others can take the opposite stance in suggesting the rules CAN’T be broken. I think both extremes are detrimental. It’s good to know I’m not alone :).

  4. Thank-YOU for saying good poetry is anything but ‘easy’!! This is a real irk of mine as I write poetry and there is so much fluff out there giving it a bad name.. Much appreciated!

    • 🙂 Studying poetry in college (mostly Victorian and Medieval; I particularly liked Coleridge, Wordsworth and Whitman–was never much of a Poe fan though) ruined writing poems for me. It made me a little bit more attuned to what was good and what was crap. 😛 I stick to prose.

  5. Pingback: The Importance of Grammar | Seventeen 20

  6. Pingback: The Importance of Commas | Phil Partington, author page

  7. Pingback: Grammar Lesson: That vs. Which | Phil Partington, author page

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