Friday, November 17, 2017

Rules Are Made to be Broken

Grammar – everyone’s gotta do it. How important is grammar and what resources do you use to make sure you’re on top of it. And when do you break grammar rules?

by Paul D. Marks

Grammar is important, obviously. Look at some books and how poorly they’re written. The whole point of grammar is to be able to write sentences that others will understand. That said, sometimes we can break the rules and people will still get the point we’re trying to make. After all, we’re not writing term papers, we’re writing fiction. And we’re not writing fiction in the 19th century, so we write more casually, break more rules. That said, we still need to be able to communicate.

I have a friend who wants to be a writer more than anything in the world. And she constantly shows me her work. But it’s so hard to get through it, partly because of grammar issues, that I end up giving up and not finishing it. You have to have more than a desire to write. Writing is both a craft and an art and you have to get the craft down. And part of the craft is knowing grammar.

Grammar provides the backbone or the foundation for your writing. You have to know it before you can start breaking the rules. And if you break the rules, you have to know what rules you’re breaking and why, for what effect.

You can, indeed, break the rules to create a certain “voice” or style of writing. Or in dialogue to have people talk like real people. I often break the rules of pacing, style, cadence and repetition for emphasis, to create that voice. To that end, I often write in sentence fragments. But I have to go back over everything to make sure I’m not overdoing it or doing it to the point of distraction. One of my favorite writers is James Ellroy, probably most famous for his LA Quartet which includes the book LA Confidential, that many of us know from the movie if not the book itself. As the LA Quartet series of books progressed, Ellroy’s style become more abbreviated. More staccato. At first I liked it. But by the time of White Jazz, the last book in the series, it had gotten to be a little much. And in some books that came after the series it was unbearable, at least for me. So I skipped a couple of his books. Though with his latest, Perfidia, he seems back on track. My point is, you can have too much of a good thing.

The main thing is that you want to have clarity of thought. You want people to be able to understand what you’re saying. To get it. You also want your story to read smoothly, even if it’s written in a staccato style. It shouldn’t be so overwhelming that people stumble through it.

One place where grammar rules don’t necessarily apply is in dialogue, because people don’t necessarily talk in complete, grammatically correct sentences. But dialogue is one of the places where I think people mess up. I see some very well-known writers whose characters often don’t use contractions. But most people do. And when I come across that kind of dialogue it just sounds so formal and takes me out of the story. It makes the characters sound stiff and as if they’re not native English speakers. And this always throws me out of the moment.

So sometimes it’s better to be more nimble than correct. Better not to miss the forest for the trees. In this case the trees are correct grammar but they block our view of the forest as a whole. And maybe it’s best to remember what Mark Twain said about this: “Great books are weighted and measured by their style and matter, and not the trimmings and shadings of their grammar.”

But then there’s Dan Brown, whose writing is atrocious and whose sales are through the roof. So who knows? Throw caution to the wind and the Chicago Manual in the fire.

So, what do I use to make sure I’m on top of it: These days my go-to source is the internet. Various sources of grammar can be found there in abundance. But I still have hard copies of Strunk and White, the Chicago Manual of Style and others. And I do go to them on occasion. There’s also classics like The Transitive Vampire, Eats, Shoots & Leaves and so many others, too many to name.

What are your thoughts and recommendations on this?


And now for the usual BSP:

Please check out the interview Laura Brennan, writer, producer and consultant, did with me for her podcast, where we talk about everything from Raymond Chandler and John Fante to the time I pulled a gun on the LAPD and lived to tell about it. Find it here:


Unknown said...

I found a lot of good and interesting points in this post. I haven't read Ellroy, but I've seen long-run authors fall back on gimmick a bit, as if they're getting tired of their own work. Note to self, "Don't."

More good advice: "...You have to know it before you can start breaking the rules. And if you break the rules, you have to know what rules you’re breaking and why, for what effect."

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, RM. It's always sort of hard to know when one is doing too much of a good thing. I think Ellroy definitely did that. So if we see that in others hopefully we can moderate it in ourselves.

GBPool said...

Ya gotta good point there, pal. Sometimes we just gotta do what we gotta do to for the sake of the story. If you read it lout loud or let your computer read it to ya and it sounds jake, then go with it. Dialogue let's us use our ears. If it sounds real, leave it alone. The rest of the story should be grammatically correct so our dear readers get the point.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Gayle. I agree with pretty much everything you said except the last sentence. Clearly the readers need to get the point, but I don't think everything needs to be totally grammatically correct to make that point. But enough so that the point comes across and stylistically so the reader doesn't stumble across the words.

Earl Staggs said...

I'm with you all the way on this, Paul. I like to put it this way: Learn the rules and keep them by an open window so you can toss them out when it serves the story better.

Kaye George said...

I agree completely. I liken learning the craft of writing before you can break the rules to the art world. You have to know how to do representational, realistic art (I'm talking mainly about painting) before you can effectively get all abstract-y and impressionistic-y. Early Picasso is pretty straight painting, as are the early works of Impressionists.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Earl. And I like your way of putting it. Excuse me now, I have to go open the window.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Kaye. I like your example. And early Picasso is definitely different from what he's mostly known for. I guess we need to know the basics first.

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Good post, Paul. In the spirit of grammarian passion, I thought you'd be amused by this Author's Note from my novel Go Down Hard:

I would like to warn my readers that they are about to enter a
world of situational punctuation. All apparent errors in traditional
punctuation are mine by choice, having overridden my
rigorous copy editor, not to mention the Chicago Manual of Style.
In this book, I sometimes eschew the grammatical canon to use
punctuation as a composer might use rests, to indicate cadence. I
hope this practice doesn’t annoy the purists as much as it worried
my editor, and I trust this disclaimer will anesthetize the pain.

Cheers, Craig

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Craig. And that's a great description. And really love your term of "situational puncuation"! I may have to borrow that, but I'll try to give you credit.

Dan Persinger said...

Fiction writers kill me.