Tuesday, September 29, 2020

What's Proper?


Terry Shames here, talking about whether I  find that proper grammar and structure sometimes interfere with style and tone, and  what liberties I take with language for the sake of style.

The operative word for me is “proper.” I don’t let anything interfere with the style and tone of what I’m writing, especially not some subjective idea of “proper” grammar and structure. 

                                    Small town Texas

I write books set in Texas, which means there’s a certain style and tone appropriate to my stories.  There are idioms and regional colloquialisms that crop up in the language that aren’t necessarily “proper.” Not everyone speaks like a rube, but some of my characters do. I’ve had to fight with editors (and autocorrect) when I have someone say, “We done all we could,” for example. But it’s the way people really talk. And Texans often use more words than necessary. I remember my dad laughing when he overheard a mechanic saying, “Look at this little bitty old tack I found in this tire.” Daddy said, “Look at this little tack” would have been just as descriptive. But  the original wording “sounds” right for a Texan.

I also use current, more “lax” conventions when I write. I use sentence fragments. And I start sentences with “and” or “but.” It isn’t that I don’t know the proper way to do it, but I’m interested in writing as conversation, not as instruction. 

Maybe the use of “proper” grammar and construction is what people mean when they talk about “literary” fiction, but I can point to plenty of literary novels that don’t adhere to the rules. For example Cormac McCarthy and E.L. Doctorow are among those who don’t use quotation marks when their characters speak. That said, it’s important for a writer to know the rules (or is it?) so she’ll know when she’s breaking them. 


There are only a few real “rules” that actually should rule: 

1) Use writing to communicate, not obfuscate (heh). If you’re writing for literature professors, maybe you can slip in some big words, but for the general reading audience, keep it simple.  Which means you need to know who you are writing for.

2) Use active more often than passive voice. “Mario encased the guy’s feet in concrete and threw him over the side,” rather than “The guy’s feet were encased in concrete and he was thrown over the side by Mario.” Except…that sometimes passive is fine. Depends on who’s telling the tale.

3) Be true to your characters. Dialogue has to reflect a character’s intent, her education, her quirks, his personality. 

That’s it. You can throw in a whole lot of extra rules under these umbrella rules, but they pretty much cover everything else. In other words “proper” grammar and structure actually means what is “proper” for the story you are telling, the characters you are writing about, and the audience you hope to reach. 

Speaking of audience, next Sunday, October 4 at 4PM  Central Standard Time, I'll be on a panel with Reavis Wortham and and Ben Rehder on Texas Murder and Mayhem. For more information, see my website events at Terryshames.com.


Paul D. Marks said...

Lots of good points, Terry. I think as fiction writers we're definitely in a constant battle with autocorrect and grammar checkers. I turn mine off. Though I do find it a little harder to read book that don't use quotation marks. But I guess to each his own.

Judi said...

Grammatically correct or not I like it when the author has the character talk in their natural voice. I remember a book I read once was about some pioneers in the Midwest. They had to work very hard to clear their land, build shelters for themselves and their animals. Salt of the earth people I thought. But they all spoke to each other as if they were Harvard graduates! I suppose it was possible that they were but I found it off-putting.

I need quotation marks most of the time too and even more important I need the author to make it clear who is talking. My other pet peeve is the kind of author who begins a section or a chapter with a pronoun. It might take me a whole page, or more, to figure out who "he" is.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Terry. I like your rules.

Brenda Chapman said...

Good post, Terry. I agree that dialogue doesn't always need to adhere to grammar rules. An interesting question this week :-)

Margie Bunting said...

I totally agree, Terry. Although I'm not an author, and I might be a card-carrying member of the grammar police, I believe it's fine to bend the rules where dialogue is concerned, to make it authentic, and sometimes to make a sentence or paragraph flow.

Susan C Shea said...

Excellent post, Terry, and your characters' voices ring as authentic, even to someone not from Texas. That "voice" is one of the best things in a wonderful series.

Kathy Waller said...

Your characters speak True Texan. It's the language I think in. (Please don't spread that second part around or they'll revoke my membership in the Professional Organization of English Majors.)

Terry said...

Thank for all your comments. I am knee-deep in trying to wrestle #9 to the ground and forgot to look at comments.