Bending Grammar Rules in Fiction

You may have found places in your story where perfect grammar doesn’t necessarily sound right, but choosing exactly where to use good grammar and when to drop into “conversational” style can be a tricky skill to develop. Knowing when your work will be more effective with a modification of your grammar depends on how well you understand good grammar to begin with.

The Short and the Long of It All

Although fragments and lengthy sentences are opposites, they can be used to create similar effects in fiction. They should be used sparingly if they are to have impact.

Fragment Sentences

Fragments are most commonly found in dialogue, which helps it sound more realistic. In the narrative, fragments can be used either to speed up the text or to slow it down depending on how you use them and the context of their placement.

Fragments can balance complex sentences in action scenes, helping to draw attention to specific points in the scene while the rest of the action becomes a blur of activity.

Unwieldy Sentences

Sometimes the writer wants to include several concepts in one sentence. This can work well in action sequences, and fight scenes especially, because of the need to convey speed in changing actions. However, some writers use this technique poorly as a way of avoiding overusing the characters’ names or “he/she”.

The following is a grammatically poor sentence containing six concepts and possibly five different locations (as well as comma splicing of run-ons):

“She woke and had a shower, throwing on her blue dress as she rushed out the door and boarded the train, arriving at work just in time for the meeting.”

Try to visualise each action you present as you read your manuscript. If you find your character attempting to do a shopping list of actions in one sentence, you need to slow down and separate that sentence. Break the list of actions up with dialogue or thoughts, and delete anything that drags the story instead of providing information about character or plot.

In the sentence above, the writer would have to decide whether it is important to show the character waking, showering, and dressing, or whether to start the scene with the character barely making it into work on time.

Unwieldy sentences like these often give you a clue that what you’ve written is filler material that can be tightened up. Save complex sentences for important choreographed action that needs to flow.