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Grammar Un-Schooling: Your 6 Hall Passes


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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

We were good students, most of us. At the very least we loved reading and writing, and if our interest flagged in other subjects, we were either daydreaming or reading novels hidden beneath our desks.

Complete sentences were our currency. We never started one with a cheap conjunction like “and” or “but,” or ended one with a preposition like “with” or “to.” Each paragraph featured a topic sentence supported by subsequent points.

A truly creative writer knew several dozen alternatives for the word “said” when attributing dialogue and we proved it (she bragged). In our hot little hands, we held fistfuls of hall passes giving us free rein for use of adjectives and adverbs. We believed that older, smarter children used longer, more complex sentences and worked twice as hard to harness the comprehensive effect of their entire adolescent lexicon because none of us would be caught dead saying anything as direct and simple-minded as “Joe loved Mary.”

Rules, glorious rules. When a writer’s confidence flounders, she can always grasp the handrails of her elementary education. Right?

Hmm. Don’t hold on too tightly.

As far as today’s fiction is concerned, your teacher’s name was Miss Information. Here’s a new set of hall passes that will allow you more freedom to explore and make effective use of language.

 

HALL PASS #1: Complete sentences not required

I could list a dozen reasons why novelists don’t have to be responsible for teaching youngsters the difference between a sentence and a fragment, but the most obvious would be that you aren’t writing a textbook—and heaven help you if it sounds like you are. Your reader will set the book right down and look for a voice that sounds more conversational. Intimate. Real. (See how the stops and spaces here add a certain thoughtfulness to what I’m saying? Sometimes what’s not in a sentence makes more impact than what is.)

Beauty can be found in the concision of image; the way silence is introduced by the systematic stripping away of every unnecessary word; the creative use of punctuation. To be sure, you won’t want to overuse any one technique. You’ll need enough full sentences to support meaning. But unless your goal is military rigidity, you do not want your sentences to be identical, hiking knee and flicking foot at predictable subject-verb intervals, if a purposeful mix of shapes, sizes, and textures will better grab the reader’s interest and underscore your message.

An ear for poetry can provide a lively syncopation to your prose. Certain sentences, while spinning and swirling, will impress with their sweeping grandeur. Others stand stilted. Some stride forth with confidence, then back off. One might gain momentum on an accelerating run across the page that gobbles up space as though it were an unlimited resource—then stop, panting, for breath. Repeated elements, patterned elements, or restated elements can drive home a point.

Let’s edit an example.

John marched across the room, muttering under his breath and kicking the cat out of the way.

It’s the first draft. Your mind is racing through the material and your fingers are flying and you don’t yet know how to manage the actions in the scene so you dump them all into one sentence. In subsequent drafts, think again. The structure of this sentence defeats what the writer is trying to accomplish. (And heaven help the nodding-off reader if the next sentence says, “Mary stormed out of the house, starting the car and backing it through the closed garage door.”) Take a cue from your verb choice: marching. Left, right, left. Chop, chop, chop. Short sentences increase tension. Establish order—after all, John didn’t do all of these things at once, did he? Mary certainly couldn’t.

Better for John:

John marched across the room. Muttered under his breath. Kicked the cat.

Each of these phrases now exudes its own energy. To mix things up, you might choose this counterpoint for Mary:

Mary stormed out of the house with so many unspoken invectives jamming her mind that after she started the car she backed it right through the closed garage door.

This complex, almost run-on sentence helps to illustrate that no two people feel anger in the same way.

Tip: Develop an ear for conscious prose construction by reading your work aloud. Sometimes it’s easier to hear than see the unintentional singsong or soporific rhythms that have seeped into your work, or the way complete sentences may have water-logged your prose. Use contractions; they’ll reduce wordiness and increase intimacy. Don’t fret about “correct comma placement” for now—put a comma where you hear a pause. Put a period where you need a longer pause. This is the work—and if you ask me, the fun—of writing.

 

HALL PASS #2: “And” or “but”? Your choice

Start your sentences with any word you want. But don’t tell your elementary English teacher I said that.

And at the butt end of your sentence—especially in dialogue—if it sounds natural, end with whatever word you want to. Just remember that the final position has the most power, and “to” is just so…puny. But if your daughter didn’t make the cut at the cheerleading tryouts, and she says, “Mom I just wanted to get in,” that final word carries power we can all relate to. The second most powerful position is the first word, so have a good reason for using the word you choose.

Tip: Make a one last pass to make sure your final words—especially at the end of paragraphs and sections—carry power that can resonate over the space that follows. Also, avoid a disturbing echo (and add visual interest) by checking that the first words in your paragraphs aren’t all the same, unless you purposefully used repetition to underscore the point you were trying to make.

 

HALL PASS #3: Use “said” almost exclusively

This has changed since the years when my local writing group distributed a handout in every conference packet with synonyms for “said.” These days, publishers would rather see the word “said” used in dialogue attribution for the following reasons:

  • The word is common to the point of near-invisibility, allowing it to serve its function without interrupting the flow of dialogue.
  • Its usage forces you to achieve meaning through the prose and the dialogue itself.

Tip: If you need to say “demanded” in the attribution, your demand wasn’t forceful enough. If you need to say “demanded forcefully,” you’re in real trouble. Evoke the demand and the force will be with you.

 

HALL PASS #4: “Simple” and “direct” can get you there faster

I will share a secret: I am predisposed to long, complex sentences. I am predisposed to lecturing. I am predisposed to passive language that does not necessarily deliver the syntax that defines a story. Every day I work hard to break down my writing into smaller, action-oriented sentences that suggest who is doing what to whom.

As to vocabulary, I follow Stephen King’s sage advice: Only use your thesaurus to remind you of words you’ve forgotten. A paragraph is not a canon you must load with big words, tamp with long sentences, and aim at the reader. If you feel tempted to show off your vocabulary and your ability to make love to six clauses per sentence, commercial publication might be a challenge.

 Tip: Sometimes “Joe loves Mary” is just the right kind of poetry.

 

HALL PASS #5: Free use of nouns and verbs

Many writers, diligently pursuing accumulatively startling prose, love their modifiers adoringly. The effect of modifier overuse can be a wall of words that keeps readers out rather than invites them in.

Tip: Never use an adverb/verb combo when a better verb would do (use “crept” over “moved slowly”). Never use an adjective/noun combo when a better noun would do (use “crate“ over “rustic wooden box“).

An even better tip: Sort through your modifiers for those that reach beyond simple description by actually moving the story forward. Keep those; question the others.

 

HALL PASS #6: Paragraphs still rule!

I’ve written here before about paragraphing as an important storytelling tool and have no desire to repeat myself. Just don’t underestimate the power of paragraphs to organize your fiction. Even where you insert the paragraph break can make all the difference, since readers will assume the writer is grouping her thoughts according to plan. An example:

Jenna shivered. The thin paper gown could offer no warmth, no comfort, no protection against this new, sanctioned violation. “Dr. Jane Smith, Intern” laid a hand on Jenna’s abdomen. “Just a light touch and this will all be over, Jenna. Try to relax.” She kept her gaze on raised knees. Rape. She never thought the word would be part of her experience.

Compare that to the same words, grouped differently:

Jenna shivered. The thin paper gown could offer no warmth, no comfort, no protection against this new, sanctioned violation. “Dr. Jane Smith, Intern” laid a hand on her abdomen.

“Just a light touch and this will all be over, Jenna. Try to relax.” She kept her gaze on raised knees. Rape. She never thought the word would be part of her experience.

In the first example, the paragraphing signals that we’ve remained in Jenna’s point of view. The second example is less clear in this regard—we might have jumped into Jane Smith’s POV to gain her perspective as a new doctor.

Tip: Paragraph with story-specific purpose: Instead of using the once-requested topic sentence, invite the reader to ride toward the paragraph’s concluding line—then beg their interest with the opening to the next.

 

SO THEN: WHY GRAMMAR?

We learn grammar so communication can be made be clear. Nothing can ruin a fine dramatic moment like lack of clarity, such as when the reader arrives at an emotional peak and thinks, “Wait, wait—which one of them is saying this?” We learned the rules so we can bend them to our purpose—to support the intention of our prose—without causing undue confusion.

I leave you with this thrilling example of what creative sentence structure can do to support meaning, from Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh:

Way up there near the roof of Go-Down No. 1, Aurora da Gama (PH), at the age of fifteen lay back on pepper sacks, breathed in the hot, spice-laden air, and waited for Abraham. He came to her as a man goes to his doom, trembling but resolute and it is around here that my words run out, so you will not learn from me the bloody details of what happened when she, and then he, and then they, and after that she, and at which he, and in response to that she, and with that, and in addition, and for a while, and then for a long time, and quietly, and noisily, and at the end of their endurance, and at last, and after that, until…phew! Boy! Over and done with!

Final tip: When revising, always ask yourself, “What am I trying to say here, and how can I best show it?” Then, see if you can find a way to support that meaning by commanding your sentence or paragraph structure to do your bidding—even if that means breaking a rule or three.

This is what makes our writing “creative.”

What other rules have you broken in the name of creativity, former grammarians? Give us an example of a passage of your writing that you’ve modified in some way to support its meaning. Have you ever had a grammarian “correct” your story to the point that the personality was edited right out of it?

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About Kathryn Craft

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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