When I first started writing, my experience with grammar was all about what sounded right, and I knew nothing about the actual rules. I’d never learned to diagram a sentence, and I had no idea what a gerund was.
Sure, my instinctive understanding—that “what sounds right” approach—was better than average. Good enough to be a technical writer and sometime-editor at any rate.
But I also understood that it was best to know the rules before breaking them, so one of the first things I did after deciding to write fiction was study the rules I was probably supposed to learn decades ago in school. *smile*
Many times, when we’re trying to correct something, we overdo it at first. If our story needs more scene setting or description, we might add too much. If we’re overusing modifiers, we might strip out too many and leave our writing stark. Or if we hear advice to start with action, we might doubt our already-good instincts and end up neglecting our characters in the first scene.
I’m no exception to that issue. That’s one reason why I strongly believe in emphasizing that virtually all writing advice should be taken as “Your Mileage May Vary” guidelines rather than hard-and-fast rules.
In my early drafts, especially with my voiceless technical writing background, I struggled to relax my new knowledge of grammar enough to let my voice through. Yes, we want to avoid passive voice, but not if it requires a clunky, would-never-be-worded-that-way-by-real-people rewrite. Etc., etc. with the rest of the “rules.”
That’s why I’m so thrilled to have Julie Glover share her guest post on how to use (or even abuse) the rules of grammar to strengthen our voice. Julie has been my copyeditor for my novels, and she’s never messed with my voice, so she definitely understands this issue, but she’s also a grammar expert.
In other words, it is possible to mix these two traits, and she’s going to show us how. *smile* Please welcome Julie Glover!
Using Grammar—and Breaking the Rules—
for the Sake of Voice
Did you just have a visceral reaction to that word? Because while some writers—like me—are grammar geeks who love arguing the pros and cons of the Oxford comma, other writers stiffen with memories of red-pen-wielding English teachers ready to flay students for poor use of punctuation. Why couldn’t they just leave you alone to write your amazing story?
Whichever camp you’re in, I hope you’ve figured out by now that bad grammar makes speedbumps for your reader. For those naturally gifted in grammar, no problem. But if comma placement isn’t your thing, you need someone in your circle who can copy edit your manuscript for submission or publication.
Yet have you ever thought how grammar—the system and structure of a language—can deepen your voice?
Grammar isn’t merely parts of speech, where the commas go, or which words get capitalized. It’s a whole system of language to convey the meaning you want to give. We have societally agreed-upon rules to facilitate communication, but you can use those rules in different ways—or even break the rules—to leave the desired impression on your readers.
Let’s talk specifics for how you can wield the tools of grammar for different effects.
Effect #1: Pacing
Some genres and scenes require fast pacing, others slower. For example, if your protagonist is running through hostile terrain to escape a serial killer, you don’t want long, lackadaisical sentences that slow your reader’s pace. Instead, you want sentence structure and punctuation that shows intensity and urgency.
To achieve a faster pace, we can:
- shorten phrases and sentences,
- leave out unnecessary descriptors,
- use more periods,
- loosen the structure,
- skip the conjunctions (such as and), or
- use sentence fragments.
Take a passage from The Scorpio Races by YA author Maggie Stiefvater, in which she describes the main character’s ride with her friend Sean on a brilliant horse-like creature (“Corr,” a capaill usice). Written by the strict rules of grammar, we might get:
We are flying.
Corr’s skin is hot against my legs. His skin is clingy, somehow, like when the current pushes your toes into the sinking sand. I feel his pulse in my pulse and his energy in my energy. I know this is the mysterious, terrifying power of the capaill usice. We all know it, how it seizes you and confuses you. Then, before you know it, you are in the foamy ocean water. But Sean leans forward and hard against me in order to reach Corr’s mane. He ties the mane in knots. First, he ties three knots. Then he ties seven. Then he goes back to tying three. I try to focus on what he’s doing with those knots instead of his strong body pressed against mine and the way his warm cheek brushes against my hair.
Okay, fine, but Stiefvater quickens the pace and writes this instead:
We are flying.
Corr’s skin is hot against my legs—clingy, somehow, like when the current pushes your toes deeper into the sand. I feel his pulse in my pulse, his energy in mine, and I know this is the mysterious, terrifying power of the capaill usice. We all know it, how it seizes you and confuses you and then you are in the water before you know it. But Sean leans forward, hard, against me, in order to reach Corr’s mane, and ties knots in it. Three. Then seven. Then three again. I try to focus on what he’s doing instead of his body pressed against mine, his cheek against my hair.
Slowing the pace involves the opposite—stretching out sentences with longer phrases and more descriptors.
In historical author Elizabeth Essex’s Scandal in the Night, time seems to stand still when the hero and heroine come upon each other after many years of absence. Note how the scene slows in pace:
At first, she only looked at the hand he extended, roughened by weather and work with horses, and still far too brown for an Englishman. And then her gaze slid to his wrist, to the single, beaten silver bracelet he still wore.
Yes. Her disbelieving gaze ricocheted up to his face, and her eyes darkened in shock. Remembrance and confusion raced across her skin like a hot shadow, and then fled, leaving her drained of color. Even her freckles blanched. She pulled away abruptly, and pressed her hand to her throat, stumbling a little sideways, as if her world were tilting off its upright, starched axis.
Not a single fragment, several descriptive details, more dependent phrases, and longer sentences. Beyond word choice, grammar can help you achieve the right pacing.
Effect #2: Emotion
Have you considered using grammar to convey emotion? Yes, emotion.
Sentence structure, capitalization, and punctuation choices can cue the reader into your characters’ mood, tone, and feelings.
Following are a couple passages I made up to show what I mean. See if you can infer the underlying emotion.
Nobody. Just nobody. That’s who cares about Lynette and her stupid boyfriend and their long make-out session and the video evidence and the Facebook likes and the incessant buzz going all around school.
Sure, the content lets on that this narrator actually does care, regardless of what she says. Jealous, maybe? But with the two sentence fragments at the beginning and the run-on sentence with all those ands and no commas, you can hear the tone.
Here’s another one:
I stretched up on my tippy-toes and peered over the crowd, looking for him in the crowd emerging from the train. At the sight of his familiar face, my breath caught, clung, clutched to my lungs. Damn. Who knew one glance at my old boyfriend would make my heartbeat reach Call First Responders level?
You got this emotion, right? Longing, attraction, excitement.
Grammatically speaking, I did several things to tug on the thread of emotion:
- Caught, clung, clutched is an alliteration without the and which stalls time to indicate she’s feeling something strong.
- Expressing damn as a single-word fragment with italics gives us a peek into her head and her inability to think clearly.
- Then I used capitalization with Call First Responders as a unique descriptor for her visceral reaction of a racing heartbeat.
Grammar, people. It’s just basic grammar.
If you want a real-world example, take a look at The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Your high school English teacher would likely make you rewrite the following sentence, but Green breaks the rules in a powerful way to show us protagonist Hazel Grace’s emotion:
As it got closer to ten, I grew more and more nervous: nervous to see Augustus; nervous to meet Peter Van Houten; nervous that my outfit was not a good outfit; nervous that we wouldn’t find the right house since all the houses in Amsterdam looked pretty similar; nervous that we would get lost and never made it back to the Filosoof; nervous nervous nervous.
A colon, semicolons, repeated word, and even that last nervous nervous nervous with no punctuation whatsoever (~gasp!~). But did you get it? Do you sympathize with that feeling? Haven’t you felt that level of nervousness before?
Let your language structure pull double-duty, by not only conveying content but emotion. Dig deeper into your prose and apply grammar rules, or break grammar rules, to effectively show what your character is feeling.
Effect #3: Characterization
Have you heard that characters need to use different dialogue to distinguish their personalities and perspectives? That advice holds true for anything you write from one person’s point of view. The way in which you craft a character’s language can tell us a lot about the character himself.
In my RWA Golden Heart® Finalist novel, Sharing Hunter, there are two points of view, Chloe and Rachel. Notice the differences not only in word choice but language structure, as they describe the same guy:
Rachel: Then the image shifted to Hunter Mills, mentally tracing the angles and curves of his body. He’d long been in my sights, the subject of secret sketches in my notebook as he sat across the room in economics. Not only was his chiseled body and face the stuff of Michelangelo sculptures, he was the best of the popular guys—the sort who deserved to be well-liked because he was genuinely nice to everyone. Including me. Hunter was…a masterpiece.
Chloe: Even from behind, that boy was hard candy that made my mouth water. Hard candy with a surprising intellect in the center, like the chewy center of a Tootsie Roll pop.
Artistic Rachel takes her sweet time describing Hunter, even pauses with an ellipses, those three dots at the end. While Chloe gets right to the point, with one of her two sentences being a fragment.
You can use what you know about grammar to cue the reader into what kind of person your POV character is:
- Is your heroine a creative type who uses more lyrical phrases and descriptive sentences?
- Or maybe a tough law enforcer who tends toward short sentences and fragments?
- Is your hero a fast-paced thinker and talker with a tendency toward run-ons and hyphenated adjectives?
- Or perhaps an overeducated professor whose language structure, even in his head, is indubitably perfectionistic?
Your grammar choices should differ depending on the character you’re writing. Look at everything, from sentence length to preferred parts of speech to punctuation to create the speaking and thinking style of your characters. Not only will your reader be able to distinguish points of view, they’ll better understand who your characters are.
Effect #4: Voice
Read a historical romance author and then a modern-day thriller author, and you’ll recognize dissimilar sentence structure and even punctuation.
Different genres have different voices, and some of that involves the acceptable length of sentences, number of adjectives and dependent clauses, and even parts of speech you might see. I’m sorry, but if you’re writing young adult and you never use a hyperbolic adverb (totally, completely, unbelievably), you haven’t hung around enough teens.
One of the ways a writer often knows what genre suits them best is discovering how they naturally write. Does their typical grammar sound more lyrical or choppy? More meandering or straightforward? You can learn a genre’s standards and write to those parameters, but you might have some clues already from your usual bent.
Your specific author voice also shows up in grammar choices you, consciously or unconsciously, make.
For instance, my critique partner and I have somewhat different voices, meaning she might use a comma where I would use an em dash (—) or she would choose sentence fragments where I would opt for a series of phrases. As long as it’s grammatically acceptable and works on the page, we uphold one another’s differences.
Of course you can go overboard with your “style”—we get it, e.e. cummings, you don’t capitalize anything—but even grammar can be molded to reflect the author you are. A quality editor will ensure your grammar is correct while respecting your own flair on the page.
Many writers unwittingly use grammar to convey the mood and message they desire. But what if you consciously developed grammar skills to make your writing more effective, more engaging, more uniquely you? What if you went back over scenes or passages with an eye to how your choices in sentence structure, punctuation, etc. could move the scene from working to wow?
Believe or not, grammar isn’t simply that thing grammar Nazis goddesses like me obsess over. It’s a skill you can sharpen and use to make your novel go from pretty darn good to Call First Responders great.
Julie Glover writes young adult fiction, collects boots, practices rampant sarcasm, and advocates for the interrobang. Her YA contemporary novel, SHARING HUNTER, finaled in the 2015 RWA® Golden Heart®.
She teaches a YA character course for the online Lawson Academy and is represented by Louise Fury of The Bent Agency.
Thank you, Julie! This is a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge with us.
A week ago, I was exchanging emails with another editor about his clients’ comma usage. Many comma rules are optional, so just that one aspect of our writing can reflect our voice. Add in all the other grammar rules and guidelines, and we can see how grammar—and our choices of when and how to break those rules—can affect our voice.
For another example, in my editing feedback, whenever I comment on a writer’s choice of paragraph breaks, I point out that they should feel free to ignore my note because their choice of where to break paragraphs can be a grammar-related voice thing. Paragraph lengths not only affect what’s emphasized in our writing, but they also create voice, pacing, and rhythm, just like our sentences do.
I also love Julie’s point about how we could look at our natural voice to see what genre might be a good match for us. Especially if we have a perfectionistic streak or harbor self-doubt about whether it’s okay to break the “rules,” we might be more comfortable with a genre that works well with our natural writing style.
However we look at it, the better we understand the rules—and the elements of our writing that affect readers (like voice, pacing, emotions, etc.)—the better we’ll be able to ensure that our readers are taking away the impression we want. If a paragraph is falling flat, we want to understand how even the little things like punctuation might be able to fix our work. *smile*
Do you consider yourself a grammar nerd? Or do you not know a comma splice from a participle phrase? Have you ever instinctively used grammar elements to strengthen or affect your writing? Do you think it’s helpful to understand the rules before we break them? Do you have any questions for Julie?Pin It