Writing 4.4 – Breaking the Rules

It’s been a while since the last writing lesson.  I’ve been busy – writing.


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You’ve probably heard people, or writers, some of which are also people, say something like “You have to know the rules before you can break them.”  For a long time I wasn’t sure what that meant, not until I realized I had been doing exactly that.  Before explaining that quote, let’s look at rules and rules about rules.

Rules are made to be broken.

Actually, no, rules are not made to be broken.  Anyone who says that is simply trying to justify the rules they have either broken or want to break.

Breaking rules is my style.

No it’s not.  Breaking rules under the guise of style is an attempt to explain one’s inability to comprehend the rules.  It’s usually done by someone without enough formal education, possibly but not necessarily due to their own fault.

If you don’t use a semicolon once per page, you don’t know how to write.

That’s just stupid.  Semicolons are neither bad nor good, and the same can be said for clouds.  Clouds service a purpose, but they’re usually in the way of what we really want to see.  I’m often baffled by people who are unaware of proper semicolon usage, which is why my advice is always “Just say no.”  If you don’t use it, you won’t screw it up.

Fact 1: Any sentence with a semicolon can be re-written without one.

Fact 2: There are few sentences in which adding a semicolon is better than revising to avoid needing one.

Now, let’s discuss rules about breaking rules.

In most cases, rules are broken for humor, dramatic effect, or realistic dialogue.  So, in most cases, grammar rules should only be broken when writing fiction.  Non-fiction is for people who are not funny, don’t like drama, and don’t enjoy talking to other people.  Male non-fiction readers will keep reading brochures about singles travel groups, sperm donations, and pet adoptions.   Women, maybe sperm adoptions.


 

  1. For humor: “Wait.  What?”turpinins1

Humor is about timing.  It’s not always what you say but when you say it.  Stand-up comedians are successful on sitcoms because they have the timing to deliver a punch line for maximum effect.

When I was teaching, I couldn’t get through ten minutes without a student asking to use the restroom.  Usually I said “No,” and students intending to be funny would occasionally say, “This is child abuse!”  I would often reply with, “Never in my life have I abused a child.  On a Thursday.”

“On a Thursday” is not a complete sentence.  Correct grammar would be “Never in my life have I abused a child on a Thursday.”  Sure, it’s correct, but it’s not funny.  What’s funny is the comedic pause, the sense of comfort in “Never in my life have I abused a child.”  Then it gets ripped away with “On a Thursday.”  It creates that “Wait. What?” effect.  Without the pause, the reader or listener doesn’t have a chance to absorb the denial before already getting the admission.

Let’s say I’m ordering in a diner:

“I’ll take a cheeseburger medium rare, grilled onions and mushrooms, French fries, onion rings, pickle on the side.  And a Diet Coke.”

Like before, the incomplete sentence “And a Diet Coke” needs to be grammatically wrong to get the right timing, the right pause to let the reader absorb all that I ordered.  It magnifies the irony of ordering a Diet Coke to go along with what doesn’t seem like much of a health-conscious order.

To write it correctly would be “I’ll take a cheeseburger medium rare, grilled onions and mushrooms, French fries, onion rings, pickle on the side, and a Diet Coke.”  It’s just not funny.  With the period/pause, the Diet Coke is like an afterthought.  It’s like ordering all the good stuff and then, “oh yeah, I need to get something healthy.  Diet Coke.”  That’s funny.

If you’d like a visual version of this, go to YouTube and watch “The Fish Slapping Dance” by Monty Python.  It’s less than 20 seconds, but it might help you understand the dramatic pause for humor.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IhJQp-q1Y1s


 

  1. For dramatic pause: “Dun dun dunnnn!”kidt

Here’s a paraphrased selection from my most recent short story, “The Basement”:

Sara followed the bright circle of her flashlight as she reached the last of the dusty basement steps.  She was about to turn the corner but something stopped her.  Blood on the floor.

“Blood on the floor” is not a complete sentence, but it works.  If you see blood on the floor, what goes through your head?  Some might think, “That appears to be blood on the floor.”  Others might think, “Blood on the floor.”  The second one is not grammatically correct but it is dramatically correct.  It’s very “Bam,”  very “matter of fact,” an effective economy of words.

It would not be wrong or bad to write “…but she stopped when she saw blood on the floor.”

It would not be wrong or bad to write “…but something stopped her.  There was blood on the floor.”

It has more feeling to write “…but she stopped.  Blood on the floor.”

The period after “stopped” forces the reader to pause.  It’s miniscule and microscopic, but it’s there.  That pause gives the reader a chance to think “What stopped her?”  You may not know you’re thinking it, but you are, and then you get the answer:  Blood on the floor.  Without the pause from the period, you don’t get that tiny moment of expectation.

Let’s try another one:

John normally slept through the night unless forced awake.  He sat up, saw 2:47 AM on the clock, and was certain something had happened.  Then, in the time it takes for an echo to reach one’s ear, his dream slowly came back to him.  A dog barking in the distance.  Broken glass.  Footsteps.

If you want to be correct, you can instead write something like:

He slowly remembered his dream, which included a dog barking in the distance, broken glass, and footsteps.

You can also use a colon to introduce a list:  “…his dream slowly came back to him:  a dog barking in the distance, broken glass, and footsteps.”  This would be technically correct, but it also feels more like a shopping list instead of a dramatic moment.


 

  1. For dialogue: “Hark!”hethinkshehearsafootstep_singinintherain

I pride myself on dialogue.  Many writers hate writing dialogue, but I love it.  It’s one of the keys to successful flash fiction and makes characters come alive.  You can narrate all you want about Joe’s physical description, how fast he ran, how his muscles rippled, his sweat glistened, but only dialogue contains his actual essence, his being, his chosen words.

Dialogue intimidates some writers because you have to sound like someone else, not yourself.  You also have to write correctly incorrect.  What I mean by that is you have to occasionally write improper grammar that properly says what needs to be said, but improperly. 

We don’t always speak with proper grammar.  At work, maybe, but with friends, probably not.  (BTW – that sentence is effective but, for humor, not correct)  The trouble comes when we try to do four things simultaneously:

  1. Write how a fictional character would speak.
  2. Write uniquely for this character when compared to other characters.
  3. Know when and why this character would be grammatically correct.
  4. Know when and why this character would not be grammatically correct.

That’s a lot to do at one time.  When you write narration, you should be using your “voice.”  When you write dialogue, you need to write with someone else’s “voice.”  If your story has six characters, then you need to create six voices.  Easier said than done.  Pun intended.  Read this line:

“Your fault,” John said.

What happened here?  The possibilities are vast, but we know two things:  something went wrong and John believes it was your fault, not his.  It’s not grammatically correct, but it’s dramatically full.  It begs an answer of some kind, either a contradictory explanation from you why John is wrong or an admission that John is right.  Neither is wrong, but both contain drama and potential conflict.

Keeping in mind that a line of dialogue is a separate sentence, “Your fault” is grammatically incorrect.  It contains neither a subject nor predicate.  Written correctly, it might be, “That was totally your fault.”  But would John speak that way?  How old is he?  Nice person?  Not so nice?  Young or old? 

What’s the difference between “Your fault” and “That was totally your fault”?  Which would be spoken by someone younger or older?  By someone nice or not so nice?  Would a younger person say “Your fault” or “Your bad”?  If you don’t know the phrase “Your bad” or “My bad,” look it up.  If it helps, I first heard it at basketball games back in the 70s.

For dialogue to be 100% grammatically correct is likely wrong.  Listen to yourself and others, and it’ll be fairly obvious.  Here are things we say or you’ll hear regularly:

“Not yet.”

“This yours?”

“The other one.”

“Another beer?”

“Eggs over easy, bacon well done, rye toast.”

“Again?”

“Your bedroom.”

“Next time?”

“A little harder.”

“You good?”

“Perfect.”

“Right there.”

“Slower.”

“Your turn.”

It’s okay to be grammatically wrong as long as you’re doing it for the right reason and the right effect.  Reality and life are not always perfect.  Think of it like this:  Two men are wearing tuxedos.  One is crisp and clean while the other is wrinkled and stained.  Which is the “correct” tuxedo?  Depends on who is wearing it, where he’s been, and where he’s going.

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12 thoughts on “Writing 4.4 – Breaking the Rules

  1. Hi,
    Grammar styles and punctuation change over the years, but that’s no excuse for sloppiness or an undeveloped style. I recently re-read Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. I’m a big fan, but her use of commas and semi-colons are not proper usage for today. However, she was a master writer and had a true handle on style, humor and setting. I also re-read the Game of Thrones series; I’m sorry to say the writer has no mastery of grammar and style–which is a big distraction for me, even though I like the story line and characters.
    And I agree with you about dialogue; a character’s words and interaction are more important than description. Show, don’t tell!

  2. I remember worrying about proper grammar in my writing classes at college. As a grammar geek, I know correct sentence structure. But in creative story? That’s a different matter altogether. Thanks!

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