Dialog and Narrative

Dialog and Narrative

As important as good editing is, in fiction, writers have a wonderful opportunity to break the rules. Split infinitives, end-of-sentence prepositions, and other real or believed grammar errors that may cause a page to hemorrhage red ink are perfectly acceptable in one place, and one place only. Where? Dialog–that part of the story where the characters speak, whether to themselves or each other. The key to getting away with breaking grammar rules in dialog is to give each character a unique voice.

In one of my stories, I’ve given a protagonist a character trait of using big words–the kind that send people scrambling to find their Oxford English Dictionary (OED)–but only when she’s angry. An overabundance of those words in the non-speaking part of the story would raise the reading level to something so ridiculous that very few people would be able to read and enjoy it. That would also make me very good friends with far too many slush piles. When another protagonist in the same story gets angry, the words that come out of her could teach hardened criminals a few things about swearing. These obscenities don’t appear in my narrative.

In narrative, the parts of the story where the characters aren’t speaking, playing by the rules of good grammar makes it easier for readers to suspend disbelief and fully engage in what they’re reading. Sure, there are times when a sentence can end in a preposition. If you’re familiar with the grammar rules, you’ll know when those are. Incorrectly used, particularly with any frequency, these broken rules become points in our stories where we lose our readers.

You’ve heard all this before. Now, grok it. Do it. Write it right.

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