Tip One: Don't Get No Grammar Mistakes
I can't believe I actually have to write this, but grammar is really important. Small mistakes like typos are acceptable, but extended errors throughout a text can seriously affect the reception of your story. I, for one, will not read a story with bad grammar. So, here in my first chapter, I am going to delve into little known points about grammar.
And so, for my first trick, speech punctuation.
Speech punctuation is one of the most basic and most important grammar points to bear in mind whilst writing a story. The reason for this is simple: it's very, very hard to write a story without speech. The rules of speech punctuation are very strict, so I will do my best to explain them here.
The first rule of speech punctuation is starting a new line when someone new speaks. This doesn't mean starting a new line each time you add someone new to the conversation, it means starting a new line every time you change speaker. Here's an example:
What not to do:
Sally's eyes narrowed. "What did you do?" she growled.
Gerald grinned, flicking the knife casually into the air. Sally's eyes followed it as it formed a loop before landing back in Gerald's open palm. "Nothing illegal," he said.
Sally glared. "I swear to God, Gerald," she stated. "If you have…"
What it should be:
Sally's eyes narrowed.
"What did you do?" she growled.
Gerald grinned, flicking the knife casually into the air. Sally's eyes followed it as it formed a loop before landing back in Gerald's open palm.
"Nothing illegal," he said. Sally glared.
"I swear to God, Gerald," she stated. "If you have…"
However, in practice, many writers ignore this rule because it helps things to flow better. This rule can be ignored, but not at the sacrifice of clarity as to who is speaking. If you have something like:
Gemma said, "I love you." "That's nice," replied Gerald. "I love you too."
Then, you're in trouble. It should be:
Gemma said, "I love you."
"That's nice," replied Gerald. "I love you too."
This bit is non-negotiable. Whilst the other part of the new line rule can be played around with, it's like playing with an elastic band: there's only so far you can push it before it slaps back in your face.
The basics of speech punctuation are also an issue. I was never really taught this until last year when I was finally enlightened and given the basic rules. For speech, there are two main cases:
1. Direct speech comes after the information as to who is speaking:
Example: Ruby said, "I don't care."
Here, notice the comma that comes before opening the speech marks and then, in the speech marks, there is a capital letter. There is ALWAYS punctuation at the end of the speech and, usually in this case, it is a full-stop, exclamation mark or question mark.
Jack shouted, "Don't do this!"
Thomas whispered, "I heard that they were seen together in town."
Mary asked, "Why are you doing this?"
2. Direct speech comes before the information as to who is speaking:
Example: "I don't care," Ruby said.
When this happens, you still need the capital letter at the start of the speech, but the only punctuation you can have at the end of the speech – and you still need punctuation – is a comma, a question mark or an exclamation mark.
Then, after closing the speech, you DO NOT use a capital letter, unless it is a name.
"Who are you?" Jenny demanded.
"Me? I'm no one," the boy replied bitterly.
"That's not true!" shouted Emily from across the room.
These are the main points of speech punctuation, but there is one more teensy, tiny one.
When you are splitting a sentence of speech up by inserting a 'he/she/it/they/etc. said' in the middle of it, you cannot end the 'he/she/it/they/etc. said' with a full-stop as otherwise the sentence would not make sense. So, you use a comma and the next bit of speech starts with a lower case letter.
"I'm going to be late because someone decided we needed to stop for detergent."
This sentence goes to-
"I'm going to be late," Matthew said, "because someone decided we needed to stop for detergent."
And for my next trick, I'm going to show you something that is quite controversial on this site: sentence fragments.
Sentence fragments are evil, says Microsoft Word. Yep, Word likes to underline all of my sentence fragments with a green squiggly line because technically they are grammatically incorrect. In a formal essay, you would never use a sentence fragment, but creative writing is different. Sentence fragments, whilst technically wrong, are used frequently in stories for one reason. They help with style.
Jane Austen, whatever you want to say about her works, was one of the first people (the other was Goethe [a German writer]) to effectively use a technique called free indirect discourse, which involves voicing the words of your characters through your general narrative. I'll go more into this in the writing style chapters, but I'll tell you this here: it is pretty much common place with authors these days.
Free indirect discourse is all about associating your narrative with the voice of one of your characters, without using the first person. One of the easiest ways to do this is to adapt the tone of your work so that it matches with the way your characters speak.
And sentence fragments are a fantastic way to do this. They can be used to express shock:
Thirteen. One, three. Thirteen years old. Thirteen was too young.
Or to express a sense of finality:
Dead. Gone. She was dead.
Basically, they are extremely useful. So, don't be afraid to ignore the squiggly lines when it's about sentence fragments, because they are very effective!
And to the next grammar point!
So, here we reach the lands of the dreaded semi-colons; everybody seems to hate these. See what I did there?
Semi-colons are your friends, believe it or not! You use a semi-colon to join together two relating sentences where you would normally have a conjunction. To borrow an example from Dickens:
"It was the best of times; it was the worst of times."
That there is from A Tale of Two Cities and where the semi-colon is, could be the word 'and'.
A lot of people are guilty of something called the comma splice. The comma splice (should I capitalise that? Maybe it would make it seem more ominous…) occurs when someone uses a comma to join two independent clauses.
It is raining, we are going to the cinema.
Generally, in English, this is regarded to be a grave error. A couple of exceptions exist when writing poetry, but generally, AVOID this. You will no doubt that there are two ways to make the above phrase make grammatical sense. The first is to put a semi-colon there.
It is raining; we are going to the cinema.
The other, is to put a conjunction in.
Because it is raining, we are going to the cinema.
And this brings me onto my next point nicely: starting a sentence with because.
This is actually A-OK, grammatically speaking, as long as you say "Because SOMETHING, something else."
As an example:
Because we like chocolate, we built our houses from it.
Of course, if you're being all sentence-fragmenty, you can use it incorrectly:
Why did I do this? Because I felt like it.
Generally, though, avoid this.
And lastly, I must say one last thing. This isn't really grammar, but it is important nonetheless. Do not get two very similar words confused as the same thing. My two pet hates:
Weary – tired
Wary – cautious
They have very different meanings. Using them interchangeably does not work. You give your entire scene a different meaning if you use them incorrectly.
They came forward in a wary approach.
They came forward in a weary approach.
These two sentences mean distinctly different things. One means that the they are tired, the other that they are cautious. So, be careful with which one you use.
Cloths – fabric
Clothes – garments that cover the body, like trousers or skirts
She bought some cloths to wear.
She bought some clothes to wear.
Haha, even as I wrote this, my spellchecker underlined cloths. Buying some cloths to wear, to me, would imply that your character was going all Roman and was going to be wearing a toga. So, your characters will generally be buying clothes to wear.
There are others, but I'm sure you've all heard it before. Don't mix up you're/your, they're/their/there blah, blah, blah.
Well, that's me fresh out of grammar points. If you have anything you want me to include, drop a review and I'll get back to you.
So, next time we go into the nasty and vicious world of writing style.
Over and out,