DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME
by John M. Floyd
Rules — and warning signs — are a part of our lives. SLOW TO 45 MPH. NO PERSONAL CHECKS. THE RED ZONE IS FOR LOADING AND UNLOADING OF PASSENGERS ONLY. I especially like the note I saw on TV awhile back, before a documentary about daredevil stunts. THESE ARE TRAINED PROFESSIONALS, it said — DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME.
From early childhood we’re taught to be careful, mind your parents, follow the guidelines. I can hear my mother now: Rules are there for a reason, Johnny, you can’t just do anything you want to.
Well, when it comes to writing, breaking some of the rules is not only safe, it can work to your advantage.
A couple of months ago, in a comment on one of my columns, Dick Stodghill quoted Cornell Woolrich: “Never let grammar stand in the way of a good sentence.” That’s excellent advice. Elmore Leonard once made a similar observation: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. If proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English Composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.”
I liked Woolrich and Leonard already, but even if I hadn’t, I would have liked them after I heard that. There will indeed always be rules for writing, but there will also always be times when writers — especially writers of fiction — should feel free to ignore them.
Don’t get me wrong: most rules you darn well better follow, if you want to get published. Here, though, are a few that you can occasionally break, with no guilt feelings whatsoever:
Don’t use comma splices.
Author Lynne Truss says: “When done knowingly, the comma splice is effective, poetic, dashing.” I never thought of it that way, but I know it’s especially useful when writing dialogue. The comma splice (two complete sentences separated only by a comma) can sometimes capture the exact rhythms of normal speech.
Hurry up, let’s go eat.
Of course I recognize her, I’ve known her all my life.
Mama says he is, he says he isn’t. (Eudora Welty)
Here’s a hint that usually works: If you don’t pause when you say it aloud, you should probably use a comma rather than a semicolon or a period.
Don’t use sentence fragments.
I happily violate this rule all the time. I’ve heard that the correct response to “That’s a fragment” is “So what?” Sometimes sentence fragments sound exactly right.
Because I said so.
Which turned out for the best.
As if I care.
Don’t write rambling sentences.
I usually agree with this one, but long unpunctuated sentences can be effective in high-tension scenes, where things need to clip along without any hesitation.
Bill untied his ankles and grabbed his gun and sprinted down the hall and into the den and threw open the window — and saw the thief’s taillights rounding the corner at the end of the street.
Don’t write one-sentence paragraphs.
Despite the opinion of some writers, one-sentence paragraphs work just fine. They provide emphasis, often at the end of a scene or a story, and their very isolation adds even more impact.
Never use made-up words.
That rule should be changed to read as follows: If it sounds right, do it.
The helicopter whopwhopwhopped into the blue distance.
Vicksburg is a scenic town partially because it’s so bluffy.
The boomerang whickered through the sky.
Never write stories in present tense.
Forget it. Many short stories are written in present tense, and novels as well. Those who do this say it lends a sense of immediacy, a sense that whatever is happening is happening now. (The first time I remember seeing this technique was in Presumed Innocent, twenty years ago.)
Write what you know.
That’s not bad advice, but it’s a little misleading. You should write what you like to read, and what you feel comfortable writing.
To quote Marie Anderson (The Writer, November 2004): “I used to write what I know. I used to write about infertility, motherhood, suburban middle-class life, blue-collar Catholic childhood, law school from a dropout’s perspective. I’d send out those stories and never see them again, not even the SASE’s. Then, somewhere, I came across a better rule: Know what you write.”
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
Beginning a sentence with “and” or “but” creates a natural transition that smooths things out for the reader. Just don’t overuse it. (Twice in the same paragraph is probably too often.)
Never end a sentence with a preposition.
Winston Churchill demonstrated the foolishness of that rule: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”
Is that the boy you came here with?
I wonder what those initials stand for.
What have you gotten me into? (Can you imagine any character, except Yoda, blurting: “Into what have you gotten me?”)
I’m reminded of a joke I heard years ago:
Polite country girl: “Where are you from?”
Uppity sorority girl (sneering): “I’m from a place where they don’t end sentences with prepositions.”
Country girl: “My mistake. Let me rephrase that. Where are you from, bitch?”
Don’t split infinitives.
Split away. Sometimes it’s better to put a word between “to” and a verb.
We plan to formally announce our engagement.
I cannot bring myself to really like the fellow. (Strunk & White)
To boldly go where no man has gone before.
There are other rules that I also hold in low regard, but this is probably enough for now.
One more quote, this one from Loren Estleman: “Some rules have a way of becoming holy commandments through constant repetition, never questioned. Whenever one of them gets in the way of the crystal flow of a good clear sentence, run right over it.”