Grammar basics for writers

This is a quick Grammar for Dummies. As a reader recently pointed out, my article on the split infinitive may have gone over the head of anyone “…not well versed in Latin or [who] attended primary school after 1990”.

Keep in mind that these are the VERY basics and are geared towards writers. If you write, you probably already know these. When you break these down they sound complicated, but in essence they are about clarity in writing. You might even find you’ve been following them even if you don’t know the formal terms.

The Building Blocks

Nouns are concepts. A noun names a person, animal, quality, feeling, or place. Pronouns are words that take the place of nouns. Common pronouns are “they”, “you”, and “I”. Adjectives modify nouns and pronouns, providing an additional descriptive to the concept such as ‘tall girl’, or ‘angry boy’.

Verbs show the process. A verb is an action and can add tense (past, present, or future) to a sentence. Adverbs give you more detail about the verb. “They walked” can become “They walked quickly”. These add information such as when, where, why, and quantity. Linking verbs link the subject to the rest of the sentence and should be used sparingly in fiction. Some examples you should look for are “seems” and “appear”

Conjunctions connect separate words and clauses, the most common ones being “and”, “or”, and “but”.

Communicating Ideas

A sentence needs to express a complete thought. In each, the subject is the star of the show, and the predicate tells us about the subject.

A paragraph contains all the sentences that deal with one set of ideas. Set is a deliberately vague word which is why I use it. What separates one ‘set’ of sentences from another is often debatable. The times you should always start a new paragraph are when something breaks the narrative.

  • You skip forward in time
  • The person who is speaking (dialogue) changes
  • The person who is speaking changes subject
  • You change the location (often in association with skipping time)
  • The paragraph has just gotten too long and needs to be broken up so you don’t present a wall of text.

Dialogue is used where characters speak. If someone speaks aloud, this is shown as dialogue. The most important rule of dialogue is that inside the quotation marks realism is more important than grammatical correctness. The second rule is that Dialogue starts and ends with dialogue indicators.

If you write in US English, this means quotation marks ( ” ). As America English has dominated the international landscape, this is acceptable across the globe.

“Are you coming over tonight?” Jessica asked.

I’ll go more in-depth into dialogue, including the alternate styles and how to show one speaking character quoting another in a future post.

Dialogue Tags can be used before, after or in the middle of the dialogue itself. The simplest and most common follows the dialogue and looks like the example above.

You only need to use dialogue tags when it is necessary to clarify who is speaking. So when the situation clearly indicates who is talking, dialogue tags can be skipped. One school of thought on dialogue tags is that the only two tags you need are “said” and “asked”. The other thinks ‘said is dead’ and advocates using tags that add additional meaning. Using the common two tags forces you as a writer to show the action rather than just telling the reader what to think, however not everything needs to given that level of detail. Personally, I’m on the fence.

Clarity of Communication

Punctuation gives meaning and structure to what is otherwise just a string of words.

Capitalisation is important. Uppercase letters indicate the start of each sentence and are used for the titles of people, books, specific places, organisations, and compass points.

The end of every sentence is marked by punctuation that can change the entire meaning. The most common are the period ( . ) exclamation ( ! ) and the question mark ( ? ). As a writer, the exclamation is considered a no-no. Use it sparingly.

I’ll skip colon and semicolon for now. As a general rule, if you are uncertain how to use the semicolon or colon, avoid them. They are used in lists, but writers shouldn’t present lists to their readers.

Commas are fun. I have literally seen people come to blows over the correct use of a comma. A comma is used to separate things and mimic the pause in spoken language. Such as in that last sentence. ‘Basically’ is the introductory phrase. Which is separated from descriptive clause.

Comma use will vary depending on the style of your writing and the intended audience age. If you write YA or romance, the removal of commas to create simple sentences is encouraged. An epic fantasy or complex sci-fi aimed at high vocabulary adults allowed for more complex grammar structures. In the first example you want an easy reading experience, in the second your audience is looking for complexity and expects to be challenged. The comma is also used to separate to separate the city from the state in addresses and the day from the month in dates.

Apostrophes are used to show ownership such as “Jane’s knife” and in contractions to take the place of one or more letters such as replacing “could have” with “could’ve”.

Parentheses enclose things that clarify but are not grammatically integral to the sentence. Such as above where I gave examples of a period, exclamation, and question mark. It wasn’t necessary for the sentence but was a visual aid providing the symbols themselves. In fiction writing, parentheses should be rare outside glossaries, timelines, and footnotes.

Application and how it applies to your ‘Voice’.

I planned to do a section on knowing the rules, and how to apply them. Once you know the basics, the next important steps are distinguishing between “active vs passive voice”, and how to “show not tell”. This has already gone on long enough and left you with enough to consider, so those will also have to be articles for another Wednesday.

See also

Grammar Basics (thanks to Grammarly Blog)

Never Split Infinitives

Splitting the infinitive

 

Never split the infinitive. Unless you want to…

I can not stress this enough. When composing a stirring rebuttal to Cicero’s latest piece, or writing a formal letter of complaint to your local senator, magistrate, Comitia Centuriata or Concilium Plebis, it is important never to split the infinitive. To do otherwise would suggest you are of low breeding or barbaric education. When writing in Latin, there are some rules a citizen of Rome should never break.

Wait! What? You’re writing in English and not Latin.

Well, I guess you plebs could write in English if you really had to. I can’t imagine why you would.  An nescis, mi fili, quantilla prudentia mundus regatur?* and all that. To be honest, the rule against split infinitives is more of a guideline. In the 19th century, there was an attempt to make it a prescriptive grammatical rule, but that has long since been abandoned. The original objection harkens to comparisons with the structure of Latin. Since few people speak Latin these days, objections aren’t as strenuous as they once were. When writing fiction the linguistical gymnastics required to avoid splitting the infinitive is rarely worth the effort and may change the emphasis and meaning of a sentence. Still, it’s safest to avoid split infinitives in formal writing.

For example: “You really have to watch him.” vs “You have to really watch him.”

The first suggests it is important to watch the person, the second (with the split infinitive) is suggesting you have to watch closely or you will miss something subtle.

So for the budding fiction writer when your editor (or grammar checker) flags an excessive number of split infinitives, don’t panic. Unless you are regularly getting more than one split infinitive per 5,000 words you can usually just ignore this. Grammar is a blunt instrument and doesn’t take into consideration deliberate stylistic choices. If you do find too many examples then it may be a good idea to excise the entire sentence instead of trying to re-write it. If you need that bit of information try a completely new structure. In short when it comes to writing fiction “Arcem ex cloacâ facĕre.”**

*Don’t you know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed? 

**Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.

What are the basics of novel structure?

The structure of a novel isn’t simply industry convention, it taps into psychological behind how we understand a story.

A novel starts at 40,000 words or more in length. For some people that seems daunting while for others the struggle is to keep their word count manageable. Writing a novel is like having children, it seems a great idea before you start, but then comes the hard work. One thing you can do to reduce that work is to write to the expected novel structure. (I’m talking technical construction here, not genre plot expectations). Nearly every successful novel has most of these elements of structure the majority having all. It takes a skilled writer to abandon convention without creating a total mess.

Every story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is the simplest structural breakdown, commonly known as the 3 Act Structure (see also Monomyth and Hero’s Journey). Rare stories start at the end and work their way backwards. But, that’s just shuffling the order in which the acts are encountered and takes both a skilled author and a forgiving reader. Short stories and novellas can be written to a different structure, with serial novellas often missing the third act and ending on a cliff-hanger.

The beginning (Setup) is where you make your readers care about your story, the world you built, and the characters they find in it. The first act takes up 25% (or less) of your words. Be wary of excessive exposition and telling, not showing.

  • Hook the reader so they keep reading;
  • Ask the questions that generate interest in your setting;
  • Introduce the significant characters;
  • Inciting Incident;
  • Begin the main plot.

The end (Resolution) is the mirror opposite of the setup. This act is the culmination of all the elements of your story. The final act again takes up 25% (or less) of your words.

  • Answer any outstanding questions about your world;
  • Make sure significant characters have completed their arcs;
  • Conclude the main plot;
  • Make sure the reader finishes your book satisfied.

The middle of the story should be self-explanatory. It is called the Rising Action as it is a sequence of action/reaction scenes that ratchet up the tension in your story so that the reader is invested by the time you move into the final act. The middle of your work is where sub-plots are born and die. Expand on the details of your world and flesh out your characters. Where the beginning has to have hooks to attract the reader, and the end has to satisfy their needs, the middle is where your readers fall in love with your work. It is the meat of your story where your characters gain the knowledge/skills they need to resolve their situation.

  • (optional) starts with a call to action;
  • Give depth to your characters;
  • Flesh out the main plot;
  • The turning point in your story;
  • Add sub-plot (that may or may not get resolved);
  • Add conflict/obstacles of increasing difficulty;
  • Increase the tension to prepare for the final act.

Here is a basic (Google Doc) structure spreadsheet you can use for reference. You should be able to see how the 3 Acts fit together.

Disclaimer: If you are a pantser you may think structure is a straitjacket that restricts creativity. There are lots of processes (snowflake method etc.) that almost ignore structure. There is nothing wrong with these approaches, but it often means that a work will need to go through multiple drafts for clarity. I recall a quote from a popular author (it may have been Stephen King) that they paid absolutely no heed to structure, but on examining their work it’s obvious they adhere to the structure (acts, turning points, beats) with textbook precision. They didn’t care about structure because it was something they did without realising. Most of us aren’t that lucky.

Common sense in character names

Red Rose

Does a “Phlegm” by any other name still smell as sweet?

It’s a Trap! Things to avoid when naming your characters.

You’ve finished your novel, your characters are fully fleshed persona’s in their own right, and each has a unique voice and presence. That is awesome!

Less awesome is the fact that they’re called John, Jane, and James. A similarity in names guaranteed to disrupt the flow of the story as your reader goes back to double check who said what. Was James the one with the limp and the gift for magic, or was that John? Has Jane had a sex change since chapter 3 that the author decided wasn’t important enough to mention?

Alliteration can be a powerful tool in the writer’s arsenal, but when it comes to character names you want the clarity that comes from distinctive names. An easy check can be done by putting all your character names on a single document; nothing but the name. See if the names are visually similar, and if so, change them a bit.

  • Try to avoid multiple names that start with the same letter;
  • Read the names ALOUD to check if any of them sound similar;
  • Avoid pronunciation that requires a double-jointed jaw or the tongue of an ant-eater.

What’s in a name?

Building an alternate reality Venice, you probably want Venetian, Florentine, and Italian names. If your scene is set on a gondola and all your characters carry Slavic names like Vladimir or Tatiana, anyone with knowledge of the culture is going to experience dissonance that may ruin their reading experience.

If you are writing a modern piece or one set in the future, you have a lot more freedom.  You might want to look at your world plan. If China is the dominant power then a large portion of your characters should have Chinese influenced names. Is your piece set in modern-day Korea? Then most of your characters should have one of the big family names (see http://koreanslate.com/top-10-korean-family-names-in-south-korea.html & http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_South_Korean_surnames_by_prevalence).

Is your amazing character name 14 syllables long or comprised of multiple titles? Use it sparingly and make sure you have a short-hand version for usage if the character is going to appear regularly. Writing from a first-person perspective allows you to reduce the character to “I” pretty regularly, so that point of view is far more forgiving of protagonists with complex names.

When hunting for good character names have a look at baby names by country of origin and meaning, or old historic documents from the era you’re interested in. In short DYR (Do Your Research) and avoid sinking a great story with poorly considered names.

An additional link for names http://www.writing-world.com/links/names.shtml