Saturday, March 29, 2008

Artistic License

For an interesting discussion on grammar in dialogue, head over to novelist Tess Gerristen’s excellent blog. Her last two posts have been a response to readers who complain about grammatical inaccuracies in her characters’ speech. With her usual grace, Tess explains the difference between “proper” English and “spoken” English, and how it’s a conscious choice to ditch the rules for the sake of natural dialogue.

As far as I’m concerned, when it comes to dialogue, anything goes—as long as it doesn’t sound stiff. Real people speak in broken sentences, they clip words, they repeat themselves. Speech is naturally imperfect and imperfection is emotionally revealing. A character’s speech patterns are determined by background, level of education, geographical location, and motivation, among other things. If the dialogue doesn’t reflect these parameters, the story will suffer a credibility gap.

Intentionally using improper speech, as Tess points out, isn’t always an easy choice. There’s a risk that your reader will think you are stupid, or will take offense. For example, in my novel, there is a fair amount of profanity. A few readers have told me that they would have enjoyed the book more if there had been less swearing. I make no apology for my use of language because I do not use such words lightly. The characters in my story are from a rural town, have limited education, and are a bit rough around the edges. To purposely avoid profanity—especially in emotionally charged situations—would have given the dialogue a false ring. On the other hand, I’ve had a reader comment that my characters didn’t swear enough. One can go overboard that way, too. Dropping the f-bomb in every sentence is distracting and can render a work unreadable.

Another instance when incorrect grammar can be used to good effect is in narration. If you have a strong narrative voice, you are effectively having a dialogue with the reader and it can be treated as such. Take this blog, for example. Two paragraphs up I was supposed to put “and” before the phrase “they repeat themselves”. I left it out intentionally because it had a better rhythm. I’m also fond of sentence fragments, which can be very conversational. And how.

Let’s face it, folks—rules are meant to be broken. It’s artistic license. Instead of getting ruffled by every little grammar mistake, I think we need to look at the bigger picture. Grammar is a system of rules designed to make speech and writing more clear and precise. If a writer has done this, even while breaking the rules, then we ought to be generous enough to cut him a little slack.

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