The strict rules you were probably taught in English classes aren't always the right way to go when crafting fiction. This blog series covers how to write correctly, while also writing in an engaging, natural voice.
So, here's my entire Grammar in Fiction series, in one huge blog post :)
Grammar in Fiction 1: Word Classes
We've all heard about nouns, verbs and adjectives, but what do they all mean, and how do they apply to creative writing?
Many native English speakers have a subconscious understanding of these 'word classes' and don't necessarily need to learn the theory behind them. When writing fiction, however, this knowledge can be extremely helpful!
A noun is a name. In fiction, this includes your characters and places, but more broadly can refer to any object.
Almost every sentence will have a noun, because the sentence has to be about something. It's how other words are used around the noun that creates meaning.
Proper nouns are the official name of something (i.e. Emma, or Domino's) and always need a capital letter. General nouns, like park or cat, however, don't need a capital.
A pronoun is used in place of a noun when, rather than using the name of something, you use words like it, she, they, or you. In fiction, knowing when to use pronouns is vital to make your book engaging and understandable.
For example, when writing dialogue between two people with different pronouns, it's okay to use pronouns such as he said and she said for a while, after first establishing who the speakers are. With more speakers, however, or speakers with the same pronouns, it's important to use their name where there may be confusion.
Adjectives are attributes that pair with a noun. This could be the colour of something, the shape and size, or even an opinion.
The old chair was rotten, and needed a keen-eyed expert to refurbish it to its original state.
Be careful not to overuse adjectives in your description. Always consider if there are more concise ways to describe things, as we'll talk about more below (under Adverbs).
Verbs describe action - anything from loves to occurred.
This means verbs are the words we use that show tense, which writers often struggle with. You must master the use of verbs to show readers whether we're talking about the past, present, or future.
She runs to the party, but arrived on time.
Using this sentence as an example, runs and arrived are the verbs. Here, however, they're used incorrectly. It seems that 'she' already arrived at the party, and therefore runs needs to be ran, as it is in the past.
Adverbs give us more information about a verb, similarly to how an adjective gives more information about a noun.
They typically tell you the who, what, when, where and why of a verb, e.g. she carefully picked the flower, almost breaking it.
-ly adverbs have been mostly shunned by today's writing world, in favour of using more concise language. They looked at it angrily, for example, is a stronger sentence as They glared at it.
Prepositions connect nouns to their sentence, and are most often written before the noun to show location.
Common examples are in, to, of, and on.
They headed toward the beach and crossed over the sand.
Again, keep your prepositions minimal and make sure to delete redundancies. It's great to mix them up and use a thesaurus for engaging paragraphs, but don't get too complicated.
Conjunctions connect words together to form sentences.
But, because, so.
In fiction, you can be more playful with conjunctions and their use in sentence structure. Rather than sticking completely to writing rules, you can (occasionally) use dependant clauses as full sentences to show the voice of your character or narrator. For example:
I didn't want to hear that. But I think I needed to.
Reads differently to:
I didn't want to hear that, but I think I needed to.
Interjections are abrupt remarks or exclamations, typically used in dialogue to express emotion or character.
No! I had no idea.
These are especially fun to use in fiction, to create realistic and sometimes funny dialogue.
Grammar in Fiction 2: Sentence Structure
In creative writing, sentence structure can vary greatly to serve a story and the character's voice. It keeps the paragraphs flowing, engaging the reader and showing the tone of a scene.
So, how do you master sentence structure to create great fiction?
The Use of Punctuation
We could talk about punctuation all day, but to keep it simple, let's discuss commas and full stops. Where are they placed, and how do you know which to use?
Many new writers struggle with issues like run-on sentences and comma splices, because they don't understand where breaks should go. Sentences that sound natural when spoken aloud won't necessarily make sense on paper.
We all know the basics: full stops (or periods) are used to end a sentence, and commas create pauses in between.
There are many rules for commas, but the most important trick is to read your sentences aloud, then rethink the writing.
Where are the natural breaks in speech?
Where does the topic change?
How many times have you already used conjunctions like and, that can keep a sentence going forever?
Active vs Passive Voice
Usually, you can spot a passive sentence with words like 'by', 'were', 'was' or even 'because'. Active sentences are direct, and often shorter than passive sentences.
Particularly in fiction, active voice keeps your story going in an engaging way. Passive voice also has its place, however. Many new and established writers struggle with finding the right balance, so don't dismay if you have trouble with it, too!
Simply, active voice refers to a sentence where the subject impacts its verb. In passive voice, the subject receives the verb's action.
Passive: The book was read by Samantha.
Active: Samantha read the book.
See how the second option keeps the writing flowing?
But this doesn't mean you have to edit out every passive sentence in your writing. Sometimes, the occasional passive voice helps keep the writing varied and interesting. It might even make more sense that way.
The best advice here is to read widely and study the way successful authors build their sentences. What do the writers in your genre typically do?
Point of View and Tense
In any writing, it's important to consider the tense and point of view (POV), so you can keep them consistent. Both can change the entire structure of a sentence.
There are three points of view you can choose to write your story in:
First person writes directly as the character and their thoughts (I, we, my)
Second person writes as if the reader is the character (you, your)
Third person writes about the character, and has several of its own subcategories (she, they, her)
If you switch points of view in a scene (known as head-hopping), your reader will instantly become confused. This is why it's important to choose one and stick to it.
You then have to consider if your book written in past, present, or future tense.
First/Present: "I drink from the glass, needing the hydration"
First/Past: "I drank from the glass; I needed the hydration"
Second/Present: "She drinks from the glass, needing the hydration"
Second/Past: "She drank from the glass; she needed the hydration"
In general, past tense goes best with third person, and present tense goes best with first person. You'll very rarely see second person or future tense used.
Choose a tense and POV that works well with your storytelling and the voice you want to create.
Grammar in Fiction 3: Grammar vs Voice
Now we've learned some of the basics of grammar, you have to apply them to your own writing. Sometimes, writing rules can and should be broken for the sake of an authentic voice.
The tone of your book is important, and every sentence guides the reader through the story. A YA contemporary won't be written like a scientific paper, so how do you know when to use your authentic voice?
Particularly in dialogue, your characters will speak a certain way that doesn't always follow writing rules. This might mean they talk fast, skipping commas, or their sentences sometimes jumble together incoherently.
This comes down to tone of voice. If you want your writing to be snappy, avoid excess commas. If you want it to be flowy and descriptive, don't be afraid of some exciting punctuation and longer sentences.
The most important thing to remember is that your writing must still make sense to the reader. You have to read your work aloud and decide for yourself where punctuation should be placed.
Breaking the rules of spelling is more difficult, because the smallest deviation can change the entire meaning of a word. But that doesn't mean it can't be done at all.
Phonetic spelling (spelling words as they sound), for example, can be used to show someone's accent. Often, though, it's avoided, as it can be jarring to readers. An entire book written phonetically would be very difficult to read, but to add flair to a character who only appears once or twice, it can be entertaining.
Slang, similarly, says a lot about a character. Just make sure the slang can be understood by your readers. New slang can take a while to be added to the dictionary and become a 'real word', but you can still use it.
You might also break spelling rules by making up your own words. This is especially common in fantasy or sci-fi, in which writers are creating an entire society. Why wouldn't the people in this world have some of their own language?
Grammar in Fiction 4: Self-editing Basics
We've spent this month talking about grammar and learning how it should (and shouldn't) be applied to fiction. Now, let's look at editing your work. You have the know-how, so how do you put it into practise?
Some common mistakes to look out for:
Colons & semi-colons
1. Read your content aloud
The easiest way to pick up mistakes is to read your work aloud, line by line. This will help you notice issues in punctuation. Listen for where commas need to be added, where dialogue could sound more realistic, or where sentences need to be rearranged.
2. Run it through a spell-checker
You can get a free Grammarly account easily, and it picks up lots of smaller mistakes. This can be a great starting off point, and you can start to see trends in where you often make mistakes.
However, be careful not to trust it completely. Often, these tools correct your work with AI systems that lack context. They're particularly bad for sentence structure and tone of voice. I ignore many of their suggestions, but sometimes they're a life-saver.
Read using a different medium
A major reason we miss our own mistakes is because we're so close to the work, we stop really seeing it. By changing things as simple as the font or background, you're seeing the writing through new eyes.
An even better way to proofread is to print out your work, or even handwrite it!
If you found this blog helpful, don't forget about my writing worksheets on Etsy!
And if you're looking for an editor or proofreader, contact me for a free sample edit.