Monday, November 2, 2015

Casual Vernacular isn’t Just for Dialogue

When it comes to phonetically writing out accents, the readers are divided. Illustrating a character’s speech with too many apostrophes and uncommon conjunctions can be very distracting, and often does not encourage the viewer to hear it in a natural way.

On the other hand, when a writer commits to it, you can get used to it, and it can be a far more entertaining read once you get the hang of something different.

The book Dustlands, a young adult dystopian novel, features a first-person narrative from the perspective of an uneducated girl. The author doesn’t use quotations, writes in first person, and has lines like, “Because everythin’s set. It’s all fixed. The lives of everybody who’s ever bin born. The lives of everybody still waitin to be born.”

The major comment on the book is this style, and many are agreed: it’s jarring at first, but most grow accustomed to it.

Mark Twain, Uncle Remus, and A Clockwork Orange is notorious for this, and many books, done with moderation, have enhanced their atmosphere by including just a little bit of natural twang.

That is, however, not what I’m talking about.

When I say “casual vernacular,” it could reference accents and unconventional conjunctions, but mostly it talks about the little things—sentence fragments, starting with an “and” or “but” or “or,” “me and” instead of “and I.” You know, basic grammar rules that many discard in actual conversation.

Writers, when giving advice, will often harp on proper grammar, and there often is some validity to it. The mistakes we get away with when on the time-restricted activity of oral conversation are not appropriate when in the competitive field of writing. We believe great writers to have precision and a better control over their language than the average person and will hold our authors to a higher standard.

Plus, it actually does lend to better control over the language; knowing and implementing the rules can gain more trust from the audience as well as give more options to your palate. In the same way that knowing and accurately applying to difference between “walk” and “amble” can make both words more effective, so can knowing the difference between an ellipsis (…) and a dash (—).

On the other hand, we shouldn’t ignore that grammar is an easy method of proving superiority of writing ability. I can’t convince you that I can write wonderful characters in a sentence, but I can show off all of my grammar knowledge. Sometimes grammar isn’t criticized because its effective, but just because the speaker is showing off. Adding in the fact that sometimes technically correct sentences will sound strange to the local ear, it makes sense that just because someone fixates on proper structure doesn’t actually make their advice useful.

I would even argue that being technically correct and formal can become a huge mistake commonly portrayed by beginning writers.

If you read a lot of “first books” and unpolished fiction, you might notice a trend in having an explanatory tone of voice. Many writers will attempt to subconsciously work from a camera’s P.O.V., the voice of the narrator being fixated on being clear and accurate. Instead of having atmosphere or influencing the reader emotionally, they attempt to describe events unemotionally, in chronological order, without the other senses like smell or feeling. It sounds almost like a textbook.

The narrator has no opinions. It does not want to sway the audience by telling them what they should feel. Instead, it lays out the events in a precise manner—“He pulled out a three inch blade with his left hand, walking two steps forward towards his son, Jonathan.”—and will stop the pacing of a moment to explain something that no character would be thinking about at that time, destroying the tension of a little girl fleeing from a monster to go into this explanation that she didn’t use the word daddy because she considered it to be childish and she wanted to be an adult, which is why she stole her mother’s high heels that one time, all in the course of three seconds when she’s about to be devoured.

These stories often have the opposite issue of the beginning writer who tends to overwrite, (What has two thumbs?) the ones who focus on voice enough that they may not be delivering actual information as much as describing grass nicely. But instead of being too poetic, the explanatory writers are so intent on being clear that they forsake inflection, atmosphere, tension, feeling, or perspective.

They believe this is a good thing. “I don’t want to tell the readers how to feel. I want them to decide for themselves!”

Which is a legitimate desire. You can make the objective and formal narrator work for you, and it’s definitely something to be considered when you’re feeling inclined to write that way. It’s important to never just disregard your instincts simply because it is a similar instinct to what other people have, or because other people do it poorly. A writer who focuses on an objective description of events can utilize it to enhance their book immensely.

But it’s hard. Sometimes it’s not worth it, and it’s definitely a question of do you do it because it’s best or because that’s just what you happened to have done and you don’t want to change it?

It’s one of those things that I would recommend having a reason for doing outside of it could work. Telling events in a cold, formal manner can make those moments feel remote, be harder to relate to the characters, and not influence the readers emotionally, only intellectually. It is exactly the difference between watching a movie about an event versus a documentary. That may be way you want, but acknowledge what is actually happening and be honest about the reward. If you don’t see an actual benefit, realize that it’s much easier and often more enjoyable to write something with a voice.

When discussing grammar rules, some writers will argue that breaking them is a poor choice. You must speak properly when writing. There definitely is a higher expectation of grammar when it comes to the written word, and ignoring that standard can make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. But I believe that restricting yourself to doing what is “technically correct” versus what is actually done is foolish. There are so many methods to creating ambiance, voice, and conveying meaning portrayed through officially improper writing, and it would be foolish to limit ourselves from using them just because some book says you’re technically not supposed to. Especially because most of us know those who write so correctly that they sound like English is their second language. Writing perfect grammar doesn’t mean people are going to enjoy or respect your book any more so than if you had written how you speak.

When you put it like this, most people will agree with you. I’ve gotten in several conversations about it which usually ends in their understanding of my view. But then, they add, “I think that applies more to dialogue.”

I don’t. And while I would agree that you can get away with more in dialogue, and you might even want to be more “wrong” in conversation than you’re even naturally inclined, I do not believe that using realistic vernacular in even a third-person narrative is a bad thing. In many cases, I think writers need to let themselves be less formal when it comes to description.

It depends on what you’re going for. In many high fantasy novels, the formal way of writing makes the reader feel like they are in a different time and place. Writing casual vernacular would modernize it and actually destroy the atmosphere. Sometimes you want to keep your characters at a distance, being objective and cold towards the protagonist illustrates his isolation and loneliness. It might be interesting to tell a story as though the narrator was a historian, or even the main character looking back on the events in an objective manner.

Therefore, I am, under no circumstances, suggesting that formal and technically correct narration is a bad thing in itself. It is, however, not the only choice, and it should definitely not be considered the default option. It can do great things when used in the right context, but most times, it’s very, very boring.

By applying the way we actually talk to the narrator’s voice, you have far more options in how you inform the audience of something.

Why start a sentence with a conjunction? I mean, isn’t a conjunction like “and” and “but” a connection of two thoughts? Doesn’t that mean it doesn’t make sense at the start of a sentence?

Only looking at it from a technical standpoint. From a tonal and psychological one, starting with a conjunction can completely change a thought, and even help clarify it. It implies evolution of thought, can link two sentences together without hurting the duration of the action implied by the length of the sentence, can help the reader compartmentalize complex and lengthy ideologies, and allows for lists of long actions. Why have a sentence fragment? It too implies evolution of thought and can help reader compartmentalize. It also helps the writer have more control length of sentence, allowing for shorter ones and segregating/emphasizing their points without confusing people into thinking you’ve changed subjects.

Mostly, however, it implies a humanity to the narrator. Even if you’re writing in third-person omniscient, where the narrator is never actually seen or described as a character, giving it an opinion, letting it describe a chair as ugly, a man as a douchebag, or just have its own take on words can bring out your personal color and perception, taking dull moments of necessary events and making them about communicating with a human being rather than a relay of information.


Do not be pedantic when it comes to technical grammar. Consider first and foremost the benefit of the decision; you will never prove that you are a good writer by complaining about the use of the word “anyways” or that you can’t “whisper loudly,” only that you are a frustrated one. Always be open minded to the real world, and consider making your narrator more than just a textbook spewing out information. If your story lacks a voice, consider, maybe, hearing how people really talk and focusing less on how they should be.