Saturday, April 12, 2014

K = Know the Rules in Order to Break Them for Effect


Knowing the rules doesn’t mean they have to be followed stringently. Most dialogue doesn’t follow Ze Proper English, and shouldn’t have to, unless you’re writing a book called How to Speak Uncomfortably to Others. Come to think of it, I’ve read books that should have carried that title.

You can use slang if you want to get jiggy. (And okay, now I’m laughing pretty hard, because that is SO not what I would say and I suddenly feel 100 years old while typing it.) Prepositions are sometimes all right to end sentences with. And you can begin a sentence with a conjunction. You can apply the oft-misused Random Capitalization. If you wish, use clichés until the cows come home. Even . . . yep, incomplete sentences. You can do all these things, as long as you are using them for a particular reason, and you are aware that you’re breaking rules.

It’s the unsuspecting people who need to be careful. The phrase, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” attributed to George Santayana (and repeated in various forms by Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, and others), can be changed to the literary version: “Those who do not know the rules are bound to break them.”  


It all goes in order: learn them well, then break them sparingly. You don’t want to be breaking so many rules that your readers begin to wonder if you ever learned any to begin with. 

36 comments:

  1. The title of that book made me chuckle.
    I always say read dialogue out loud. Then you'll know if it's natural or not.

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    1. Thanks, Alex. When I'm editing, I do that, too: I read it aloud and think, would I say this to someone in real life?

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    2. "I read it aloud and think, would I say this to someone in real life?"

      I have the problem that I have lungs like a deep sea diver and the verbal diarrhea of a dictionary that ate a truck full of prunes. To wit:

      “You’re not really interested in people, so you came for information.” Bram lowered his voice. “Your weakness is your misdirected curiosity. You seek not to enlighten, but to manipulate. And that blinds you to misdirection, causing you to waste your time chasing useless information.”
      “If my weakness is curiosity, what’s yours?”
      “My compulsion to inflict cruel acts of intellectual debasement on lower beings such as yourself.” Bram grinned. “I try to rise above this vainglorious need, but I enjoy it too much.”
      “Lower beings?” Chang snorted. “The Chinese were at the pinnacle of culture when the Dutch were still cavorting through the swampy marshes.”
      “Don’t think you can ride the coattails of Chinese culture and presume an exalted stature on the basis of the achievements of your illustrious ancestors. If you had noble blood, you would’ve shown more refinement.”

      from Peccadillo, A Katla Novel...

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    3. Martyn, I *would* say exactly that to someone in real life. In fact, I have . . . and I am seriously starting to think you've been spying on me to write about this Katla chick.

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  2. a fabulous post and hopefully those who need the advice will read it and take it to heart. I like to revisit my Strunk and White and a grammar book on occasion just to make sure I don't misplace my dangling participles. ;)


    http://ceciliaaclark.blogspot.com.au

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    1. I can only hope others remember these things when writing. And yes, you definitely want to make sure those participles are dangling right where you can keep an eye on them.

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  3. Rigid, rule driven dialogue is something up with which I will not put!

    Not only are writers bound to break the rules they don't know, they will break them at the wrong time. Her Grammarness has spoken. :-)

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    1. YES! Amen to that, and I bow to your wisdom, especially because you have agreed with me.

      *kneeling at the feet of Her Grammarness*

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  4. I often speak dialogue out loud when composing it. My neighbors must think I'm insane. However, most people say my dialogue is my strong point.

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    1. Speaking it out loud is probably why your dialogue is strong. There's something about the "hearing" end of it that really highlights the ridiculous.

      I hate to break it to you, but your neighbors might have reasons other than your dialogue...but I like you just fine anyway.

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  5. Rigid, rule-following dialog is boring!

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    1. I tend to dislike rigid, rule-following anything (unless I'm making other people follow my rules), so dialogue exceptions work well for me.

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  6. Loved this post! Creative, educational, and fun to find all your broken rules and why you broke them. Awesome!!!

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    1. Thanks, Conlee! I was hoping most people would get it.

      I appreciate the visit and the comment! I like your A to Z theme...everyone needs a little more peace in their lives.

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    1. I had to look her up, but I shall never forget her. I have a relative just like her, and I spend most of my time with that person keeping my lips firmly sealed.

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  8. I never understood why the K in Know was silent - great post and thanks for explaining it. If you ever write a post on knowing the rules I will comment that having an editor to help you attend to such details removes much of the pressure (and joy-suck) of worrying about them during the creative portion....and I never say things out loud, only aloud although I don't know why

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    1. Well, I'm just knackered. Your editor must be a genius. She knows your fears of joy-sucking and uses her knowledge to edit with knifelike precision. No editing knockoffs for you! My suggestion is that you send her gifts on a regular basis.

      Gah! That hurt.

      And now...I feel a haiku coming on. Something about Kafka, I believe, and his penchant for kangaroos, ketchup, and karaoke.

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  9. "unless you’re writing a book called How to Speak Uncomfortably to Others" Best line ever. lol.

    I agree learning these rules gives you arrows in your quiver, you choose when to use them or not.

    Brandon Ax: Writer's Storm

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    1. I'm thinking of taking my favorite awful lines from various books I've read and turning them into a "How-Not-To" book...

      Good to see you back in action!

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  10. Clever post with all the talk about knowing and breaking the rules and doing so as you spoke. Jiggy...yep...that's a sure fire dating piece of slang...talk about 'Speaking Uncomfortably. Visiting from AtoZ Challenge and your link/comment on Brandon's post. Enjoyed my visit. Congrats on making it through Week #2.
    Sue at CollectInTexas Gal

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    1. Thanks, Sue. Yes, it was painful even writing the word "jiggy." Not in my vocabulary, ever...in fact, I think it was popular during the time frame of when I was having my kids, so I would not have noticed anything that didn't involve a diaper or maternity clothes.

      Congrats yourself on Week #2! I'm enjoying your photos and history tidbits, even though it's not my own family.

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  11. Reading dialogue loud and clear can help big time especially when its your own and it doesn't make sense!

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    1. My dialogue rarely makes sense, but that's just me in real life, not writing things.

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  12. And I think I like the words you ended your sentences with. But then. I'm not sure where I'm going with this...so I'll stop while I'm ahead.

    I like to be a rebel from time to time, so I think I'll just get jiggy breaking all the rules I want, and have you fix them on your spare time (I wanted to type "spear" but that would be overkill). Anyway, yeah. Wise words and all that :P

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  13. Hi, Lynda,

    Nice to meet you and thanks for stopping by my blog earlier... Yes, I agree a little rule breaking won't hurt anyone...especially the reader. LOL

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    1. Ha! Yes, especially the reader. One might even argue the crazy thought that it helps. :)

      Thanks for the visit!

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  14. Thank you for permission to rebel, Lynda. I believe that art is formed by broken rules.
    And this isn't about writing per se, but one of my favorite bumper stickers reads: "No well behaved woman ever made history."

    Cheers,
    xoRobyn

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    1. If anyone questions your right to rebel, you just send 'em over here and I'll be sure to tell them a thing or two.

      Love that bumper sticker! I'm all over that.

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  15. I can't use the word "jiggy" either. It just sounds so WRONG.

    Stilted dialogue... oh, how I hate reading stilted dialogue. One of the things several authors have suggested recently is to read your WiP aloud. You hear things that you don't read. I think that is probably doubly true when it comes to the conversational bits.

    Enjoyed this immensely.

    Thanks for dropping my blog and showing your love for Gary and Penny. I am now following. Look forward to the rest of your A to Z contributions:)

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    1. I once read a book in which I could only describe the dialogue as "two robots, standing still and facing each other, taking turns delivering their lines." There was no sense of conversation or comfort...only stiffness.

      I appreciate the visit and the comment! I'm also following your blog. Your theme is wonderful and I'm looking forward to catching up with what I missed.

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  16. That's one of my favorite quotes, ever--and the reason I study history all the time. I agree, you should know the rules before breaking them.

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    1. It is a great quote, isn't it?

      I've enjoyed the results of your history studies this month on your blog!

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  17. I don't do much of anything by the rules. When I found out how many rules there were for being a professional writer, I decided to stop trying to be one, because it wasn't any fun. For me, writing has to be fun, or I won't want to do it. This would be a bad thing, because it's cheaper than therapy!

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    1. I think that's why blog writing is good for me. As an editor, I can enforce the rules for others but can always fall back on the ol', "Well, I'm not charging money for them to read my blog," if the content isn't interesting enough. :)

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