“Some men just want to watch the world burn.”
-Alfred Pennyworth, The Dark Knight (2008)
As usual, Sir Michael Caine is right! In the case of that quote, he happens to be referring to the comic book villain the Joker, who desires to watch Gotham City burn itself to the ground just for the fun of it, but there’s a lesson to be taken here for authors:
Don’t be the Joker.
Don’t break the rules for the sake of breaking the rules or the fun of it.
Grammar rules exist in order to aid in communication. Without rules, language is useless. By default, you should work hard to make sure every sentence you write follows the rules. Only when you feel the prose requires a specific bending or breaking of the rules to enhance the storytelling should you start to do things differently.
When rule-breaking, be smart, be consistent, and be intentional. Break rules in order to give your prose a specific effect.
Let’s talk about how to do this.
The Rules: Wanna break ‘em? Get to know ‘em!
It will be painfully obvious to your readers if you break the rules of grammar or structure unintentionally. Sloppy, accidental rule-breaking will snap them right out of the story.
We’re going to look at some examples of age-old rules and see how we might break them...
Don’t end a sentence with a preposition!
We all learned back in elementary school that ‘in’, ‘of’, ‘to’, ‘for’, ‘with’, ‘from’, ‘about’, etc. better not be found at the end of your sentences. Can we get away with it in today’s fiction? Absolutely! Though this rule holds true with a lot of academic, nonfiction writing, fiction authors now have more leeway.
We end sentences with prepositions all the time in our daily conversations, so doing so when it ‘just sounds right’ in your prose will make your writing sound conversational and natural, and reworking a sentence to force the preposition elsewhere often results in prose which is awkward, stilted, and distracting.
Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction!
And now we move onto conjunctions. But you might be saying, “Wait! Those can never start a sentence.” Yet, you’d be wrong.
‘And’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘nor’, ‘or’, ‘so’, & ‘yet’ can all work at the start of a sentence, as long as you recognize that it does give the prose a casual, conversational flavor. Used consistently at moments where it sounds natural, especially in narration with a strong character voice, they won’t stand out or ruin the flow. However, if you throw one into a story at the wrong moment it can be distracting.
Don’t play around with conjunctions!
When making a list or combining multiple sentence segments, the rules dictate you structure it like this:
I have to go to school, soccer practice, my piano lesson, a dentist appointment, and get home in time for dinner.
The first big question to ask yourself is whether to include that last comma, which is called the Oxford comma or serial comma. Some authors, readers, editors, and publishers still like Oxford commas (I do), and some believe they should be cut. That’s a decision for you or your editor. Whatever you choose, be consistent.
But the other choice you have is whether or not to play around with the commas and conjunctions in the sentence. For instance, if you want the sentence to convey that the character’s day was crazy busy and felt like it would never end, you might structure it like this:
I have to go to school and soccer practice and my piano lesson and a dentist appointment and still get home in time for dinner!
If you want the sentence to feel casual and conversational, you might drop all conjunctions:
I gotta go to school, soccer practice, my piano lesson, a dentist appointment, get home in time for dinner.
Feel free to experiment with punctuation and conjunctions.
Don’t use sentence fragments!
As we’ve discussed in the articles “Sentence Structure: Sentence differentiation” and “Sentence Structure: Clauses and Phrases”, creating a choppy effect in your prose can be accomplished by allowing fragments to act as their own sentences.
He looked out from the castle ramparts onto the sprawling lands below. Shattered walls. Bodies face down in pools of blood. And everywhere, fire. And smoke. And the end he had wrought by his fury.
Don’t split your infinitives!
Another classic from English class, splitting an infinite refers to adding in a descriptive word (usually an adverb) between ‘to’ and a verb.
For example: ‘They began to stroll casually down the street’.
You would be splitting the infinitive if instead you wrote: ‘They began to casually stroll down the street’.
In formal writing, authors have traditionally been encouraged to avoid splitting infinitives, but these days it’s not a big deal. If it sounds more natural split, then split it. Just make sure you don’t go overboard with those adverbs. (Learn more about that in the article: “Sentence Structure: Verbs.)
Don’t use run-on sentences!
You’ve probably noticed a pattern here. Like everything else on this list, there is absolutely a time and place to do this.
Whether it’s meant to offer one long, grand description, or convey the anxiety and madness of a POV character, run-on sentences can be powerful tools to finetune your reader’s experience of the story.
But if you simply get lazy about splitting up your sentences and include lots of sprawling, multi-clause passages, it will get confusing. Typically, each sentence should convey one idea, so if you notice a lot of your run-on sentences are presenting the reader with multiple ideas, it’s probably best to chop them up.
Don’t use passive voice!
We discuss this topic much more in the article “Show vs. Tell: Active vs. Passive”, but for now, I’ll simply say that if used sparingly, passive voice can be effective at highlighting a particular moment by focusing on an action rather than a character. The real rule shouldn’t be ‘always use active voice’, it should be ‘usually use active voice, but choose passive when necessary’’.
So we’ve identified some of the major rules and how to break them. Now let’s dig into the main reason you might abandon specific rules when writing a specific story.
Your Author’s Voice: There’s that old phrase that new authors are always afraid they don’t understand: the author’s voice. This refers to the unique style and flavor of your prose. It can take years to manifest and polish, but eventually, an author will recognize the specific eccentricities of their own writing. Part of this involves which rules you typically follow, which you bend, and which you break.
For instance, I often start sentences with conjunctions, leave out ‘and’ in lists, and experiment with punctuation. But this doesn’t necessarily hold true for every one of my stories. Depending on the POV character, my style is going to differ greatly.
Your POV Voice: If you’re writing in third person objective, then the story is delivered as straightforward as possible, and you probably want to follow the rules of grammar precisely. If instead, you’re using third person omniscient, you have a little more freedom with the rules, although breaking them is going to flavor the writing such as to give the narrator itself personality. In a case like this, the narrating voice becomes a sort of semi-character in the story. You see this occasionally, especially in humorous fiction.
But most modern genre fiction is written in either first person or third person limited. In either of these forms, every bit of the story is delivered through the eyes of one particular character at a time, in which case the prose itself becomes a reflection of that character’s state of mind.
If your POV character is rambly, or anxious, or sleepy, or very young, or mentally disabled, or any number of other things, then it makes sense that their voice isn’t going to follow every convention of the grammar rulebook. So play around. Bend things. Break things. See how it can enhance the POV voice.
Agent of Chaos
What if you really want to push boundaries? Is there ever a time and place to go really wild, to channel your inner James Joyce and turn English prose on its head?
Sure. There will always be markets for experimental fiction. Just be aware that most publishers and readers aren’t going to be looking for this type of story, and in order to get it out there successfully in a mainstream market, it’s going to have to be extra special.
As long as you’re willing to take that risk, go for it! Do be the Joker. Introduce a little chaos. Upset the established order. Bring the Batman to his knees!