Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror

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By workshop member Sarah Prineas

The grammar rules that you learned writing essays in your high school English class don't necessarily, apply to fiction writing.

For example, in fiction it is perfectly acceptable to use sentence fragments (sentences that don't include both a subject and a verb). Sentence fragments might be used in fiction to indicate a character's disoriented state of mind. Or simply because the writer's style demands it: a sentence fragment may help the prose to flow. Here's a sentence fragment from the first page of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit:

"Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort."

Written grammatically, this sentence would begin, "It was not a nasty, dirty, wet hole..."

Also, beginning sentences with "And" or "But" is not a major sin, as long as it doesn't occur too frequently. Even in academic discourse, the kind of writing done by students and professors at a university, it's becoming more acceptable to begin with "And" or "But." Using "And" at the beginning of a sentence serves to call extra attention to the detail being added. Likewise, beginning with "But" makes the exception that you are adding extra...exceptional. Here's an example from J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

"[Dumbledore] was busy rummaging in his cloak, looking for something. But he did seem to realize he was being watched, because he looked up suddenly at the cat, which was still staring at him from the other end of the street."

And here's a sentence beginning with "And" from the first chapter of The Hobbit. The dwarves have just finished singing a song about messing up Bilbo's house: "That's what Bilbo Baggins hates! So, carefully, carefully with the plates! And of course they did none of these dreadful things..."

Next, be careful when criticizing grammar usage within dialogue. Often, if it's written well, dialogue is ungrammatical because many characters speak ungrammatically, just as real people do. If the narrative in a piece is pretty much free of grammatical errors, you might assume that the poor grammar in the dialogue is intentional.

This is not to say that grammar rules don't matter: they most certainly do. But while the speed of light is a physical law (at least until the next issue of Nature comes out), grammar rules are mutable and depend on the writer's purpose.