Being a Better Writer: Voice VS Grammar

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday, and that means Being a Better Writer! So, our topic for today? We’re going to start off with a little quiz. Nothing complicated, just pick answer A or answer B.

The setup? Picture a man sitting alone in a train car. He’s alone in his berth, the other three seats unoccupied. He keeps glancing out the window. His leg is bouncing up and down in a rapid rhythm. His clothes are wrinkled, unkempt. He looks as though he may have missed his last shower. His fingers keep beating a nervous, staccato beat against the arm of his seat.

The door is open, and he jerks his eyes to it as a trolley stops in front of it. The man behind the trolley politely asks if the occupant would like anything.

The man in the berth opens his mouth and says—

Option A) “No, thanks.”

Option B) “No thanks.”

So, which option is correct?

Well, now things get tricky. If you were answering a question on a test in an education system, for example, or if you’re simply more attuned to basic grammar rules, you’re probably going to go with Option A, the “No, thanks.” After all, that is the grammatically correct choice.

But if you’re well-read, a writer, or thinking about all the other descriptors given of this individual that’s speaking, you’re most likely going to go with Option B. The “No thanks” that comes without a comma or a pause.

Here’s the real kicker: Based on the context given, from the state of the individual speaking to the body language and everything else, I’d say that Option B is the better choice. Or rather, the more correct choice.

“But hold up!” I can hear some of you saying. “That’s the one that’s grammatically incorrect! You can’t call that the correct choice! You’re an author! How can you pick the obviously incorrect version over the one that’s grammatically correct!?”

Easily. By noting this one simple observation: People break rules of grammar all the time when speaking. And while we as authors will often (but not always) clean out the “ums” and “uhs” (again, not always), as authors we also strive to represent a character accurately. Which means capturing their voice, their cadence. Their style of speaking.

Even if that style of speaking isn’t correct.

For example, imagine if you would a book about the London East End underworld set in the 1870s. A book following a bunch of street gang members planning a heist.

Now imagine that none of them speak in cockney, despite all claiming to have grown up in the area. Instead, they all speak proper, grammatically correct modern American English.

Sounds wrong doesn’t it? It absolutely would be. The book would be “grammatically correct” yes, but it would also be roundly mocked by just about every single reviewer, reader, and passerby because such characters would feel completely anachronistic. It would be incredibly jarring to the average reader because they would be aware that the characters should not sound or read the way they did. They would sound like properly educated Americans—modern, no less—rather than products of the place and time the book’s setting claimed.

Sadly enough, you can actually see this happen in some novels of “historical fiction.” I have read reviews of books claiming to be set in the 1800s where reviewers have dinged them harshly for using modern slang terms that didn’t exist until the 90s (and in the American 90s when the book is set someplace like France, no less). Sure it’s “grammatically correct” but that’s about all it is. It certainly isn’t making use of one’s setting.

But this doesn’t just apply to a book’s setting as a matter of history. In that example above, what era would you place the character in? The 1800s? The 1900s? The 2000s? It could almost be any of them (though if it were older, “thanks” would likely be replaced with the more timely “thank you”). No matter the era, the character’s attitude is going to be best conveyed by the lack of the polite comma in their turning the trolley away.

Granted, this could be flipped and used another way as well. The brusque “No thanks” could instead be swapped with a “No, thank you” with the addition of a quick swallow on behalf of the speaker to show that they’re forcing themselves to speak in a less-abrupt manner … but it’s out of the ordinary. Or it could be a sudden case of pure competence after the reader has read enough to know that this is out-of-style for the character.

But in both those cases, the reader would know that it isn’t normal for the character based on their behavior and their voice so far.

All right, let me step back for a moment. Why is this so important? Why spend a whole post on, of all things, characters speaking with improper grammar?

Well, let me put it this way. Imagine you’ve gone to see a movie. Let’s make it a big one, like say … Star Wars: A New Hope. That’s right. It’s a rerelease of the original, where Han Solo shoots first. In theater. You grab your friends, you go sit down, the opening begins … and something is off.

Every single character, from the rebel soldiers to Darth Vader … is played by Carrie Fisher.

Can you imagine seeing that movie? Obi-Wan Kenobi is played by Carrie Fisher. Darth Vader is Carrie Fisher. Luke Skywalker is Carrie Fisher. Han Solo is Carrie Fisher.

Just an aside, before some of you think I’m picking on Carrie Fisher, the hilarity would be the same if any single actor of the original trilogy or even outside it played all the roles. I’m suddenly wishing I’d picked Shatner in my original example, because that’s even funnier to think about,

But anyway, can you imagine what it would be like to watch that movie? Outside of hilarious. Can you imagine trying to keep all the characters straight? Figuring out who was who in a scene? Even if there were decent acting chops behind it, you’d likely have to spend a good chunk of the movie trying to follow who was who at each particular moment. You’d be looking at the clothes the actor was wearing, or the sets, or trying to match up what they were saying with what others were saying in order to figure out who they were supposed to be in each scene.

That experience you just imagined? That’s what it’s like to read a book where none of the characters have a distinct voice. Because in reading, a character’s voice, their dialogue, their narration … that’s as close as any reader will get to a “picture” jumping out at them. They may build an image of the character, yes, but that image will only appear when they identify the character first. And often voice is the first and most common identifier we’re given.

I want you to think for a moment, and think hard. Have you ever read a book where a scene or chapter begins without telling you who the viewpoint character of the chapter is, but you can tell anyway because of the voice in the narration? Or read a book where two characters are speaking unattributed, but you’re able to figure out who they are because of their voices?

I have. To both. Because those characters are given strong voices that, while often not grammatically correct, are vivid and real. They have a way of speaking, from use of particular words, to phrases, to even just a cadence or a flow that makes them uniquely identifiable.

That is the power of character voice. To be so vivid and real that even if a character doesn’t offer a name, the reader can figure out who they are simply based on their style of speaking. And since dialogue and narration are the two things our reader will see the most in most books, this makes character voice as powerful a tool as a character walking in screen in a film or show.

Okay, now that we’ve connected back to the core topic (voice), I want to hit it from another angle. We’re talking about voice VS grammar, and above I brought up writing a novel set in 1870s East End England where characters are carrying out a heist. I pointed out that if you wrote the novel grammatically correct by standards of modern, American English, it’d be laughably terrible and roundly mocked for its lack of accuracy.

However, the inverse also applies. Say you wrote it 100% grammatically correct (to use the term loosely) as 1870s East End Cockney. Would the book work then?

Well … probably not. Why? Because it’d be nearly impossible to read or make sense of! Unless you were from the 1870s. And even then, if you were one of the folks that could read, cockney would make you want to storm away with a good tut and have a stiff swig of tea.

So what do we do then? Well, we write to a modern understanding, with modern language where applicable, but at the same time we keep enough aspects of the origin that the voice comes across. We make sure to use period terms or words that were common for example, or slip into phrases and cadences that a modern reader can figure out and comprehend, but still carry the core of the origin.

In the end, we make a hybrid of some kind. Neither truly the original, or truly modern, but something in-between that’s both readable to the modern reader, but identifiable as something from the period we’re covering.

In other words, something that isn’t “grammatically correct” in either pure sense of the word, but is correct in ways that modern readers can understand while carrying the flavor of the period.

In the end, this is essentially what the subject of voice is: Keeping something “correct enough” to be readable while at the same time allowing individual variance, word-choice, rhythm, and other aspects to come through. Giving a character an identity, a voice, that readers can latch onto.

Even if it isn’t “100% correct.” Read any well-written book and go through the dialogue with a red pen and you’re going to leave plenty of marks. Go through a transcript of a person speaking (even yourself) and you’ll find plenty of the same.

But you’ll note something if you do so with a well-written book: You’ll find only certain types of errors. Maybe it’s a few words in an odd order, again and again. Or an odd manner of speaking. A turn of a phrase.

That’s the character’s voice. Sure, it’s not correct … but you’ll notice that other parts are. The parts that make sure the voice is readable? Those are kept correct. Because while the author wants a voice to be clear, they also want their readers to be able to follow it along.

So … the last step in these posts: How can you apply this to your writing? Well, I’d say that my best answer would be to experiment a little.

Don’t simply say “Well, the rules don’t apply anymore” and throw them to the wind. Learn them. But then experiment with letting a character break some of them with how they speak. Let them talk the way they want to talk. You may clean up bits of it here and there, and clean things for the reader … but those characters need to have their voice. Their style. Their tone.

Even if it isn’t entirely correct.

Like all things, it’s a work of art that takes time and practice to cultivate. And so, as always …

Good Luck. Now get writing.

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