When I started out to write fiction, I knew it all. After all, I had graduated with a BA in English, thank you very much, and therefore I knew lots of things. I knew that life is run by rules, and there are no exceptions to these rules.
Forrest Gump, one of the world’s great philosophers, knew this. He followed nature’s rules, didn’t he? When he got tired, he slept. When he got hungry, he ate. When he had to go, you know, he went. And he was happy.
It’s no different in English. I knew the rules, and I was proud of them.
Always use a semicolon to separate two complete clauses. There is no deviating from this rule.
Always allow two spaces after said semicolon, or a period, or a colon. Again, it’s the rule, dammit—no deviation.
A sentence must have a subject and a predicate. Every first grader knows this, duh. Anything else is a fragment, and against the rules of English and perhaps World Law.
All characters—ALL CHARACTERS!—in a story must use correct grammatical structure when speaking. Contractions are the devil. (All right, even I knew that one was probably kind of stupid, and I may even have made it up, but it was a rule.)
The point of view of each character must be explored in depth, even if multiple characters are thinking things at the same time. That’s the way life is.
Don’t put ideas into your reader’s head. If a character is angry, tell them he’s angry. Don’t spend valuable sentences describing how he looks or acts, that’s just confusing. For example, how much better to say “John was angry”, than “A flush worked its way up John’s face and his eyes flashed sparks.” I mean really. Maybe he’s just sick.
And then I joined The Write Practice and began meeting people who threw around words like “head-hopping”, and “show, don’t tell”. They told me I was using too many semi-colons (was that even possible?) and that it was much more interesting to let the reader figure out how John was feeling than just to tell him. Sacrilege!
But my new-found friends were writers, and like Forrest Gump they knew something I didn’t.
Life is like a box of chocolates. There’s no rule that says you have to like them all, or that they all have to be the same. And after a bit of huffing and puffing on my part I began to notice things. Like, my stories were a bit stilted and formal. My characters all sounded the same. No one cared if John was angry. I didn’t care if John was angry. So many thoughts revolving around in people’s heads were making my readers’ heads swim. Semi-colons were cropping up in my writing like dandelions.
And something happened. A feeling of lethargy began to work its way into my mind as I read my own work, and I wanted nothing more than to put the story down and take a nap. Translation: I was bored. With myself. (See what I did there? That was a fragment, and the world survived.)
This journey from first short story to published novel has taken its toll on my BA. I’ve learned that if a character lives in a trailer in rural Alabama and has no formal education, he’s not likely to say “I do not believe that you are correct, John.” If he did, a flush would rise in John’s face and he’d yell, “Hey, you messin’ with me?”
I’ve learned that a character should probably keep his thoughts to himself until it’s his turn to have a point of view.
I’ve learned that understanding the craft of writing takes a lifetime.
I’ve learned that I’m free to make mistakes, and fix them, and make some more. The world will not fall apart if my sentences are not grammatically correct, and many times they shouldn’t be.
Like young Forrest, I’ve shed my grammar brace and now I’m running full speed into my writing future. A flush is rising into my face and my eyes are flashing. A grin is spreading across my features as I contemplate the possibilities inherent in the art of writing fiction.
Writing is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get. And that’s just fine. Thanks, Forrest.
Image by Emma Frances Logan: https://unsplash.com/@emmafranceslogan