Purge the Pompous and Pretentious Padding of Purple Prose

When that editor rejected your story because your prose was “too purple,” she wasn’t referring to your font color. What is purple prose and how can you avoid it?

Purple prose refers to text using overly long and fancy words, elaborate phrases, and flowery language. It overuses abstractions, figurative language, modifiers, similes, and metaphors. It stretches sentences out until the reader drowns in pleasant-sounding but meaningless words.

Since that description is rather subjective, I prefer the simpler version provided by Stephanie Nolan: “Purple prose draws attention to itself.”

That may sound like something you’d have to do intentionally, something requiring extra effort, something easy to avoid. In reality, it’s easy to slip into the trap of writing purple prose. One method is by familiarity. If, like me, you enjoy reading books written in an era when purple prose wasn’t abhorred (looking at you, Jules Verne), then you can come to believe such writing is still acceptable.

Or, like Liz Bureman notes, you can drift into the purple zone when you can’t think of anything relevant to write about the characters or the plot. At such times, you might be tempted to litter the page with long descriptions of the setting, or of a character’s clothing.

Some of you might be thinking I’m being unfair to purple prose. What, you’re asking, is so bad about it? After all, some readers like high-sounding writing with ornate phrases, detailed imagery, and delicious turns of phrase. True, a few readers may enjoy that. However, the purpose of fiction is to tell a story about the human condition. If your prose meanders off on some tangent and strays too far from the characters and plot, most readers today will recognize they’re being cheated. They’ll cease reading, never read anything else you write, and post a harsh review of your book online.

By the way, the term purple prose isn’t exactly new. As Richard Nordquist states, it was coined by Horace (65-68 B.C.) who mentioned purpureus pannus (Latin for purple patch) in his Ars Poetica. Nor is ‘purple prose’ the only label for such writing. Nordquist also cites related terms: Adjectivitis, Bomphiologia, Cacozelia, Euphuism, Gongorism, Grand Style, Overwriting, Bugbear Style, Skotison, Tall Talk, and Verbosity.

For humorous examples of purple prose, skim through the winning entry and dishonorable mentions in the annual Bulwer-Lytton Contest’s Purple Prose category.

How can you avoid writing purple prose? Early on, the surest method is to have someone else point it out to you. You can hire an editor, join a critique group, or trust a Beta Reader. In time you’ll learn to pick it up yourself while self-editing your work. Look for excessive descriptions, unnecessary adjectives and (especially) adverbs, and any significant deviations away from the action or characters.

Tracy Culleton says whenever you find yourself showing off, that’s a sign you should delete that phrase. However, if it serves the telling of the story, keep it. Stefanie Arroyo says admiring your own phrasing is a danger sign. If you find yourself thinking, “That’s a lovely phrase,” that’s reason enough to consider killing it.

There are a couple of times when purple prose is okay. First, you can certainly use it for humorous effect in a story intended to be funny. Second, feel free to let your prose run purple in your first drafts, so long as you cut out the worst parts in later drafts. In that first draft, your subconscious (or your muse) is having fun lingering on a long description of an object, or setting, or clothing, etc. Maybe some description is called for, but in later drafts you should trim it down to the essentials.

Purple is a fine color, but purple prose is not fine writing. Pledge to purge purple prose from your paragraphs and passages, and proffer all praise for your newly procured perception and proficiency to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Are Your Stories Antifragile?

That’s no typo in this post’s title. Antifragility is a thing, and today I’m discussing the concept as it applies to fictional stories.

In his book Antifragile, Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb asks if there is an antonym of the word “fragile.” If there were such an adjective, he’d say it describes things that become stronger when stressed.

He doesn’t mean words like ‘robust,’ ‘tough,’ or ‘resilient.’ Those words describe things that sustain shocks without damage. He wants to describe things that improve their resistance to stress by being stressed. Lacking a ready word, he coined the term ‘antifragile.’

Can a story be antifragile? To answer that, we should consider the things that impose stresses on stories. These include criticism in negative reviews and mocking satire.

What would it mean for a story to become stronger? If it meant that the story became more widely read, more popular, with increased sales, then an antifragile story would be one that suffers negative reviews or even satire and yet its sales increase.

Are there any such stories? If I recall correctly, Nassim Taleb offered the more popular plays of William Shakespeare as examples. For four centuries, those plays have endured bad reviews and been mocked, but they are performed far more often and in more languages and formats than they were in Shakespeare’s time.

From an author’s point of view, antifragility seems like a wonderful property for a story to have, especially the increasing sales part, right? If you wanted to write an antifragile story, and perhaps lacked the skill of Shakespeare, how would you go about it? Are there tangible attributes of such stories? Is there a checklist to follow?

I hate to disappoint you, but there’s no checklist. Further, the only authors who really understand what it takes to make a story antifragile…well, they’re dead. That’s because stories don’t really demonstrate that property to the greatest extent while the author is alive.

Still, being me, I’ll take a crack at it, because I like a challenge. Here is my proposed checklist for making your stories antifragile:

  1. Create complex and compelling characters. They need to seem real, with strong emotions and motivations, with goals to attain, with difficult inner problems to surmount, and with bedeviling decisions to make.
  2. Appeal to every reader. That may be impossible to achieve in a single story, but in your body of work you should include characters of many types, in diverse settings. Include rich and poor, young and old, introvert and extrovert, city and country, etc.
  3. Explore the eternal truths about the human condition. You know many of these eternal truths—we’re born, we grow up, we have parents, we learn to relate to others and even fall in love, we have disagreements and conflicts with others, we become curious about the nature of our world, we deteriorate with age, and we die. When I say to ‘explore’ these truths, I don’t mean to write a philosophy book. Write a fictional story that entertains, but causes readers to ponder those deeper truths after reading it.
  4. Execute your story with style, flair, and creativity. Yeah, right. Simply do that. This one is hard to implement, but I’ll suggest some thoughts. Look for ways to turn a phrase well. Create a new word that English lacks but needs. Write in a manner that stands out, such that readers could identify your unique voice from a couple of paragraphs chosen randomly from your stories.

Okay, it’s not really a checklist where you mark off each item in turn: done, done, done. It’s more of a guideline with concepts to aim for. Who knows if it’s even accurate? After all, I’m not dead yet (as I write this), so I can’t possibly know.

Still, it’s intriguing to think that one day, readers may consider your stories to be antifragile, and when scholars trace it back, they’ll discover you learned how to do it from—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Using the 15 Fiction-Writing Virtues

In a previous blog post, I explored how Benjamin Franklin, an early champion of self-help, might advise us on how to improve our writing. To recall, Ben identified weaknesses in his own character and flipped around those negative weaknesses into their corresponding, positive virtues, toward which he strived.

In that earlier post, I made a list of fifteen fiction-writing virtues, encouraged you to make a similar list, and then left you on your own. Today, I’m picking up where I left you stranded, and providing a structured approach for applying those virtues as you write.

benjamin-franklinBen Franklin took his list of thirteen virtues and focused on applying one per week. He kept a log of his success rate, noting when he succeeded and failed. That simple and easy method might not work for the fiction writing virtues, since the one you’ve selected might not apply to what you’re doing that week. Your virtue list, if it’s anything like mine, might be more event-based.

What you need is a mechanism for (1) remembering, (2) applying, (3) recording, and (4) reassessing your virtues:

  • Remembering means that the applicable event-based virtue will appear before you when that given event starts, so it’s a reminder to exercise that virtue.
  • Applying means that, in the moment of decision, you choose to act upon your virtue and do the virtuous thing.
  • Recording means that you’ll keep some sort of log or journal of your success and failure.
  • Reassessing means that once one or more of the initial virtues have become an ingrained habit, you strike it from the list, consider other weaknesses in your writing that require improvement, and add new virtues to work on.

From my earlier blog post, here again are the 15 fiction-writing virtues I came up with. Reminder—yours will likely be different.

15 Virtues

I had split the virtues into five Process virtues and ten Product virtues. Here are a couple of tables showing to which parts of the story-writing procedure each process virtue applies, and to which story elements each product virtue applies.

First draft Self-Edit Critique Submit Rejections
Process Virtues 1. Productivity X X X X X
2. Focus X
3. Humility X
4. Excellence X
5. Doggedness X


Character Plot Setting Theme Style
Product Virtues 6. Relevance X X
7. Appeal X X X
8. Engagement X X
9. Empathy X
10. Action X
11. Placement X
12. Meaning X
13. Style X
14. Communication X X
15. Skill X

Remembering. The best solution is to print the list of virtues and keep it near your computer or tablet when writing, and refer to it often. Over time you’ll remember to refer to the “Excellence” virtue before submitting a manuscript, for example.

Applying. This is the most difficult part. In any given writing situation, you must do your best to live up to the virtue that applies to that situation. You’ll likely fail at first, then get better with time, practice, and patience.

Recording. If you keep a log, journal, or writing diary, that is a good place to grade yourself each day on how well you achieved each virtue that applied that day. You may learn more from failures than successes, in recognizing the causes for the failures. In time, you will strive harder to achieve each virtue simply because you won’t want to record another failure in your logbook.

Reassessing. Your list of virtues should be dynamic. Whenever you believe you’ve got a virtuous habit down pat, you can delete it from the list. Whenever you find another weakness in your writing, you can add the corresponding virtue to the list. Perhaps you’ll find that a virtue is poorly phrased, or is vague, or doesn’t really address the root cause of the weakness; you can re-word it to be more precise.

If you faithfully apply a technique similar to this, and you find your writing improving, and you gain the success you always desired, don’t forget to send (1) a silent thank-you to the spirit of Benjamin Franklin, and (2) a favorable and grateful comment to this blog post by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Your Writing Voice

Writers VoiceWe call it laryngitis when you lose your voice, but what if you never found it in the first place? To be clear, I’m not writing about a medical condition of the larynx, but rather about your writing voice.


What is a writing voice? I liken it to your vocal voice in that it is distinctively yours, an individual indicator like your fingerprints, your retina patterns, and your signature. It’s a marker that can be used to identify you.

In other words, a few paragraphs could be taken at random from your published stories, and a reader might be able to recognize that you’re the author.

Is your writing that identifiable? Is it unique? If not, how can you get to that point?

Two Elements

Before we arrive at a way to answer those questions, I’ll cover what I believe to be the two elements of a writer’s voice.

The first is the subject, the topic about which you commonly write. This can take the form of a genre or themeSomeday when you have compiled a full body of work and your name comes up, if people say, “That’s the author who writes about ______,” it’s that ‘______’ that forms part of your voice.

The other element has to do with style. It’s not just the subjects you write about, it’s how you do it. The Wikipedia article on Writer’s Voice suggests that this element; a combination of character development, dialogue, diction, punctuation, and syntax; is all there is to a writing voice. I’m not willing to discount the subject/topic element, though.


How do you find your voice? This marvelous blog post by author Todd Henry provides a great way to help you find your voice by answering ten questions. These questions help you reach your inner passions and hopes. In this way you’ll touch the deep emotions and motivations inside.

Why does that method work, for discovering your voice? Certainly the answers will help you determine the subject half of your voice. The answers will suggest topics you should write about or genres to write in. Only by tapping in to your central core of strong enthusiasms will you be able to sustain the discipline to complete what you start to write. If you work at it, those deep hopes and passions will become evident in your writing.

What about the style element? How are you supposed to discover that? I’m not sure answering Todd Henry’s ten questions will answer that. I believe your writing style is a matter of imitation early on, then leading to experimentation, and finally perfecting.

No Guarantee

Let me set some expectations about this process of finding your writing voice. In the end, you’ll have a unique voice, one recognizable as you. That doesn’t mean anyone else wants to hear it. This isn’t a recipe for fame or financial success in writing.

I’ll write a blog post sometime laying out the sure-fire, step-by-step formula for how to become famous and rich by writing.

Sure. Keep checking back for that one.

What’s the point, you’re asking, of this voice discovery process? Why go through it? I’d answer that all the authors who are famous, or rich, or whose writing is considered classic, all of them have a distinctive writing voice.

I think finding your voice is necessary, but not sufficient, for success. You might discover your writing voice only to learn it’s not marketable. If high sales numbers are what you’re after, experiment more. Try slight alterations of voice until you hit the combination of subject and style that sells.

Best of luck to you in finding your writing voice. Still searching for mine, I’m—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 19, 2014Permalink

Fiction Elements by Genre

In earlier posts I’ve blogged about the various elements of fiction (Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, and Style). I’ve also blogged a bit about the various genres of fiction. Here I thought I’d explore how the various genres emphasize certain elements and de-emphasize others.

For the chart, I used the genres listed in the Wikipedia “List of Genres” entry. As the entry itself points out, people will never agree on this list. Even more contentious will be my rankings in the chart for how much each genre makes use of each fiction element.

Fiction elements vs GenreFor each genre, I assigned my own rough score for each fiction element. I’ve placed the genres in approximate order from the ones emphasizing character and plot more, to the ones emphasizing style and theme more.

Go ahead and quibble about the numbers I assigned. That’s fine. There’s considerable variation within a genre. Also, the percentages of the elements vary over time. If we took one hundred experts in literature and had them each do the rankings, then averaged them, the resulting chart would have more validity than what I’m presenting, which is based on my scoring alone.

But the larger point is that the different genres do focus on different elements of fiction. In my view, character is probably the primary element for all but a few genres. Theme is probably the least important, except for a limited number of genres.

Of what use is such a chart? First, please don’t draw an unintended conclusion. If you happen to know which elements of fiction are your fortes, and which you’re least skilled in, I wouldn’t advise you to choose a genre based on that.

Instead, look at the chart the opposite way. Find the genre in which you’d like to write, and work to strengthen your use of its primary fiction elements in your own work. You might even glance at the genres on either side of your favorite one and consider writing in those genres too.

I can’t seem to find online where anybody else has constructed a chart like mine. Perhaps the only one you’ll see is this one made by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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September 28, 2014Permalink

Dear Ray Bradbury

I just had to write to thank you, thank you, for the great times, the pleasures of reading your work.  There’s no sense letting a little thing like your death in 2012 prevent me from expressing my gratitude, is there?

220px-Ray_Bradbury_(1975)_-cropped-Sorry, I haven’t read all your books and stories.  I’ve read less of your canon than I have of Jules Verne’s, Isaac Asimov’s, or Robert Heinlein’s.  But, oh, the few of your books I digested left lifelong mental imprints:  Something Wicked This Way Comes, Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, The Illustrated Man, Now and Forever, and The Martian Chronicles.  In high school, I read your short story, “The Flying Machine,” and my recollections of it inspired my story, “The Sea-Wagon of Yantai,” written decades later.

At one point, you declared you wrote fantasy, not science fiction.  In my view you blended the two.  You made science sound like fantasy.

Moreover, your flowing style of writing contrasted with that of the hard-science fiction writers.  Their stories conveyed a love of machines, of science.  Yours proclaimed a love of word imagery, of the magic of English, of poetic prose.

The authors of hard science fiction told me tales of technical detail.  You sang me stories of marvel and wonder.

I guess I’m trying to say that I write more like those other guys, but wish I could write like you.

On occasion, you related a particular memory from when you were about twelve.  At a carnival, one of the performers known as Mr. Electrico touched an electrical sword to your nose which made your hair stand out.  You claimed he told you, “Live forever!”

In a very real sense, Mr. Bradbury, you will.  Thanks again.

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 22, 2013Permalink

Dear Dr. Asimov

You may have some difficulty reading this, since you’ve been dead for over 21 years, but I hope somehow this tribute finds its way to you nonetheless.  I just wanted to say thanks, however belatedly, for your books and the way they influenced me.

isaac-asimov2I started reading science fiction in the early 1970s, and by then you were a giant in the field.  I read dozens of your short stories, and some of your novels including Foundation, Fantastic Voyage, The Gods Themselves, The End of Eternity, The Naked Sun, and others.  Later I read some of your nonfiction books and essays and some of your non-SF fiction, including The Union Club Mysteries and Azazel.

In fact, I read more stories written by you than by any other author.  (Of course, there are more stories written by you than any other SF author!)

In the late 1980s or very early 1990s I had the opportunity to attend one of your speeches—a great thrill for me since I was then thinking of becoming a writer.  You had traveled (by train, of course, since you never flew) to my area to speak in a lecture hall.

Alone on stage, you began speaking in your thick Brooklyn accent.  “I’ve done a number of these things already, so to save time, I’ll ask the questions you would ask, and then answer them.  First question:  Dr. Asimov, how did you come to write so many books?  Well, I type ninety words a minute and before I knew it, I’d written five hundred books.  If someone wants a 5000 word short story, I type 5000 words and stop; with any luck, I’m at the end of a sentence.”

You gave advice to budding writers like me that day also.  “My first draft is my final draft.  I don’t believe in rubbing words together until they sparkle in the sunlight.  As my good friend, the late Bob Heinlein said, ‘They didn’t want it good; they wanted it Wednesday.’”

It was a great hour-long lecture, and you kept the audience laughing the whole time.  But that was just one hour.  Your impact on my life goes much deeper.

Your SF stories are based on sound science, and your characters confront bedeviling problems that spring from unalterable facts.  The science is a central part of each story.  I’ve strived for that in my stories as well.

Moreover, your tales are celebrations of science.  I don’t recall any stories where science leads humanity irrevocably astray.  Even your dystopian works end with hope for the future.  That’s true of my writing, too.

Others have spoken of your clear, uncluttered style of writing, and you’ve acknowledged that yourself.  My critique group tells me my style is similar at times.

Looking back over the list of my published short stories, I think I can see your influence in each one, to some extent.  Alas, I don’t type ninety words a minute, and I labor over several drafts, so I will never equal the quantity of your output.  But it’s my dream to write a story someday that approaches the quality of your fiction.

Here’s to you, Dr. Isaac Asimov!  Thank you.

Steven R. Southard


Poseidon’s Scribe

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October 20, 2013Permalink

15 Writing Virtues

Many people believe you aren’t just stuck with the way you are now, that you can better yourself by persistent act of will.  I’m one of them, but let me just focus on self-help as it applies to the writing of fiction.

Benjamin_Franklin_1767Benjamin Franklin was an early example of someone who developed a program of self-improvement.  His method was to list thirteen virtues along with a brief description, then he would set about to focus on one virtue per week.  Franklin actually kept a log of this, giving himself a black mark on days he fell short.  Presumably, by focusing on one virtue at a time, it did not mean he was abandoning the others during that week.

Examples of his virtues include:

1. Temperance.  Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.

4. Resolution.  Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.

In the spirit of Benjamin Franklin’s list of virtues, I’ll offer some virtues of writing fiction.  I’ve grouped them into ‘process’ virtues dealing with how you write, and ‘product’ virtues dealing with aspects of the manuscript itself.

The Poseidon’s Scribe 15 Virtues of Fiction Writing

Process Virtues

1.  ProductivityFill hours with writing, not researching or time-wasting activity.

2.  Focus.  Turn off your inner editor during the first draft.

3.  Humility.  Seek other trusted people to critique your work; be receptive.

4.  Excellence.  Only submit work you’re proud of.

5.  DoggednessBe persistent in submitting to markets; be unshaken by rejections.

Product Virtues.

6.  Relevance.  Ensure your work passes the ‘So What?’ test.

7.  AppealHook readers from the first paragraph.

8.  Engagement.  Put your characters in conflict with something or someone; make the story about conflict resolution.

9.  Empathy.  Create vivid, engaging characters.

10.  Action.  Weave logical, interesting plots with appropriate causes and effects.

11.  Placement.  Provide clear but unobtrusive descriptions of the story setting, without overshadowing character or plot.

12.  Meaning.  Ensure your story’s theme explores eternal human truths.

13.  Style. Seek your own voice, then follow it.

14.  Communication.  Ensure your characters’ dialogue is appropriate and advances the plot.  (Mentioned here, here, and here.)

15.  Skill.  Salt your tales with symbolism and appropriate metaphors.

Your list would likely be different.  One way to go about it is to examine critiques of your fiction you receive from members of your critique group, from editors, etc.  Are there repeated criticisms?  Turn them around and express them as a positive affirmation or goal, not as a negative to avoid.  Those goals represent things to work on, and would be on your own list of virtues.

George Carlin fans would likely point out to me that there’s no such thing as self-help.  People who get their list of virtues from their critique group, or from this blog post, aren’t exactly engaged in self-help, since they got help from others.  Moreover, if beginning writers truly helped themselves get better, then they didn’t need help.  Witty gags aside, it can be a comfort to a struggling writer that there exist methods for improvement, but all I offer is a framework for starting; the writer must shoulder the burden of actually doing the work to improve her writing.

I’d love to hear if you’ve found my list useful, or if you’ve developed your own list, or even if you’ve embarked on a completely different method of improving your writing.  Let me know in your comments to this blog entry.  For now, back to improving his writing goes—

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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To Do, Or Be Done To?

That is the question.  Today I’ll cover one of my pet peeves—passive sentence construction, as contrasted with the active version.

Defining these types is easy.  In active sentence construction (also called ‘active voice’) the subject of the sentence performs the action described by the verb.  In passive construction, the subject is the recipient of the action.

For example, here are two sentences from a recent story of mine:

  • Doctor Rudolph Wellburn looked up from his workbench as Red dragged the trampled man through his door.
  • The man had been bound with ropes to three tree limbs lashed together.

In the first, the subject is the doctor, Wellburn, and the verb is looked.  There’s another clause with its subject Red and verb dragged.  Both are active, since the subject is performing the action.  In the second sentence, which is passive, the subject man has had an action done to him, described by the ‘had been bound’ verb.

It’s possible to convert sentences back and forth between the two voices.  I could have phrased the first sentence as “The workbench was looked up from by Doctor Rudolph Wellburn as…”  I also could have worded the second sentence as “Red had bound the man with ropes…”  I’ll soon reveal why I didn’t do that.

I think of active sentences as direct, honest, and clear.  They also seem stronger to me.  Passive sentences, with their ability to hide the subject entirely, seem dishonest, confusing, and weak.  Needless to say, I prefer active sentences.  At my workplace many others write in passive sentences, so I’m on a one-man crusade to change all that.  Change has to start somewhere!

Ulysses S Grant - mistakes were madeAmong the worst passive sentences ever written is “Mistakes were made.”  Politicians since Ulysses S. Grant have used that one to acknowledge a problem but to hide the responsible party from blame.  However, the press and the public are on to that tactic, and would pounce on any official who uttered it (after laughing out loud).

By now you’re wondering why Poseidon’s Scribe has stated a firm bias against passive sentences, and yet used one in a recent story.  There are several valid reasons for using passive sentences:

1.  The doer of the action is unknown, unwanted, or unneeded in the sentence.

2.  The action of the sentence needs more emphasis or focus than the doer of the action.

3.  Sentence variety.

4.  Putting the subject at the end of the sentence can delay its impact to achieve surprise or humor.

I chose a passive sentence in my story for reason 1, since the identity of the person who bound the man to the tree limbs was unimportant to the story.  Police reports use passive sentences when the person who committed the crime is unknown.  Scientists often use passive sentences for reason 2, to emphasize the experiment, not the experimenter, and to sound more objective.

But in your fiction writing I advocate sticking to active sentences as much as you can.  Weed out passive ones, and make each one defend its place in your story.  Remember, passive sentences are easier to write and you can fall into the habit of favoring them unless you make the effort to avoid them.

Am I being too harsh on passive sentences?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I’m not infallible, after all, but I’m not too proud to admit that mistakes were made by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe 

P.S. Be sure to check this space on Wednesday, December 19.  I’ll be participating in a blog hop called The Next Big Thing.  You wouldn’t want to miss the next big thing, would you?





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December 16, 2012Permalink

Rules Writers Break

In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” several pirate characters throughout the movie mention the Pirate Code in reverent tones.  Late in the film, Captain Barbossa reveals, “the Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Today I’ll discuss writing rules your grade school teachers taught you, and whether following them is something you must do, or should do. When teaching young children, it is often best to give them black-and-white rule sets.  That’s a lot easier to understand than wishy-washy grayness, the actual messiness of the real world.

However, if you aim to be a writer of fiction for the modern marketplace, it’s time to let go of some of those rules.  If, as you write, your mind’s eye sees your teacher from long ago admonishing you to follow one of the rules below, try deliberately violating the rule even as your teacher watches.  Steady practice at this should make the visions of your teacher go away.

  • Always use complete sentences.  Not only did your teacher tell you that one, but word processing software often alerts you when you’ve created a sentence fragment.  It’s fine as a general rule, but there are times when your story requires a sentence or thought to be emphasized, to stand out.  An occasional fragment is okay when used deliberately for such a purpose.
  • Don’t begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But.’  Your teacher might have extended this rule to all connecting words—conjunctions—which also include ‘or’ and ‘yet.’  Traditional English sentences require that such words, when used, connect two clauses.  Again, if your second clause needs special emphasis, go ahead and set it apart with a separate sentence.  But remember to use conjunctions properly when you do, according to their meanings.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.  This is an ancient rule imposed by grammarians who wanted to make English more like Latin.  The rule is long discredited now, or should be.  No one buried it with more flare than Winston Churchill when he wrote, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
  • Always use proper paragraph form.  By this your teacher meant paragraphs should have topic sentences, then sentences that build on or substantiate the topic sentence, and then a concluding sentence.  Therefore, by that rule, you would never have a paragraph consisting of just one sentence.  In fiction writing you can throw that rule out.  Just tell your story.  Paragraphs are useful to break up the text, to give white space so the reader catches a breath now and then.  Paragraphs also help to group like thoughts together.  A one-sentence paragraph now and then for emphasis is permitted.
  • Don’t use long sentences.  Many people confuse these with run-on sentences, which are different, and it’s still a good rule not to use them.  The thing about long sentences is, your reader could become lost and confused wading through all the ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ em dashes, commas, and semicolons.  Use a long sentence (over, say, forty words) if you need to, but do it for effect and make it easy to read.
  • Never split an infinitive.  Stated differently, the rule is to never split an infinitive.  This rule, too, once created controversy but the battle is pretty much over.  You may now split with impunity.  Go with what sounds right to you.

If you are still in grade school, follow the rules presented by your teacher, (knowing you can break some of them later when your grades are no longer at stake).  For the rest of you, remember your main job as a writer of fiction is to move your reader emotionally.  If the story demands it, go ahead and break some of these rules.  Like the Pirate Code, they’re more what you’d call guidelines.  Take it from that one-time pirate and noted rule-breaker…

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 9, 2012Permalink