Contractions in story writing.

I’ve written a story and I’m now doing the editing. I’m feeding it through the spell and grammar checker in my word processor, a process I know is hardly perfect. This thing keeps giving me all kinds of hell over contractions. Where I have “They’d gone over the fence” for example it says it wants “They had gone over the fence.” The word processor says it’s the difference between “less formal” and “more formal”.

Obviously I’m not changing any character dialogue. Most people don’t talk through a spell checker. I’m reluctant to change any contractions in a character’s point of view as well. But how formal is telling a story supposed to be?

No answer, but this wannabe writer is curious for an answer as well.

Either can work. Although it’s usually best to pick one or the other and stick with it (although you can have a separate standard for the author voice and character dialogue).

Do it whatever way you want. It’s fiction; you’re the author, and it’s your voice. That spell-check is for business writing.

Agreed. How do you want the story to sound? Make it that way.

I shudder to think what today’s spelling and grammar check would do to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne.

I know, but it’s also useful to help me exterminate those nasty “to be” phrases.

“Now what should I do?”
[/Danish prince]

Keep them if you want your writing to sound friendly.

Don’t use them if you want your writing to sound formal.

You need to find a voice, or several voices, and let them lead you. You characters can come from very different backgrounds, and your narrator as well. A lot of people don’t think of the narrator as a character beyond it being a mechanism for relaying details that the dialog doesn’t provide, But a narrator can be a lot more – one of the character recollecting the scenes, an independent observer, a moral arbiter, etc.

Is your narrator more like Tom Sawyer or Hannibal Lector? Very different voices…

Why do you want to exterminate “‘to be’ phrases”?

All my writing instructors frowned on passive voice. For formal and creative writing. It’s lazy writing.

Never, ever rely on a word processor’s grammar check, and don’t rely on the spell checker either. Word processors are often only concerned with a very specific style guide, and sometimes they’re not even helpful when writing formal/business works. They’re helpful as an aid, but cannot replace actual knowledge of syntax and spelling etc - get someone to proof read it.

For example, spelling ‘our’ as ‘out’ will not be picked up by a spell checker. Fine and find is another one that often crops up.

And I agree with the others, that it’s all about finding your narrative voice. “They’d gone over the fence” is perfectly fine in most circumstances, unless the narrator is specifically a formal speaker.

Passive voice should generally be avoided, yeah, but J.K.Rowling seems to get away with it all the time. :smiley:

This advice is really only appropriate to (some) novice writers when they are writing formal material like college essays, where there is a tendency amongst many poor to middling writers to over-use the passive just to try to make things sound more formal and objective. However, there are times when the passive voice is entirely appropriate, and in story writing the temptation to over-use it is likely to be far less strong. I would not recommend ruthless elimination of passives in stories. If the passive is what sounds right, and it conveys your intended meaning and “feel”, then use the passive. There is certainly nothing “lazy” about it. What is “lazy” is blind following of stylistic “rules” without regard to the actual meaning and effect of the word being used.

As far as contractions go, I agree with the other posters that they are very often entirely appropriate in story writing, but it will depend on what sort of “voice” you are going for. For instance, if the story is being told from the point of view of one of the characters, then the narrative should be in a style similar to how that character talks (maybe a little more formal than their dialog, but not too much so). On the other hand, if you are telling it from a “God’s eye view” you might want the language to be a little more formal, or perhaps to reflect more how you, the author, might talk.

No it’s not. It’s one tool in the writer’s toolbox. There are many times when it’s the best tool. Calling is “lazy writing” is like calling the subjunctive lazy writing.

For fiction writing, you can ignore any grammar rules your computer flags – as long as you know why you’re ignoring it. The grammar checker is generally flagging grammar issues, but with fiction, your character don’t necessarily have perfect grammar. There are some dialects, for instance, that use “incorrect” grammar; if your character is speaking in that dialect, then ignore the flag (e.g., “Ain’t gonna do that” would be flagged, but it can be how the character speaks)

I think the only time I would say (aloud in conversation), “they had gone over the fence” would be if I was listing a sequence of events:

“they had gone over the fence, through the yard, and out the front gate.”

–Or if I was emphasizing the fact that it had already happened at a certain point in time:

“they had gone over the fence!”

But if it was a simple, “Why didn’t you stop them?” “They’d gone over the fence.”
Then no way would I not use the contraction. Even in a very formal situation, like say, a courtroom. The long form is somehow just plain awkward otherwise.

Hmm. I am not a professional writer but it seems to me that using that contraction is at odds with a self-conscious effort to use the correct verb tense. It would be interesting to hear the context in which that line appears.

That is good writing advice in general: ignore any “rules” you like, so long as you know why you are ignoring it. There is an even bigger problem than that with grammar check programs, though, in my experience. Not infrequently they will flag something as an error that is not an error by any criterion. One excellent reason to ignore a grammar checker is simply because it is wrong (and even when it is technically right, it is often still best to ignore it).

I like this point. Word processor spellcheckers, especially the ones that seek to correct grammar and syntax, are the equivalent of using a style manual written by computer geeks – which works almost as well as using a word processing program written from scratch by teachers of creative writing whose experience with programiming extends to rudimentary QBasic. :slight_smile:

On the question of contractions – which led to the more general one of the narrator’s “voice” – ask yourself if your narrator (a) is yourself telling the story, (b) is a character in the story telling what happened, or (c) is a person other than yourself who doesn’t play an active part in the story but is telling it third-person. The appropriate voice for each will become obvious when you ask yourself and answer this question.

It’s been my experience that good narration in published fiction tends to be unobtrusive, telling the story without calling attention to itself. Unless the narrator is a character who would typically use contractions, the narrator generally adopts an informal register about midway between colloquial and formal styles, eschewing most contractions but not at the cost of sounding fusty. For example, the non-character narrator would not say “He wasn’t real pleased by this turn of events” but might well say “Randolph wasn’t so much annoyed by his uncle’s well-intended advice as frustrated by its consistent irrelevance to what he had to decide.” Again, a god “ear” for style is valuable.

While I’m at it, let me throw two other pieces of advice:

Scene description: A little goes a long ways, but any is better than none. If the scene takes place in a living room with overstuffed chair to the left, desk to the right, and matching couch with coffee table in front of it between them, tell them that much, but don’t go into inordinate detail about style and color – unless it will be important later why the deep red upholstery hid the bloodstains so well. In general, what you point out as lying on desk and table are Chekhov’s guns – or the assortment of houshold bric-a-brac within which they are hid. Essentially what I am urging is “cartooning” the room in the art sense – a rough sketch allowing the reader to place events and fill in the details in his own mind’s eye, not cluttered by unnecessary detail – unless the detail is in fact necessary by becoming important later, or serves to disguise what is important. The loving detail embellished on the array of things found on that lady’s writing desk serves to mask the fact that her letter opener will be used to stab the victim in a later scene. On the other hand, the chintz print throw of roses and camellias probably doesn’t need to be described in detail – or, most likely, even mentioned.

Narrating Dialogue: There are two complementary faults here: Tom Swift and minimalism. Trust me, the repetitiveness of “___ said” is far more apparent to the author than to the reader. To be sure, vary it by the occasional “replied”, “answered,” “added”, etc., and the occasional adverb – but don’t go out of your way looking for synonyms for good old “to say”. In AD 2011 “‘Oh God, I’m coming!’ he ejaculated” is the only place you should use that verb to describe speech, and that for the humor value. Likewise, adverbs describing speech are like flowering shrubs: a few make the setting more attractive; go beyond that and you look like Passionate Purple Prose. But on the other hand, give your readers clues as to who is speaking, either by “Sam said”/“Beth responded” or by naming the speaker in narration. “Henry jumped to his feet. ‘You’re wrong – and I can prove it!’”/"‘I wouldn’t call him too wild, exactly.’ Michelle blushed and turned away from her aunt." No question who’s speaking in either case, because you’ve named the speaker by describing his/her accompanying action. “That’s a very good idea, son.” Since you only have one father-son combo in the scene, and the mother is elsewhere, it’s obvious that it’s Jack talking to Ryan; no “he said” needed. But avoid long stretches of dialogue paragraphs with no clue who’s speaking – even if it’s obvious, the reader loses track. Even if it’s Jack and Ryan having a private father-son chat, throw the reader a clue who’s speaking every third short paragraph or so – and virtually every long one. It can be subtle – “Dad”/'When I was 12"/“After school, I…” but something typing speech to speaker is needed to avoid losing track of who’s saying what.

I hope that all was useful.

I know this is a typo, but it is a great one, to be preserved. :slight_smile:

Not using contractions has itself become a convention. Writers use it to convey an artificial style of English. Data, the android, showed his non-true-humanness by never using contractions until he had a breakthrough and then they represented how he became truly alive. (Except where he forgot and they slipped through and nobody noticed). Aliens, people from the future, gods, any constructions who are presumed to be fluent in English but not human, are shown not using contractions. That’s how powerful and natural contractions are in everyday speech. You should always use them when you want to sound normal and unforced. Not using them has some purposes. That is more formal. Or more forceful. When a parent says “you can not take the car”, it conveys a stronger no than saying “you can’t take the car.” “This shall not stand” is what a president says in a speech. On the other hand, double contractions are so informal that they stand out, even if they accurately represent slurred or elided speech. “I shouldn’t’ve done that.” Use it sparingly or as part of a consistent dialect. (Actually “I shouldn’t of done that” may be realer. Speech doesn’t ever need to be grammatical, except to convey character.)

The passive voice is a problem for fiction because it distances and it lies flat on the page. There are many times when it is the right choice, but many more when it is the wrong choice. If you’re getting consistently flagged take it a sign. When I workshop stories by amateurs I often find that I get so bored by a story that I don’t want to turn to page 2. When that happened I go back with a red pen. It is remarkable how often I wind up circling an “is” in every single sentence in the long opening block of description.

The solution is not merely crossing them out for action verbs, any more than substituting ejaculated for said is a good plan. Rewrite the sentences so that the action naturally emerges out of the description. (That’s a tiny piece of show, don’t tell.)

Using “to be” is not proof of the passive voice.