Why you should forget grammar when writing fictional dialogue

There are rules of grammar as we all know. I say we know there are rules, but not many of us know all the rules, many of which are confusing and there of course exceptions to rules. There are rules for using ‘which’ instead of ‘that’ and rules for using ‘that’ instead of which’ and if I bothered to look it up I could tell you, provided I understood what they were.

But in writing dialogue that characters speak, should you follow the rule?

No. And I will give you one example. Just a few minutes ago I finished todays work on the second chapter of my new murder mystery. Here are lines of dialogue. See if you can spot a grammatical error. (I am hoping you only spot one, but here goes): “It looks like Bachmann was trying to write something. It says ‘act.’ Three letters and shakily written at that. Must have been near death. Mean anything to you?”

When I wrote that bit of dialogue a green line came up under ‘Must have been near death.’ Clicking on the sentence my helpful (sometimes) digital grammarian questions whether I might be writing an incomplete thought. The little bugger is right. I have no subject. It should be written ‘He must have been near death.’ I also could have written, ‘He must have been near death when he wrote those three letters.’ The problem with the last sentence is that ‘when he wrote those three letters’ does not add anything new, it recaps what we already know. I can use ‘he must have been near death’ and I may, in fact, do so. But the point is, when writing dialogue should not the character talk like a real person?

Let me break down that  bit of dialogue . “It looks like Bachmann was trying to write something.” The character has discovered something. “It says ‘act.” The character is telling us his discovery, as well, of course, to the character he is talking to. “Must have been near death when he wrote those three letters.” Does the character need to say ‘He?’ We already know the corpse is a man. Could not an actual person, perhaps talking even more to himself , simply say ‘must have been near death . . .’ The he is implied in conversational dialogue.

There is a difference in how people write and how they speak and if you are writing how people speak, then write what they would say, not how they would write. A good exercise is to listen to conversations and note any grammatical miscues. When you truly listen to what voices say, your dialogue will flow better.

My website: http://terrynelson.net/

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