Know the Rules, Then Break Them

Absolute Blank

By Suzanne Wiles Chapman (Barrister)

I am often appalled to read writing that contains a great story line and interesting characters, but is marred with bad grammar, sloppy style and bad form. The creativity is there, but the structure is poor and the words are lacking. Some writers say that they don’t worry about grammar and style — they never understood it and they’ll leave it to editors. I believe, however, that a grasp of style and grammar are essential to good writing. Understanding the rules of grammar is the foundation upon which we build clever literary devices. Writers must understand the structure of language in order to manipulate it.

Background Image: Andreas Klodt/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

In The Art of Fiction John Gardner likens fiction to a dream, in which the reader is swept into another reality and exists within a story. “In bad or unsatisfying fiction this fictional dream is interrupted from time to time by some mistake or conscious ploy on the part of the artist. We are abruptly snapped out of the dream, forced to think of the writer or the writing.” Gardner says that in bad writing, whether new or experienced, “the writer distracts the reader by clumsy or incorrect writing”.

In his autobiographical On Writing, Stephen King says, “At its most basic we are only discussing a learned skill, but do we not agree that sometimes the most basic skills can create things far beyond our expectations?” His point is simple: grammar and style seem like straightforward skills that merely regulate language, but they are the very tools we need to create masterful stories.

The good news is that understanding grammar and style is not difficult, regardless of your experience in high school English class. King points out that sometimes we can’t really “get” grammar and style until we mature a little: “now that all that extraneous shit is out of the way, you can study certain academic matters with a degree of concentration you could never manage while attending the local textbook loonybin. And once you start, you’ll find you know almost all of the stuff anyway — it is, as I said, mostly a matter of cleaning the rust off the drillbits and sharpening the blade of your saw.”

Make grammar and style important in your writing. Grammar is simply a set of rules that govern how the English language works. Most of the time you should follow these rules and sometimes you can break them with finesse. Invest in a good grammar book and study it. You don’t have to know every grammar term, but you should know the main ones and be able to identify whether something is correct or not. Here at Toasted Cheese, I host a board where you can bring your grammar and style questions and get an answer in 24 hours. I also will help you in your quest to brush up on the basics with a new tip and activity each week. Taking a time to review this information on a regular basis will improve your writing.

When it comes to good writing style, you can find many excellent books, but I think you really only need two: The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, and the appropriate style manual for your genre (e.g. Chicago Manual of Style). Don’t just buy these books and put them on your shelf for reference. Read and understand them, because the information will come back to you automatically when you write.

Reviewing grammar and style information is more than just learning to follow the rules. It gives you power over language. For example, two common style mandates are to avoid passive voice and to vary sentence length. Understanding this, you can manipulate active/passive verbs and sentence length to enhance storytelling.

Passive sentences are said to be weak because they show action being done to the subject, rather than a subject doing the action. For example, “The money was left to me” is less informative than “My aunt Ida left me the money”. Passive sentences are, however, useful in certain situations, such as masking the doer of the action for a mysterious effect.

The chair had been moved. Yesterday, it was sitting right next to the window, overlooking the lake. Now, it sat in the corner. I felt a shiver along my spine.

Using a passive sentence, “The chair had been moved”, creates a sense of mystery about who had moved it. However, the key is only using passive voice when it’s for a good reason. Of course, being able to recognize passive voice is the first step.

Now, consider sentence length. Generally, it’s suggested that we vary sentence length, which avoids monotony. However, sometimes a series of short sentences is effective in creating tension. Compare these two paragraphs:

  1. When I arrived at my brother’s house, the lights were out. Curious, I peered into the window beside the front door, wondering where he was. When I knocked on the door there was no answer, but it was unlocked and I stepped inside, only to be surprised by a deafening scream.
  2. When I arrived, the lights were out. I peered into the window. Nothing. I tried the door handle. The door creaked open. I stepped inside. Silence. As I turned to flick the switch, a deafening scream pierced my eardrums.

The first paragraph is fine and contains varied sentence length. In the second paragraph however, the short sentences, some of them only one word, create a sense of trepidation. In other types of scenes, this might seem choppy, but in this type of story situation, it creates the mood effectively.

The bottom line is that one needs to know the rules in order to use them. They become less of a restriction and more of a tool in your writing toolkit.


  1. Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983.
  2. King, Stephen. On Writing. New York: Scribner, 2000.
  3. Strunk, William Jr., and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. New York: Macmillan, 1979.

Break the Rules!

A Pen In Each Hand

By Barrister

Knowing grammar rules and style suggestions is important—especially so you can break the rules when it’s necessary. The key to breaking the rules is knowing why they work and why breaking them might be necessary. For example, as pointed out in this month’s Absolute Blank article, passive sentences are a no-no because they utilize weak verbs and they mask the subject of the sentence. But, what if you want to shroud the subject in mystery for the moment? A passive sentence might be the right tool in that case. You can check out Absolute Blank for an example of this technique and for one involving sentence length. The Exercise: Write a short scene in which you break one or more style suggestions or grammar rules in order to enhance the story. You can use a carefully placed passive sentence or a series of short sentences, as above, or you might consider testing the waters with sentence fragments, one-word paragraphs, or run-on sentences. It’s up to you. After your scene, point out what style points you have ignored or grammar rules you have broken and why. You can post your exercise to the TC board where you feel most comfortable.