Fiction and nonfiction: What is acceptable and what isn’t?

WARNING: This may or may not end up as a rant. We’ll see when we get there.

As you all should know by now, I am a novelist. I write fiction stories that are completely made up. A friend of mine, Glynn, writes nonfiction, as she is a certified journalist. This is something that concerns us both.

People know that I write stories, and they tell me that I should become a journalist, because then I could make writing my living. This, while a practical, cookie-cutter thing to say, is really not at all helpful. I am lousy at writing nonfiction, which, you know, is exactly what journalism is. Fiction is my forte, and just because I write doesn’t mean I can write everything.

Glynn, on the other hand, writes nonfiction as a journalist, and people frequently tell her that she should write a book. It’s the same situation as mine, but reversed: she might not be able to do it, because of her writing history.

Glynn and I have a good thing going. I’m constantly seeking out editors to help me comb through my stories to make sure they’re as good as they’re going to be. Glynn, due to the fact that she is a journalist, is more than happy to help me edit for grammar and the like, and not necessarily for the story itself. But here’s the thing: editing for fiction and editing for nonfiction are completely different.

She might see a sentence in my stories that begins with “And”, and it will hurt her journalistic sensibility. As we know, sentences shouldn’t start with “And”. However, in fiction these are acceptable, so long as they aren’t overdone and overused. If she was editing a piece for the CBC or a newspaper and encountered a sentence beginning with a preposition, we would be obligated to throw fruit at her if she didn’t correct it.

Because, of course, that is utterly unacceptable in nonfiction pieces.

We were talking today about run-on sentences. She believes that they are the devil (I may be paraphrasing). But I defended them sort of by saying that yes, in nonfiction that would be terrible, but in fiction, if used sparingly, they can actually be very helpful. My example was tone and atmosphere. If the character and the scene is desperate, a good way of conveying that is through sentence structure. Run-on and staccato sentences are good in these situations.

For example, from Purity:

She tried to inhale, to stop him from rambling because he was wrong, she was not innocent, and this would have ended up happening to matter what, and hadn’t he always warned her that involving herself with him and his people was dangerous? But as soon as she did, as soon as her ravaged lungs tried to work, they filled with blood and not air, and she was choking, coughing, in a desperate and futile last-ditch attempt to save herself.

Two run-on sentences right next to each other for a total of 80 words. Normally this wouldn’t be acceptable, but I don’t feel it’s terrible because, A) I don’t overuse run-on sentences, and B) It helps convey just how desperate the character is, because her thoughts are all over the place and the way it’s written shows that.

And here, from Abomination:

Her breath was hot on his fingers, and her tears almost made him slip, but he held on, praying to any god that might listen to please, please, please keep her from murdering him when he let her go.

The same situation. 39 words, which really is borderline outrageous, but the character is panicked and it shows it.

That being said, run-on sentences should not be used lightly, no matter the situation. They are a tool to be used sparingly and when absolutely needed. Abusing run-ons is a sin.

As Glynn put it today, “Every time you use a run-on sentence, a dolphin suffocates in plastic, a puppy eats chocolate, and a kitten finds antifreeze.”

And while we’re on the topic, another thing that is a major difference is fragmented sentences. We’ve all encountered at some point the little green squiggle in a document that tells us we’ve written an incomplete sentence.

A fragment sentence as seen in Abomination.
A fragment sentence as seen in Abomination.

Fragment sentences are bad. It generally means that it is an incomplete thought. But, I will defend them with my dying breath. Again, not to be abused – like run-ons, staccato, adjectives, and prepositions – but they are useful in fiction, especially in dialogue. People will and do speak in fragmented sentences. That’s just a given. And they do help in the narrative as well, because it’s true: not all thoughts are complete.

And I do believe the great Stephen King defended fragmented sentences, himself.

Besides, in fiction, some things do need to break the rules and be written a bit awkwardly, if it helps the story. If not, please stop writing and find a new hobby.

So, all in all, it’s tough. I know my fiction rule-breaking hurts Glynn’s propriety. But I use grammar and punctuation correctly 95% of the time, so she’s just going to have to learn to overlook the fragments and prepositions and run-ons that I do use. Which she will, because she isn’t a complete literary prude and she’s awesome.  😀

And the general public, those who don’t write, need to learn that one style of writing is not interchangeable with another. Someone who writes fiction won’t necessarily be able to write nonfiction, and someone who writes nonfiction won’t necessarily be able to write poetry or songs. No, I probably wouldn’t do so well as a journalist, and no, if Glynn wrote fiction it might not be at par with her nonfiction work.

Really, as with all dangerous rule-breakers in fiction, as long as they aren’t abused they can contribute to the story. If it makes sense and you enjoy it, it doesn’t matter.

Except for nonfiction. Please keep to proper grammar and syntax, if you will.


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