Caution: Speed Bumps Ahead
As a resident of San Diego, I dislike anything that slows my rate of travel. Traffic is a blight to the sunny beaches and, when the roads are clear, I take full advantage. Anything that causes me to press the brake pedal are irritants. Pot holes fall into this category, as do speed bumps.
Not only do speed bumps occur in inconvenient places but they require me slowing to a crawl so that the bottom of my car won’t scrape the asphalt. They are an interruption to my drive, a disruption to the rhythm of my journey.
Unfortunately, speed bumps are not limited to the road. They pop up in novels, used as a tool to create suspense. Writers equate suspense with anything that slows the journey to the story’s climax. As we saw in a previous article, this is not the case.
The construction of speed bumps
Where do speed bumps stem from? They are not a recent tool, yet are becoming more popular with the recent trend of books written from the 1st person point of view. If done well, this literary device adds a rawness to the story that is rarely achieved without the unfiltered thoughts of a character. The Hunger Games Trilogy, The Divergent Series, and The Fault in Our Stars are a few popular examples of this. Katniss’ thoughts are clipped and Tris’ observations about the life of the factions is made the more chilling by the phrases tacked on to the end of her paragraphs.
From these bestsellers, we see an emergence of writing that utilizes the protagonist’s stream of consciousness. This has become known as free writing. Because these stories are told from the point of view of the main character, authors feel at liberty to use punctuation. However they wish. To tell better stories.
At Quill Shift Literary Agency, we have received many manuscripts from authors who utilize this device well and we also hear from those who take it to the extreme. They chop sentences in half, adding clauses willy-nilly that are meant to give the reader a punch of awareness. However, the rougher and shorter the “sentence” is does not make it more powerful.
The reasoning behind speed bumps
Author and blogger Liz Bureman writes in her article Why Grammar Matters:
The reason that the rules of grammar exist is to give all speakers of the same language a playbook to make sure they are understood by each other. The reason grammar rules exist is to ensure clear communication and optimum understanding.
Employing this style of “free writing” within your manuscript can be like shooting yourself in the foot. Instead of adding more tension and suspense into your story, using these choppy fragments can jerk the reader out of the world you’ve created.
Bureman goes on to say that you as the author are able to sprinkle periods wherever you want in your sentences but readers will expect that the thought you’re expressing will have concluded by the time they reach that period. You may think that making a dependent clause its own sentence will make your writing stand out, but when your reader can’t figure out what it’s supposed to modify, then it becomes a problem.
Author and publicist AJ Humpage writes in her post Part 1: Sentence Structure on her blog All Write:
We’re not born with the ability to tell the difference between good sentences and bad ones; it is something the writer learns, with practice, and over time, the writer begins to understand the concept of fitting the right words and ideas together.
As writers hone their craft, they are able to create sentences that not only read better, but also sound better. Humpage goes on to say that creating the right sentences with the right words is an art form and it is one of those important elements in fiction writing that give a writer a sense of style and voice.
The danger of speed bumps
It can often be said in English grammar that “rules are meant to be broken”. The story should “flow”, not limited by the conventions of language. However, instead of a smooth cruise, the reader gets taken on a jerky ride with someone who is still learning how to manage the clutch in their manual car.
In Why Grammar Matters, Liz Bureman says:
Rules can be annoying and inconsistent, but they provide guidelines for language comprehension that are universally applied to language speakers. If your writing is incoherent, your audience is left perplexed and won’t bother finishing your magnum opus.
You cannot break rules just for the sake of breaking them. If your readers can’t understand what you’ve written, they’ll put your book down in search of something better.
When writing your story, take care to keep in mind the structure of your sentence. You don’t have to sacrifice grammar to get a bit of “umph”. There are a few tricks you can use to monitor your use of speed bumps, like reading your story out loud. Pass it around to friends and friends of friends. If anything that jumps out at you or looks a little wrong, it probably is. Take the time to smooth out your story now and your readers will thank you for it in the long run.
As in the case of driving, no one enjoys speed bumps for the speed bump’s sake. We are trying to get past them to the destination beyond. They are merely hindrances, a jolt in your journey.
Are there tools you use to get rid of speed bumps in your writing that we didn’t mention here? Make sure you comment below and tell us what it is!