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The Language of Fiction

A Writer's Stylebook

Brian Shawver

Publication Year: 2013

The firstever style guide to focus on how grammar, punctuation, and style can be used to create superior fiction

Published by: University Press of New England

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. iii-v


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiii

When I was in college, a professor loaned me a book of Ernest Hemingway’s selected letters. Because I loved Hemingway, and because I was a little startled that a professor had loaned me a book, I took it home and read it straightaway. For several hours, the letters engrossed me with their rich ...

Part I: Stylistic Decisions

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1. Which Verb Tense Should You Write In?

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pp. 3-13

When a person sits down to write a novel or story, many decisions present themselves: when and where to set it, which narrative point of view to use, even what to call it (writers love to think up titles; it’s much easier than actually writing). However, writers don’t always consider one of the first ...

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2. How Should You Format and Punctuate Dialogue?

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pp. 14-24

Most writers in English choose one of four methods to show that a character is speaking. Of these methods, using double quotation marks is far and away the most common in American prose, so I’ll discuss it first. But I’ll also investigate other styles, because too often beginning writers don’t ...

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3. What Words Should You Use to Present Dialogue?

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pp. 25-36

In the previous chapter we discussed how to format speech in fiction, which mostly had to do with visual markers — whether to use italics, quotation marks, and so on. But that’s not the only issue you have to deal with when you use dialogue. In addition to deciding how it looks, you also ...

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4. Should You Phonetically Represent Characters’ Speech?

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pp. 37-46

When a character speaks with a particularity of pronunciation, whether it’s an accent or a speech impediment or some other verbal tic, a writer has a few options for communicating the sound of that speech. One common style is to render the speech in Standard English, then give instructions on how to ...

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5. What Are Your Options for Portraying Characters’ Thoughts?

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pp. 47-59

T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” begins with an epigraph taken from Dante’s Inferno. In the quoted passage, a condemned friar named Guido da Montefeltro explains that he will tell Dante about his sin only because “if what I hear is true / none ever returned from this ...

Part II: Fundamentals of Language

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6. The Past Perfect

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pp. 63-71

I mentioned in chapter 1 that you don’t have to memorize the names of the more complicated verb tenses, but there’s one exception: the past perfect. This comes up so often for the writer and reader, and has to be used with such nuance and artistry, that you might as well know what it’s called. We use the simple ...

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7. Pronouns

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pp. 72-84

One of the interesting features of simple pronouns is that their raison d’etre is aesthetic, rather than grammatical. While most sentence elements exist in order to make prose coherent or clear, simple pronouns exist so that our writing won’t be ugly. One could argue that the complex forms — relative pronouns ...

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8. Adverbs

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pp. 85-97

As an exercise, I sometimes ask my students to write a paragraph that comprises intentionally awful prose. They usually wind up with something like this: “A single tear trickling mournfully down his chiseled features, he languidly and sorrowfully dropped his head on her gorgeously heaving ...

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9. Participial Phrases That Modify

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pp. 98-106

It’s time to examine another modifier that bedevils fiction writers. This one doesn’t get as much critical heat as adverbs do, but it can do a great deal of damage if you don’t have it under control. I’m referring to the modifying participial phrase. If I’ve already used ...

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10. Diction

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pp. 107-119

Although this kind of thing is hard to count, English is generally considered the language with the most vocabulary words. Some people argue that Finnish is bigger, because the way it pairs words with numbers allows for an infinite vocabulary, but that’s a bit of an accounting trick; the ...

Part III: Nuances of Punctuation

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11. Fragments

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pp. 123-134

I generally advise my students to disable Microsoft’s grammar-check function when they write fiction. It’s not an anti-technology statement — I’m all for anything that gives you a linguistic advantage, such as the spell-check and the thesaurus features. My problem with grammar-check is that ...

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12. Comma Splices, Run-ons, and Semicolons

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pp. 135-145

In this chapter, much of what I’m going to say will relate to the caveat I mentioned a few pages ago: you can only violate a rule of grammar and usage if the reader understands you’re violating it on purpose. This is as close as we get to a truism in creative writing, and I think it’s a valuable ...

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13. Dashes, Parentheses, and Nonessential Commas

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pp. 146-155

This subject is near and dear to my heart, because I use a lot of dashes. I remember reading the galley copy of my first novel, The Cuban Prospect, and being mortified by the amount of dashes. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice until you see it in print, when it’s too late to change anything. I’ve now accepted ...

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14. Exclamation Points and Italics

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pp. 156-167

In the last chapter, we looked at three methods of setting things apart. Parentheses, dashes, and nonrestrictive commas physically enclose the words within them, and thereby act as safe havens in which those words behave differently from the other words in the sentence to varying degrees. The two elements ...

Part IV: Common Errors

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15. Verb Tense Shifting

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pp. 171-183

In outlining this book, I had to make some difficult decisions about which elements of grammar, convention, and style a fiction writer most needs to master. While I feel strongly about the topics ultimately included, I’m sure I’ve failed to address a few important issues, and probably some of ...

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16. Commas

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pp. 184-195

A discussion on commas could have gone in any one of the parts of this book, but I filed it under “Common Errors” because, well, the misuse of commas is a very common error. It stands to reason that the comma should trouble people more than something like the period, because it has ...

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17. Betrayals of Language

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pp. 196-206

My students sometimes get confused when I use the phrase “the betrayal of language.” They don’t understand how something like language can betray a person, and in general they think I take the whole matter too personally. So let me explain. Most of the time when you ...

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18. Cliché

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pp. 207-216

A poster that hangs on the walls of high school classrooms across the nation tells us to “Avoid clichés like the plague.” Although I dislike the device of cheekily committing a grammatical sin in the very sentence that warns against it (it’s kind of a cliché itself ), the lesson has merit. In most cases, clichés will ...

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pp. 217-220

Our language is full of secrets and wonders, many of which are revealed to us when we read. In “The Wives of the Dead” Nathaniel Hawthorne challenges our interpretation of an entire story with the ambiguous use of a pronoun. In Bleak House Charles Dickens uses a grammatical mistake ...

Glossary of Terms

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pp. 221-229


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pp. 231-237


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pp. 239-242

E-ISBN-13: 9781611683318
Print-ISBN-13: 9781611683301

Publication Year: 2013

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Subject Headings

  • Fiction -- Authorship -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • Fiction -- Technique -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
  • Fiction -- Authorship -- Handbooks, manuals, etc.
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