Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Contractions...A Writer's Best Friend

I'm currently reading a book by a writer who I really enjoy. He's a new writer to me and he features dogs in his mystery stories. His main character is fun and snarky, which, as those of you who know me probably realize, I definitely am in favor of #:0). However, there's one thing about his writing that is really annoying me. He does not use contractions. He really does not. It is very distracting. I almost can not stand it, in fact!  #:0)

For about fifteen years, I've been a writing consultant for the Corporate world. In business writing, contraction use is frowned upon because it sounds too informal. But it's that very informality that makes using them a requirement in pleasure reading/writing. In dialog as well as prose, the contraction gives the reader a sense that the characters are real, rather than one dimensional creatures built of words sitting on a page.

Real people speak in contractions. Heck, in today's world, real people speak in digital shorthand and acronyms! But we don't need to go quite that far to make our characters feel real. To illustrate my point, here's a section from my most recent release, Honeybun Sheik, without contractions:

Abdel reached over and placed a finger under the snifter, lifting it toward her mouth. “Drink. You look like you are in shock.”

Callia sipped the rich, amber liquid, feeling its heat flood her body and jumpstart her heart. After she swallowed she shook her head. “I can not believe it.”

“I assure you it is true.”

Her eyes widened. “Oh, I did not mean I thought you were lying. I just can not believe your uncle is trying to kill you. Why in the world would he want you dead? He is not worried about you taking his spot in line for the crown, right?”

Abdel shook his head. “No. Neither of us is likely to ever be in that position. I am afraid I put myself firmly into his crosshairs when I kidnapped his oldest daughter.”

See how robotic their dialog sounds? Real people just don't talk, or think, like this. It's a small detail but often it's the small things that make the difference between effective writing and clunky prose. I should point out that there is one exception to this rule. When you have a non-English speaking character, like, in this case Abdel, who is from the Middle East, speaking English, the lack of contractions is a handy way to illustrate the fact that English is being spoken as a second language. But even then you want to limit your use of this tool, or you risk having distractingly robotic character interchanges.

Happy Writing!


PaperbackDiva said...

Amen! I'm an editor for an e-book publisher and this drives me crazy in submissions. If it's under contract, I'll use the Replace All tool to go through and fix as many as I can. If it's not under contract, that lack of contractions can tip the scale in favor of rejection!

Sam Cheever said...

Oh heavens! I can imagine. I sometimes wonder if people actually read their own writing. LOL If they did, how could they NOT hear the clunkiness? Keep fighting the good fight. As soon as you conquer the contraction issue, we authors, very creative creatures all, will come up with something new to torture you with! Har!