How to use basic grammar to keep your readers turning the page
Updated: Oct 6, 2020
Understanding basic grammar is one thing, but when it comes to writing fiction basic is not good enough. You need to make nouns, verbs, and adjectives sing if you want your book to be memorable.
This post is for writers who are just getting started on their goal of becoming authors, so I am going to start with the basics to ensure the main elements used in writing are clear and easy to understand.
But before we start, I want to provide a word of warning. Us artistic and creative types hate following the rules, right? We want our words to flow organically and write what inspires us. But unfortunately, if you sidestep the basics one thing is guaranteed - you will not sell your book.
Now I know that's not what you want to hear but your readers - the ones you hope will pay for the pleasure of reading your book - are sticklers for the rules and they'll tell you with a closed wallet (or bad reviews) when you've got it wrong. Trust me!
So here are five fundamental things you need to understand about the English language before you write your book - or at least before you let anyone read it!
I am going to use the Kardashians to help me explain.
I know it's weird but stick with me...
Nouns are naming words. They are used to describe a thing, person, animal, or place.
Without getting too technical the most useful nouns for fiction writers include:
Single nouns. These types of nouns name one thing: shoe, dress, earring, cocktail, coffee.
Plural nouns. These types of nouns name plurals/more than one thing: shoes, dresses, earrings, cocktails, coffees.
Possessive nouns. These nouns show ownership of things: Lisa's (possessive noun) dress (noun).
Pronouns. These are words that describe an individual, being, or similar, in a way other than using their name/s. They include words like he, she, I, it. Example: Have you met the new guy Justin? He looks just like Bradley Cooper.
Collective nouns. These nouns describe groups consisting of more than one individual or entity such as a herd of deer, a stack of books, a group of people, a flock of birds.
This is a woman (noun)
Her (Pronoun) name is Kendall Jenner
Verbs are doing words. They describe your character's action/s.
Simple verbs have a single word: walk, think, dance, hope.
There are complexities around the use of verbs that could take all day to explain, but in the simplest form they are 'doing' words.
When writing fiction, the goal is to evoke an image or emotion. So, if your character walked across the room, how did he walk? What did it look like? What did his walk say about his mood?
He walked across the room.
He sauntered across the room.
- This evokes an image of a confident man, probably heading toward a woman.
He trudged across the room.
- Sounds like he's not too keen on getting to where he's going.
He marched across the room.
- Maybe with a few things to get off his chest.
While 'showing' your reader the scene with these kinds of verbs is great, don't use elaborate language in every sentence; it's too much. But do use them to covey mood, emotion, and intention when you want to show your readers what's going on in the scene instead of just 'telling' them.
Kylie kissed (verb) her phone
Kendall strutted (verb) along the catwalk
3. Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives are describing words. They make nouns more specific. They are words like beautiful, hot, cold, new, old.
Example: The elegant (adjective) woman stood on the cold (adjective) rooftop.
The elegant (adjective) video (noun) features Khloe Kardashian
Adverbs are also describing words. They make verbs more specific and usually relate to time, place, and measure. They are words like: extremely, very, quickly, deeply, never, occasionally.
Example: The dark-haired woman slowly (adverb) blew (verb) everyone a kiss.
Kim slowly (adverb) blew (verb) a kiss to the audience
** Confusion Alert **
I don't want to freak you out right when you were getting the hang of it, but adverbs can also describe adjectives.
Example: She is a very (adverb) pretty (adjective) woman
They can also describe other adverbs.
Example: It felt like time was going extra (adverb) slow (adverb) as we waited for the annual shoe sale to start.
My best advice about adjectives and adverbs is - don't overuse them. And when you do you use them, don't waste them. Be specific. And don't create redundancy.
Here's what I mean:
Example of overuse
She stretched out on the soft, hand-woven, comforting, pink rug and stared up at the slow-moving, white, cotton-ball shaped clouds.
- This is way too much!
Instead try: She stretched out on the hand-woven, pink rug and stared up at the slow-moving clouds.
*Note: when you use more than one adjective to describe the same noun such as
hand-woven, pink (adjectives) rug (noun) be sure to place a comma between them.
Just like with verbs, use adjectives to give your reader a descriptive view of what you're trying to convey.
For example, don't say the woman was attractive. Every reader has a different interpretation of what attractive means. Be specific.
Example: The woman was elegant.
This says so much more about her than attractive.
Don't create redundancy
When you first start writing it's easy to accidentally use adverbs that introduce redundancy.
Example: The bar was so loud I had to shout loudly over the noise.
In this example, the verb shouting already tells the reader the volume of your voice
Example: She finished the book completely.
In this example, the verb finished is enough to tell the reader she completed it.
Prepositions describe location, time, or place. They are words like: beside, behind, under, below, over, on, off, before, after, in, on.
Example: The burglar hid inside (preposition) the house. He was under (preposition) the bed. I called the police after (preposition) running outside.
Conjunctions are joining words. They are words like: and, because, but, so, while, if.
Be aware when using conjunctions because they can drastically change the meaning of a sentence.
I am overweight and (conjunction) like cake: describes a fact
I am overweight but (conjunction) like cake: describes a challenge (that I personally understand all too well!)
I am overweight because (conjunction) I like cake: describes a reason
Learning to write with correct grammar can give even the best of us a wild case of anxiety, but don't despair. There are some grammar sites online that are free and offer practice tests as well as relevant information.
There are many things to learn about how to write correctly. But for the time being when you are just starting out, knowing the above is a good start.