When Literary License Works, and When it Doesn’t

Picture of a PenAuthor: H.L. Andrews

Literary license. Ah. Those words bring a smile to the faces of most writers. Freed from the shackles of grammar, punctuation, and structure, characters find personality, scenes unfold, and stories come to life.

Literary license. A world where colloquial expressions can thrive, fragments are welcome, unusually long sentences are sometimes necessary, and idioms are, well, cool. A magical land where protagonists can suspect “now and then” or “never, ever, ever” lie, and where the wind can “sort of” blow, “kind of.”

Without this creative freedom most works of fiction, in particular, would be flat and boring. One need only read excerpts from the books of Pulitzer Prize-winning authors such as Paul Harding (Tinkers) or Jennifer Egan (A Visit from the Goon Squad) to confirm the creative imperative of artistic license.

However, it is incumbent upon writers (at least successful writers) not to confuse literary license with grammatical incompetence and to find a balance between creativity and technical skill. Using the former to hide the absence of the latter can turn potentially great prose into nothing but a collection of confusing, if not nonsensical, paragraphs that will surely find no audience or publisher.

So how do we, as writers, strike this balance? When does literary license work? When does it not work?

The answers are fairly simple. The execution can be more complex and varies among authors and their respective styles.

Know the rules of grammar and punctuation

If you know the rules, you’ll know when breaking them adds to the story and when doing so detracts from the story or confuses readers. If you’re groaning at the thought of reading a book on the rules of writing, imagine how you’ll feel when the book that you labored over for months or years is rejected by publishers or panned by Amazon reviewers. That is the likely outcome. Is it worth the risk? Unusually long sentences or clusters of fragments only work if you can identify them and thus understand their creative value. But haphazard fragments, accidental run-on sentences, misplaced commas, or erroneous punctuation will almost always sabotage otherwise compelling prose.

Consider the scene, the action, the character, and the feeling that you’re trying to convey

Is your character anxious? Overwhelmed? In trouble? Out of control? Used effectively, fragments or overly long sentences can work to translate these emotions and draw the reader in. Consider the following passages. Does one apply literary license more effectively than the other does?

She was running; the shadowy figure at her heels. She darted down the dark corridor and sprinted past the cubicle where her friend’s lifeless body lay slumped in her chair, past the supply room, the copy center, the conference room, where six of her coworkers were hiding under the table, past the utility closet and toward the break room, where just ten minutes earlier she was enjoying a latte with the man who was now hunting her, hunting them all.

She was running. The shadowy figure at her heels. She darted, down the dark corridor. Sprinted past, the cubicle where her friend’s lifeless body lay, slumped in her chair. Past the supply room. The conference room, where six of her coworkers were hiding under the table. Past the copy center. The utility closet, toward the break room, where just ten minutes earlier she was enjoying a latte with the man who was now hunting her, hunting them all.

Of course, bad grammar aside, writer style and reader preference can also determine whether one, both, or neither of these passages effectively captures the emotion of the character or the tone of the scene. I leave that to you to decide, but you get my point.

When in doubt, defer to the rule of clarity

If your readers are confused, it can be difficult, if not impossible, for them to connect with characters, follow a scene, or become engrossed in a story. Confuse them enough and they’ll give up reading before they finish the book. Judicious use of idioms and colloquial expressions, overly long sentences, fragments, and other creative freedoms that literary license affords should provide (or support) clarity (or at least not detract from it) while adding texture, personality, emotion, and tone.

Ask others for feedback

If you’re not sure whether your use of literary license is serving or sabotaging your work, or if you don’t know whether you’ve strayed into just plain old bad grammar, reach out to personal (friends, family), professional (editors, teachers), and/or writing-community sources and ask them to review it. Rather than asking them the vague question, “What do you think?” ask pointed questions such as:

1. How did that scene/passage/paragraph make you feel (excited, anxious, sad, angry, scared)?

2. How would you describe the character’s personality (rude, obnoxious, suspect, innocent, put-upon, pitiful, arrogant) or emotion (distraught, paranoid, lost, elated)?

3. Did you find any parts of the story confusing?

4. What would you change to make it better/clearer/more compelling?

If you have to explain or correct reader impressions or interpretations, then you have some work to do. Embrace the feedback (it’s a gift) and use it to improve your piece. Your writing should speak for itself (or your characters). After all, you won’t be sitting next to your audience in bed, or on the train, the couch, the patio while they’re reading your book, and you won’t have the opportunity to explain what you meant in the second paragraph on page 147 and how it ties in to the big “reveal” in the final chapter.

Finally, remember the old adage—you only have one chance to make a first impression. Make it a magnificent one.

For more information on the importance of writing communities, read “The Importance of Benefits of Attending Writing Conferences” by Trista Edwards: http://www.litbridge.com/2012/08/12/the-importance-and-benefits-of-attending-writing-conferences/

For great advice on how to handle negative feedback, read “Dealing with Negative Interactions from Other Writers”: http://www.litbridge.com/2012/10/22/negative-interactions-writers/