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Should I use contractions in my narrative, or only use them in dialogue?

I have noticed that in some books, like The Passage by Justin Crownin, contractions are used in the prose. In others, like The Faithful and Fallen series by John Gwynne, I don't think I ever remember seeing a contraction in his narrative. The same goes for Tolkien's work.

So, contractions or no contractions? Do certain genres lend themselves to contractions more so than others?

  • I had to google "contraction" to understand what you are asking about. – user5645 Sep 28 '16 at 18:36
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    @what I had to Google "circumlocution". I am thinking of getting a tatoo now. :-) – Lew Sep 28 '16 at 19:45
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    I once got partway into a novel where the author never used any contractions in their narration, nor did any of the characters, even in relaxed information situations where contractions ought to be fine and preferred. The lack of contractions was so glaringly unnatural and bothersome I couldn't just enjoy the book, and I stopped reading it. Please don't avoid using them for its own sake. – doppelgreener Sep 29 '16 at 0:04
  • Charles Dickens was paid by the word, so he would have used two words rather than one contraction. Heck he would have used as many words as possible. – Criggie Sep 29 '16 at 7:14
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    Also, your readers may sway your choice. You should avoid or reduce contractions where the expected readership may comprise a fair number of non-native English speakers. – Criggie Sep 29 '16 at 7:16
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I don't understand this fear of using certain kinds of words. Yes, you can use contractions. Yes, you can use adverbs. Yes, you can use "bookisms" (alternatives for said which give additional information, like hissed, muttered, shouted). I'll even allow the occasional split infinitive if the circumlocution to avoid it sounds ridiculous.

Bookisms and adverbs can be used badly and/or too often, which I'll readily admit. But fussing over contractions seems to me like an extremely prescriptive rule, like "you can't ever use passive voice." Not you shouldn't do it, or active voice/formal speech is stronger, or don't overdo it, but a blanket rule of "don't do it at all."

In my opinion as a writer and editor, writing should be clear, natural-sounding, and easy to follow. Sometimes you can do that with a dense sentence if your audience knows the jargon; other times you have to spell things out at length. Sentence fragments? Sometimes they work. I'm in favor of whatever aids comprehension and reads smoothly.

I haven't read either Crownin or Gwynne, so I can't comment on them. Tolkien was deliberately writing in "high fantasy" style, which he basically invented. Tolkien was also a professor of linguistics who invented several languages, so he can use or not use whatever parts of speech he damn well wants.

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    Great answer. "...should be clear, natural-sounding, and easy to follow" and the bit about Tolkien. Fantastic. +5 WriterPoints for you. :) – raddevus Sep 28 '16 at 23:18
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    "I don't understand this fear of using certain kinds of words." Seconded whole-heartedly. – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Sep 29 '16 at 17:48
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    I think where this fear comes from is cheap and thoughtless advice/criticism that seems to work on the principle that if something is frequently done badly, it should not be done anytime ever by anyone. Advice of this sort seems to constitute a huge percentage of the writing bromides of our age: show don't tell, avoid adverbs, avoid speech tags, avoid passive voice, etc. etc. – user16226 Sep 30 '16 at 4:36
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A book isn't just written by the author to tell the reader a story. It has a narrator. The narrator is not the author. Even if there is no narrative frame in which the narrator of the story is made explicit. The narrator is a function of the narrative, just like plot or setting or character. It is never a real person, even in an autobiography. The narrator is a voice whose style of narration is chosen by the author in relation to the story, to effect a certain "feel".

For example, it is the narrator which makes a story humorous or earnest. Think of a friend telling you how he had to undergo a painful medical procedure. He can tell the same events to you in a way that you get a good laugh at his expense; or he can tell them with a focus on how bad it all felt and cause you to feel compassion and tenderness for him; or he can choose a more neutral style, considering the interesting advances of medical science. The story does not change, only the narrator does. And it changes with the choice of words, of grammar, of the linguistic register, and so on.

A narrator that uses contractions will maybe evoke a feeling of a more immediate, verbal narrative style, of being told something by someone, of a witness of the events, while a style without contractions might feel more distanced, more objective, less involved. Of course the use or disuse of contractions alone is not enough to have that effect, but it will be part of a narrative strategy that will put the reader in a certain frame of mind and thus help the story evoke the emotions in the reader that the author is aiming for.

From all this it should become apparent that it must be your choice how you want to narrate your story. There is no right or wrong, only your artistic vision. If you feel unsure, you may need to experiment and learn the proper use of your tools.

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    Exactly. I use both heavily contracted and deliberately contraction-free speech patterns to segregate my commoners from my noble characters and not only in the dialogue--I have POV characters of all social stratas, and the narration from each POV has to reflect that. I also use dialects, but try to go easy on the reader with those... – Lew Sep 28 '16 at 21:02
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Mark Twain used them all the time...ironically to create "stupid talk"...meaning writing "hokie-isms" is hard work because the spoken word is filled with t'aints and t'isms and all sorts of clap-trappery. There is an irony to the lyricism of apostrophes and ampersands etc. You would think clear writing would contain the minimum of punctuation but that is not in fact how we speak.

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