Genre grammar

I am increasingly coming to find that storytelling is the main lens through which I understand the world. Knowing storytelling has helped me better understand my relationship with God, appreciate the lives, gifts and stories of others and advance my singing and acting ability, limited as that might be. Essentially, if you can explain something to me as it relates to storytelling or writing, it’s probably going to click. In keeping with this theme, I have recently realized that everything has grammar.

See, I’ve always had a sort of rogue-ish disregard for grammar. My attitude has pretty consistently been that I only need to know the rules well enough to know when to bend or break them, and while I’ve always instinctively written well enough to support this rakish, cowgirl attitude, I’m starting to see through other things in my life just how important those rules are (still can’t list them out on paper though).

For example, I’m reading The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The dialog is firmly seated in the way those in the depression-era South would actually speak as opposed to how proper grammar would dictate, and while that makes the writing “wrong” grammatically speaking, it is correct from a story perspective, much as his “in between” chapters as I think of them, vignettes chronicling the lives of other non-Joad characters, may be correct despite bending or breaking grammatical rules, the car salesman chapter, which struck me as just a little too long if we’re being honest, coming chiefly to mind.

What strikes me about this book in regards to what I’m talking about is that Steinbeck obviously understands proper grammar. As a reader I understand when he says “fust” instead of “first” it’s not a typo an editor missed, it’s a choice to depart from proper English rooted in an understanding of proper English. You can tell because of how clean the rest of the writing is. It’s the difference between someone unknowingly saying “to” instead of “too” in a Facebook post and someone saying “to” instead of “too” when writing about someone posting. There’s a certain amount of jazz to writing, and while you might be able to “get by” on instinct (and who wants to do that?), knowing those rules is what allows a writer to tighten up a decent story and turn it into a masterpiece. It’s the common thrum of understanding through which language players pick and strum.

It’s not limited to nuts and bolts sentence structure and commas either. While yes, I can exclude a comma, or as is far more likely, add a bunch, this idea of rules extends to the length of paragraphs, formatting, genre specifications and, as I’ve just realized, non-writing things. I came fully to this conclusion on Thursday while talking with a friend of mine about a new story I’ll be attempting which takes place in the depression-era South (hence the Steinbeck. Research, research!). I was concerned because I’ve never planted myself firmly in real Earth life. I don’t know that I can think of a single creative thing I’ve ever written (besides maybe a few autobiographical papers for school) that’s been limited to the rules of the world we live in, primarily because it’s easier for me to make things up–besides being more fun–and secondarily, now that I’ve given it some thought, because regular Earth stories have never been the best way to tell what I’ve wanted to tell. Even my stageplay, set in a world very similar to 1940s New York is not actually in 1940s New York. It just has that vibe to give the audience some markers to cling to, like commas pointing the way to where a character is pausing to think. There are points of common understanding within society, genres and language in general. Respectfully, I can take advantage of these, using what I know an audience or reader knows or expects to support, surprise, question or inform. A good example of this in action is the ending of the exceedingly popular Disney movie Frozen, which I won’t spoil here, but was surprising because of its build and eventual turn of expectations. The Decoy Bride, a chick flick starring David Tennant (hence my venture into the chick flick genre, ground rarely tread by me) was also pleasing for its divergence from chick flick norms.

So, how does this transfer into non-writing activities?

Well, using another prevalent example in my life, think about dancing (my musings on working storytelling into dance going hand in hand with the depression-era South story to bring about these revelations). What grammar is there in that? Technique. Besides the more obvious differences between the feel and approach of Swing, Smooth and Latin, there’s also a lot of play in each dance. Foxtrot can be classy, smooth and romantic or sassy, jaunty, bouncy and mischievous. Sometimes both. It depends on where I’m dancing, who I’m dancing with, what the music is like, what cultural assumptions or influences I’m drawing on or from, and of course, the story. Rumba, likewise, could be a sultry championship run with two young folk or an intimate slow dance between that couple who’s been married forty years and barely knows the steps. Each is an equally valid story, the difference in why and how they’re being told, with the rules of the steps as the exact same base for each. If you want to be able to dance both a jaunty foxtrot and a romantic one, if you want to do competitive or social, you have to know the base. The same goes for creating a new play for your basketball team, stylizing anatomy, color or materials in art, making a new recipe or really, anything else. Know the grammar first, then play.

Thanks for reading!

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