Contractions in Fiction

Do contractions belong in fiction? Your high school English teacher might have said “no.” It’s a debate that leads to an argument of different opinions and reasons. No, contractions should never be used in fiction; they’re for speech only. Yes, contractions should be used as it’s a more natural voice. It depends on the genre and style of writing. So what’s the real answer?

It depends on the context. Different genres, point of view (POV), narration, and dialogue all require different contraction usage. There is no general rule for contractions that applies to all styles of writing. Forget what your high school teacher said and contemplate why you do or don’t want to use contractions in a particular instance or writing style. Consider the context and how contractions would affect it. As a writer, like with all words, you should use contractions purposely.

And yes–y’all’d’ve is a real contraction, though it has a very specific region that it’s used and accepted in.

Contractions in Specific Genres

Different genres have different standards for contractions. However, no one genre absolutely requires or dissuades from contraction use. Contractions have their uses even in historical fiction. K.M. Weiland at Helping Writers Become Authors has some great examples of contraction usage in historical fiction and time period pieces. Contractions have been used throughout history and are a part of language and literature. Today I Found Out has a detailed history of contractions in English, which dates back to Old English.

However, some genres or sub-genres may have common contraction usages in narration, especially genres that commonly use third person omniscient. In this case, it’s always wise to case out several books in your genre/sub-genre and see how these books handle contractions in narration, if it reads naturally or not, and if you like how it reads.

Contractions in Narration

The narration or narrator’s voice will have different contraction usage than character dialogue. This is especially true for some POVs. However, this doesn’t mean you have to follow the (often bad) advice of only using contractions in dialogue and never using them in the narration. Just like dialogue, your narration needs to feel natural to the context and narrator’s voice.

One trick is to understand how formal or informal you want your narration to be. If you need an extremely formal narration, then you’ll want to limit contraction usage. If you want something more informal and natural to read, then using contractions is a great strategy to achieve this.

Another trick is to remember that your narration comes from a narrator–and that narrator is a character. How would this character speak? How would they write? This will also help you know how much contraction usage you should include and what contractions.

Point of View and Contractions

Your point of view will also determine if you should use contractions in the narration or not. A close first or third POV requires contractions that the main character(s) would use. A more distant third POV allows you to tailor your contraction usage to the narrator’s voice and style.

Contractions in Dialogue

Contractions are most commonly used in dialogue, although not every contraction should be used. The English language has a long list of contractions, but not all of them are common or are specific to time periods or cultures. As you approach how to use contractions in dialogue, determine the character the voice, culture, class, and time period.  What contractions your characters use will be entirely dependant on their background.

A lot of writers use contractions to portray character voice. While this is a great visual tool, it should not be the only way you characterize. Vocabulary and word choice are more than contraction usage. The Writing Excuses podcast, hosted by authors Mary Robinette Kowal, Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, and Dan Wells, offers some great strategies on how to expand character voice beyond using contractions.

It is also important to be aware of and avoid the use of contraction stereotypes in fiction. For example, the highly-intelligent person who never uses contractions or the lowlife who never uses full words. These two stereotypes are don’t accurately reflect most characters, even if they do have a background of high intelligence or poverty. Contraction usage should be more than stereotypical–they need to reflect what the character would actually say.

Contractions are a tool to portray voice in dialogue, narration, and POV. As you edit or use contractions, be aware of why you’re including or removing a contraction. Contraction usage should be purposeful in every context.

Additional Resources:

Need to mass change a specific contraction or lack thereof? Check out BDR’s guide to using Find and Replace as part of your editing.

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