Saturday, 25 June 2016

Getting to Grips with Subtext

Subtext is a clever literary device that isn’t often thought about by writers, but it’s quite effective when used properly. The wonderful thing about subtext is that it’s something that isn’t seen, but the reader knows it’s there and, hopefully, they understand it.

Knowing what subtext is and what it does is different to getting to grips with it, but subtext isn’t difficult to achieve; often it happens subconsciously by the writer. But subtext comes down to having a complete awareness of the characters and the story; it’s the very undercurrent beneath the words. It’s hidden from view, to become visible at the right moment. It has the power to create mood and atmosphere, emotion and conflict in very subtle and unobtrusive ways.

Subtext is about how it’s done- the art of revelation. But why use it? Why go to all that trouble of suggestion when the writer could simply just say it in the narrative?

The answer lies in how fiction is constructed. Remember, every novel is written for the reader, not the writer. So it’s not just about writing a good story with affable characters that overcome a few dilemmas and live happily ever after. It’s much more than that. The reading experience is all inclusive – your reader wants a good story, likable characters, nail biting situations, action/thrills/romance, emotion and atmosphere and everything in between. And subtext is just one of those things that make reading a novel so enjoyable and encompassing.

But how do you achieve it?

Effectiveness in anything comes with experience, so the more you write, the more you develop your writing skills and the more intuitive you’ll become with things like metaphor and subtext.

Read any book and there will be always be layers beneath the narrative, such as a certain look between characters, a snippet of description, certain behaviour or something a character says – all elements that make up subtext. Here’s an example, from one of my short stories called Passing Judgement, where the main character is wrongly accused of terrible crime:

The cold cloud that hovered above the hill seemed close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx, pressing tight against the skin. A lasting winter lilt gilded the brow of the hill and formed thin, introspective shadows which slithered along the frosted mounds and worked their way up to the elongated silhouette that shaded the trunk of the barren oak tree. The shadow remained still, except when mocked now and then by a curious cool breeze.

Narrative subtext relies on hints within the description that reader can detect. These are the visual clues the reader will notice, and in the opening sentence, the words ‘close and oppressive and constricted, like a thick rope around the larynx’ is a subtle visual clue to what is really happening. Without stating the obvious, the description allows the reader to understand the moment, yet read between the lines and the unseen becomes seen. The theme of the story is there to see. It’s actually describing someone hanging from a tree.

Subtext in dialogue is the most common way of allowing the reader to understand the characters. A simple example is from To Kill a Mockingbird. At the end of the story, Boo, who is portrayed as someone to be feared, finally comes out of hiding and stands on Scout's porch.

‘Hey Boo’.

That’s all Scout says to him. But underneath this delivery we can sense the warmness of her greeting; she is not scared of him - unlike the adults - and does not see Boo as someone to fear. She is comfortable in his presence. It’s simple, yet it works, because we know Scout’s true sentiment.

Here’s another simple example, where the main character is talking to a prisoner in a train:

‘Why do you wear a star on your clothes?’ Dmitry asked.

‘It’s the star of St David. The sign of a Jew.’

Dmitry’s face furrowed. ‘Perhaps when you get to safety they will give you food, new clothes and things. This train stops at Treblinka.’


‘That’s where the train is heading,’ Dmitry said. ‘Lots of trains, every day, full with people. You’ll be safe there.’

Dialogue subtext is a way of hinting at something without directly saying it, so in this example, the real emotion and meaning lies beneath the surface of the main character’s optimism. It’s obvious to the reader, without saying it directly, what will happen to the man with star on his clothes.

Characterisation subtext is about behaviour. In real life, people display different behaviours and reactions, and fiction is no different. Subtext is a great way for writers to show these behaviours in such a way that the reader sees more within the story than is actually being shown, for example this scene between these two characters – one a crack addict and the other, her dealer:

Tiffany stared at the silver packet, mesmerised by the way it glimmered beneath the light, the way it drew her in beyond the gleam, beyond the superficial nature of it. It plunged her headlong into a grubby darkness of want and need.

Smoke coiled around his weathered face as he watched her. His eyes narrowed.

She glanced at him, her voice throaty, absent. ‘You had everything yesterday. I’m sore...’

Movement in the corner caught his eye; a smaller shadow, a vulnerable one, staring at him from the cot. He went over to the child, fingered her hair. ‘I don’t care. I want my money, so you better get out there and earn it or else.’ 

Here, the unseen is a way to highlight emotion and sentiment and these reactions speak to the reader, without actually stating the obvious. Beneath the narrative, something dark and unpleasant lurks. By standing next to the child and playing with her hair, his real intentions are clear, while Tiffany’s addictive needs are apparent by the way the cocaine packet mesmerises her.

There are many ways to show subtext. It can be within narrative, dialogue or characterisation. Think of it this way: everyone loves a treasure hunt. To uncover the clues and find something hidden is always exciting. And that’s why writers use subtext. Because readers secretly love a treasure hunt.
Next week: Active versus passive fiction.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Creating Plot Twists

Creating a plot twist isn’t too hard if you understand how they work and why they’re used. Many writers fail to grasp the importance of a plot twist or indeed just how they affect the story arc. If you don’t understand what a plot twist does, then there’s every chance you’ll find it hard to get right.
Why use them?
Writers use a plot twist as a way to change the direction of the story, to ‘twist’ in another direction, usually one that is a complete surprise to the reader. In other words, the reader doesn’t see it coming. You can have one twist, perhaps at the end of the story, or you can have more, throughout the story, as a way to keep the reader enthralled.
The beauty of the plot twist is that it can be like a sonic boom – wham, a shock revelation. Or it can be foreshadowed and revealed at the right moment. Either way, it’s a surprise twist for the reader. So whether you foreshadow them or whether it really is a bolt from the blue, they have to be executed cleverly and perfectly for them to work.
That’s why many writers plan through the story plot carefully before they even write anything. This gives them the chance to plan their plot twists. Of course, some do happen spontaneously, too, they happen naturally via story progression. If you want to study plot twists and how they’re accomplished, read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk or The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. These examples have great plot twists that not only surprise, but also keep us hooked to every page.
So how do you create them?
An effective plot twist should always be part of the central story and not some deux ex machina contrivance forced into existence to plug your plot holes. It has to grow from the main plot and involve the main character in a dramatic way. There has to be an important point why it’s happening, but that ‘twist’ element is something you keep back from the reader for a while, until the right moment in the story. Then it’s delivered like a punch to the stomach. Think of the ‘twist’ as a narrative bomb which has to be timed perfectly.
The twist should, to use a cliché, pull the rug from beneath the reader’s feet. That’s the feeling it should evoke. If done correctly, the reader won’t see it and so it will have maximum impact. If, however, they guess what’s going to happen, then the element of surprise is lost and the twist won’t be as effective.
The way around this is not to make the plot twist so obvious that everyone can see it. Be subtle with clues. Drop hints in the narrative; foreshadow with a soft touch. But above all, make the surprise count.
The other thing to consider with a plot twist is expectation. This is what every reader will have in abundance. They will expect action, thrills, romance, shocks and surprises...and as the writer, you have to deliver some of these expectations. But because the reader expects so much, we as writers have the liberty of turning into a grinning villains because we can tease and lure them, we can wrong-foot them, we can jump scare them, we can plant red herrings and best thing of all, we can throw our hero into absolute peril every chance we get. That’s what we do in order to build up tension and play dirty with that reader expectation for as long as we can.
Then we can let them have that twist with both barrels. That makes it even more satisfying.
Plot twists don’t just shift in unexpected directions to keep the reader on their toes; they are used throughout the story to advance the main plot. Of course, all these elements depend on the story you’re writing, since plot twists are unique to that story and characters. You might, for example, have a story about a young family – a mother and father and their children – a boy and girl, who move into a new house. 
All is well until the pet cat vanishes. And other pets in the neighbourhood. And things get worse when the girl disappears. The little boy becomes cold and uncommunicative, which gives the appearance of grief. Neighbours start to talk.
Except the plot twist is that the boy is not grieving at all. He’s just a cold hearted child who killed his sister, ate her flesh and buried her with the cat in the back garden.
That’s a really simple example of a plot twist set up. Characters – situation – tension – expectation – red herrings, and finally the revelation.
Plot Twists Summary:

  • They can change the direction of the story with the element of surprise.
  • They take advantage of reader expectation.
  • They must be central to the story and characters.
  • They reveal something that both reader and characters won’t know.
  • They can advance the main plot.
  • There can be more than one twist in the story.
With a cleverly executed plot twist, you want to give the reader what they expect, but in a way that is completely unexpected.

Next week: Getting to grips with subtext.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Better Writing - Dealing with Exposition

Exposition is a word writers use all the time, but what do we mean when we talk about exposition?
It’s a term used to provide the reader with certain information about characters, events, actions, settings or the background. It’s a necessary component of any story, but it’s how exposition is delivered that makes the difference. It can be done correctly or incorrectly.
Despite the amount of information on the internet telling you there are umpteen different types of exposition, for creative writing there are only two types of exposition that matter: Direct and indirect exposition.
Direct Exposition
The title tells you all you need to know. The information being provided is direct. It’s telling the reader all the important stuff, but it tends to end up as info dumps because the writer hasn’t handled it very well, for example:
John had lived in the town all his life and still lived in the house that his grandparents owned. He felt a strong bond with the place and couldn’t entertain the thought of leaving, like his brother had done. He couldn’t leave behind the grand history of the house or the land upon which it stood, especially after the upheaval of the war. He had been a small child when war broke out and his life was turned upside down, particularly when the first wave of bombers destroyed much of the town and had killed his grandfather.
This is example is direct exposition. It’s directly telling the reader John’s background information via narration. Lots of novels do this, but they should be handled carefully to avoid ‘info dumping’, which this example does.
Direct exposition is necessary in every story, but it is how it’s executed that makes it effective and less like a chore to read. The best way to tackle direct exposition is to fold snippets of it into the story at appropriate moments, when the story demands it, rather than throwing huge narrative chunks at the reader from the outset.
In other words, the example above could be dissected into more relevant snippets that can be slipped into the narrative as the story unfolds, while other bits are just not necessary.  Remember, every story must move forward, so large chunks of narrative-laden exposition have the opposite effect.
Drip feed relevant information. Don’t force-feed your reader.
The other way to deliver direct exposition is to use dialogue, but that, too, needs to be done correctly, because there is nothing more annoying than two characters talking about stuff they already know, just to provide information to the reader. This is seen in almost every movie known to man – they assume the audience is stupid and end up explaining stuff we already know. As a writer, don’t make that assumption.
To deliver direct exposition in dialogue, make sure that the information you want to make known is not just a disclosure for the reader’s benefit, but also a revelation to one or more characters within the scene. For instance, in the example below, let’s assume that Frank and Amy are talking about the past and that Amy (and the reader) don’t know the full truth:
He handed Amy her coffee. ‘Did your mother ever talk about me?’
She eyed him with suspicion. ‘We don’t talk much. We’ve never been close.’
‘Let’s cut to the chase, Frank. Why did you rescue me out there on the mountain?’
He seemed reluctant. ‘I have a vested interest.’
Her eyes narrowed. What do you mean?’
‘Your father...he didn’t create that vaccine...’
This example sets up the expository revelation that the main character, Amy, isn’t aware of. But neither is the reader, so the direct exposition is necessary and relevant for that scene and that moment. It wouldn’t work if both the reader and Amy already knew all this from earlier in the story, but the reader just repeats it to make sure the reader gets the idea. This is common among new writers. You don’t have to hit your reader over the head with it.
Indirect Exposition
Good old fashioned ‘show, don’t tell’ description. It’s indirect because it is subtly woven into the narrative in a seamless way, but adds to the overall effect of the story without it becoming a burden for the reader, or a way of smacking them in the face with the obvious.
In other words, the writer shows the reader through vivid description and or careful dialogue pertinent facts about the story, for example, we’ll use John’s story from earlier:
John peered at the far wall; the picture of his grandparents shrouded in shadows. He felt the burden swell in his chest; that he teetered on the edge of financial ruin and the one thing he had left in the world – the house that his grandfather had built – might be wrenched from him. He looked away and found solace in the rain-lashed trees outside, sad that something so beautiful and ornate had survived years of German bombing, yet could vanish beneath the force of bulldozers because of a bad decision.
Rather than directly telling the reader, this shows the reader John’s predicament. It shows his sentiment, what the house means to him, how he feels about losing it, and what his grandparents mean to him. It’s subtle, effective and doesn’t need to be repeated further into the story. That’s because the reader will get it first time.
Indirect exposition works because it’s brief but subtle and moves the story forward. Direct exposition doesn’t.
If you feel the need to go into expository mode, stop and remember that the story should always be presented on a ‘need to know’ basis to the reader. So, instead of bombarding them with information from the outset, simply let them in only when they need to know.

Next week: Better writing – Creating Plot Twists

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Better Writing – How to Start and End Chapters

We use chapters as a way of neatly sectioning the writing into manageable portions for both the reader and the writer. Chapters have many functions, but understanding them and knowing how to use them effectively is an important aspect to getting the most out of your chapters.
Chapters are useful in different ways. They can help build tension, create mood and atmosphere, and they can allow the narrative to breathe by slowing down the pace of the story or causing a short pause. This is effective if the writer wants to move from lots of action and shift to a slower pace to give the reader time to digest everything that is happening. Readers need the chance to take in everything that is happening without rushing along at breakneck speed.
Chapters are also effective for shifting perspectives and for changing POVs. They also allow the transition of time and are great for introducing flashbacks. And of course, they allow the writer to move scenes and settings without interrupting the narrative.
So with the different ways writers can use chapters, they can be used efficiently. Think of each chapter the same way as the very beginning of the novel – you have to intrigue, tease and lure the reader into continuing reading. And keep them reading. 
Every chapter should act as a hook to keep the reader reeled in.
Beginning of Chapters
The beginning of a chapter should not differ too much to your opening paragraph to Chapter One. In other words, it should entice the reader and lead them smoothly and seamlessly into the continuing story without them even noticing the chapter break. They just want to turn the page and read on.
Beginnings should lead on from the previous chapter in a logical manner – it’s a continuation of the story, after all. The exceptions are that if you want a discernible or deliberate shift in the time span – i.e. the transition of days, months or years or you want to use a flashback.
The other thing to remember is that the proceeding chapter should resolve story threads from the preceding chapter, or at least continue with them. That’s the purpose of a story arc.
You don’t have to start every chapter with a bang or an explosive action scene. But it should start with a hint of what’s gone before, as a reference. It should also have momentum and it should have enough in the opening paragraphs to keep the reader enticed.
Ending of Chapters
The ending of chapter is also a great opportunity to lure the reader. Writers use them to not only build some tension, but also to entice the reader to find out what might happen next.
Read any novel and you’ll see how writers approach this.
Create Mystery
Often writers create a sense of mystery and ambiguity at the end of a chapter to ensure that it entices the reader to keep reading, for example:
John’s expression creased, perhaps because he knew he would break her trust. ‘There’s something I have to tell you…something about me…’
This is another way to dangle the carrot for your reader at the end of a chapter. Mini foreshadowing is a way of hinting at a revelation or a future event that might occur in further into the story. It’s the same principle of normal foreshadowing in any novel – the idea is to scatter the narrative with hints of what may come, so ending your chapter with a mini-foreshadow is a good way to keep the reader on the edge of their seat, for example:
‘Don’t be too late.’
Julie grabbed her bag and coat and kissed her mother on the cheek. ‘Stop worrying, mom, I’ll be fine...’
Or you can use narrative to foreshadow, for example:
Joe stared into his whiskey glass. He knew it was only a matter of time. There was no escaping what he had done.
Writers like to escalate their chapters to end on a cliffhanger, which ensures the reader will want to turn the page to find out what happens next. After all, that’s what a cliffhanger does; it leaves the reader ‘hanging’ and anxious to find out what happens in the very next instant.
Again, you don’t have to have huge explosions and lots of action to create a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger can be very subtle; it’s the ‘not knowing’ element of what comes next that makes it effective, for example:
Billy scrambled in the snow for his gun, just as the soldier pulled back the bolt on his rifle.
The sound of the bullet echoed loud across the snowy vista, before the silence fell once more.
The story halts abruptly, leaving the reader wondering whether Billy is alive or dead, so they are lured into keep reading. It’s a typical cliffhanger.
Generally, use chapter endings to enhance tension or conflict or reveal something new about the plot or a character (or their immediate situation). Use them to lure, to intrigue or hint and things to come.
Another way to look at it is to use the ending of important chapters to promise answers to story and character questions in the preceding chapters. You don’t have to address all of them, but some elements will unfold, and so it keeps the story arc going. It’s a fundamental way to keep the reader interested.
It’s worth noting that not every chapter has to end with a tease and start with a hook. As with all writing, it’s all about balance. Those chapters that do have key events, important turning points, plot revelations or important scene changes and so on are the ones to focus on. 
Where necessary, use anticipation, tension, fear and emotion to keep your reader glued to the story. Think carefully about the start and the end of your chapters, think about what effect you want to achieve and what you want to convey.

AllWrite will be taking a break next week and will return 12 June.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Better Writing - Started To/Begin To/Decided To – Why You Should Avoid These

Better writing comes with knowledge and experience; it helps writers make the right adjustments to their writing. Knowing what to adjust and what to look out for comes through the apprenticeship of writing, by making mistakes and learning from them.
One of the things to look out for is the habit of using ‘started to/begin to/decided to’ in descriptions with characters. It’s one of those constructions that look perfectly normal within your narrative, yet it doesn’t make for good writing.  Of course, we’ve all done it as beginners, so no one is immune or perfect. It’s not that it’s inherently wrong, but rather that it’s good practice not to do it – it helps writers improve and strengthen their writing.
Why should you avoid these constructions?
Started to/Began to
The thing to remember is that writing should always be active, so when a character decides to do something or starts to do something, the writing quickly turns clumsy and instantly stops being ‘active’, for example:
She started to get up and her legs felt weary.
He began to dig where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she began to unbutton her shirt.
At first glance, there doesn’t appear anything wrong with these sentences, but a closer look reveals the awkward structure. Don’t have characters ‘start to’ or ‘decide to’ or ‘begin to’ do something – simply have them do it, for example:
She got up and her legs felt weary.
He dug where he thought the box was hidden.
The heat rose and she unbuttoned her shirt.
Notice that these examples are much better – they’re active, they are a much tighter construction and so they avoid being clunky or awkward. They get straight to the point. This makes for better writing, always.
Decided to
This is another one that, on the surface, looks fine, but doesn’t do much for the sentence structure. We all decide to do things – we decide to make a coffee, we decide to go for a walk, we decide to go to bed – but within fiction,  a decision isn’t actually an action, it’s a thought, but writers still make the mistake of trying to make it an action, for example:
He decided to head towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun, decided to put on her sunglasses.
He decided to turn right.
These examples may not look that bad, but they are not actions and should not be construed as actions. They are thoughts. A decision is a thought.
These kinds of constructions almost always render the narrative passive. If written correctly, they would be as follows:
He headed towards the bar.
She glanced up at the sun and put on her sunglasses.
He turned right.
These are much tighter, they’re active and they get straight to the point.
There is an exception with having a character ‘decide to’ do something, and that happens if you are writing from a character’s POV, when you are using interior dialogue. This means you are directly describing his or her thoughts, so a character deciding to do something is actually relevant, for example:
He realised he couldn’t move the steel girders. He sat in the darkness for a moment, thought about his options. He decided to turn back and head towards the upper floor.
This structure is acceptable because rather than it being an actual action, the character, whose POV is being represented, is going through a thought process and then decides on an action. The interior thoughts show the reader what is happening, so in this case, it’s correct use. Remember, a decision is a thought process, not an action.
There are many ways a writer can make their writing better. Remember to keep the narrative active and aim for strong sentence structures. You can do this by weeding out any instances of ‘started to’, began to’ or ‘decided to’.  If the character has to do something, simply have the character do it.

Next week: Better writing – how to start and end chapters

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Getting Your Story to Flow

Getting any story to flow is a common problem that all writers face from time to time and there are numerous reasons behind why it sometimes proves difficult to get the narrative to work and make sure it stays that way.
When a story does flow, that’s when a writer is really focused and ‘in the zone’. It means that the words just keep flowing and the writer has to write until the scene or chapter is completed. Some people keep going until tiredness sets in. Creativity is at a peak; thoughts and ideas come naturally and seem so effortless.
But then there are other times when nothing much happens and the flow of the story stutters and seems more of a chore than an enjoyable experience.
When we think of ‘flow’, it’s the seamless quality of the story that matters.  When a story doesn’t flow, then there are problems either with the narrative/story or the approach used by the writer.
Stories should flow smoothly; the writing should come easily, however sometimes this is far from the case.  The process can sometimes be anything but smooth, and it’s one of those things that doesn’t magically appear at the click of the fingers – writers have to work very hard to establish it and maintain it.
Creating flow, however, is down to technique and a bit of experience.
Things that Affect Story Flow
There’s no getting around it, but bad writing really does affect the flow. Bad sentence structures, poor grammar, lack of clarity, no description and poor dialogue can disrupt the course of the story and put the reader off. There is little flow, if at all.
Contrived and stilted writing doesn’t help, either. This happens when writers try too hard. The thing to remember is that you’re not out to impress readers with fancy words or overly complicated sentences, but rather to entertain them with an amazing story told as effectively as possible. Leave the fancy words and the complex sentences to those who are masters of it.
Wrongly formatted dialogue can inhibit story flow. Learn how to set out dialogue correctly, with correct punctuation, and make it pertinent and punchy so that it engages the reader instead of confusing them because they’re unsure who is doing the talking or the action.
Huge chunks of narrative or boring description can bring the story flow to a full stop. Readers don’t have much patience, so when faced with overly long paragraphs, they tend to switch off. Info dumps don’t help the story in any way. That said, not all huge blocks of description will necessarily impede story flow. Written properly, larger sections of well written description, balanced with narrative and dialogue, actually help the flow of the story. The art is not to overdo them – every descriptive passage has its place.
Unless you are deliberately writing a story out of sequence (for dramatic effect, for instance) make sure that you write the story in the correct order of events that run parallel to the plot. In other words, the story starts at a crucial moment and moves along a timeline in chronological order, with one event or incident leading up to another until the exciting conclusion of the story. That way, the story won’t confuse the reader, but more importantly, the entire flow of the story is linear, logical and smooth.
Other aspects that can mess with the story flow are the choice of chapter or scene breaks. By their very nature, they break the flow of the story, but they do so briefly and seamlessly, with good effect. It’s important that you don’t pop a scene break in the middle of an important scene. That will kill the flow instantly and ruin any emotion, tone, mood or atmosphere you’ve created, and thus interrupt the reader’s focus.
Carefully place your scene breaks and chapters. If done correctly, the reader will barely notice a deliberate break in the flow that is also essential for it to continue.
Ways to ensure the story flows:

  • Make sure you have a plan to work to – you’ll know roughly where you’re going and what will happen. This helps to avoid writers block and the inevitable struggle to force the writing.
  • Plot points – these are essential in order to keep narrative momentum. Make sure you plot your story.
  • Make sure you know the important turning points in the story, i.e. the key incidents that cause twists and turns to keep the reader on the edge of their seat.
  • Ensure dialogue is correctly formatted. Keep it pertinent and punchy.
  • Don’t overcomplicate sentences or go with obscure or fancy words. Keep it simple and clear.
  • Keep the narrative, description and dialogue balanced. Avoid info dumps and huge blocks of narrative.
  • Always try to escalate the action. The more in escalates, the more tension, conflict and excitement you create, so the story flow should be effortless.
  • Keep your story events in order – it’s easier for the reader to follow.
  • Choose your scene breaks and chapter breaks carefully. Try to end each one on a mini cliff hanger to ensure the reader stays glued to the story.

If you really want to know if your story flows, then read it aloud. You will soon learn if it stutters, pauses, drags, meanders and so on. If it flows properly, you should be able to read it without hesitation or pause. It simply works. Words flow. Sentences flow. Paragraphs flow. In fact, the entire book flows.
Story flow is down to technique and having a feel for the entire story. Take the time and don’t rush the process and the story flow will come naturally.

Next week: Better writing – Begin to/started to/decided to – why you should avoid these.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Run-on Sentences – Good or bad?

Many writers may not be familiar with ‘run on sentences’, or what they mean, but plenty of writers inadvertently end up using them from time to time, while other writers actively discourage their use.
So what, exactly, are they?
A run-on is a sentence is made up of two or more independent clauses ( a complete sentence) that are joined together without punctuation (i.e. semicolons, colons, dashes or full stops) or a conjunction (i.e. for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so etc).
Run-on sentences happen very easily and all writers have unintentionally used them when in the furious throes of writing, particularly if focused on the first draft, which is always full of countless errors and flaws. It’s at the editing stage where the errors are put right, including run-on sentences.
Fortunately, the run on sentence is easy to spot and just as easy to correct. They are very noticeable when read back through your work, because they make the narrative flow of sentences look odd, for example:
He realised he had missed the train he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion she knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky it flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Each example shows how the sentence falters at the point that there should be an independent clause. They are considered grammatically incorrect because of the clumsy sentence structures they create. Run on sentences don’t just weaken the narrative, they also don’t read very well.
So, how do you put them right once you’ve discovered them?
Because the structure is made up of two or more independent clauses without punctuation, then it’s a matter of putting the punctuation where it belongs. Let’s look at the above examples again, but this time, to avoid the run-on structures, the correct punctuation is in place:
He realised he had missed the train, but he knew he couldn’t miss the interview.
She eyed him with suspicion. She knew he was lying.
He heard the rush of the explosion behind him and he ran to the car.
The sunset spread across the sky. It flooded the landscape with a hazy hue.
Now the sentences read more smoothly, they make sense and are no longer clunky. The independent clauses help the sentences make sense and they are much tighter and concise by comparison to the run-on sentence structures.
There is another variation of the run-on sentence that, while considered grammatically erroneous, they are considered as acceptable within fiction writing, and they are known as Comma Splices.
The Comma Splice
A comma splice is when two independent clauses are connected by a comma, rather than the correct conjunction (and, or, but, for etc) or punctuation. The examples below are comma splices:
The rain was hammering down, he shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant, he was an intuitive person.
While some sentences can look a bit awkward – writing relies on our judgement a lot of the time – and certainly the first one is awkward, but the other two are not too bad.  They are easily correct with the right conjunction (or punctuation), for example:
The rain was hammering down. He shut the window.
Dave picked up the shovel, and opened the shed door.
John obviously knew what she meant; he was an intuitive person.
Comma splices are very common, but unlike some aspects of writing that cause bad sentence structures, such as adverbial or adjectival sentences, comma splices are not as terrible if they are used solely for effect from time to time. They don’t weaken the narrative half as much as adverbs, poorly placed participles or adjectives. In fact, they can heighten the sense of pace.
The intended meaning of a sentence isn’t changed by their appearance, and while some may see them as grammatically incorrect, comma splices do have a small role in effective narrative, none more so than when writing is restricted by the amount of words, such as short stories and flash fiction. They’re exceptionally useful for cutting out extraneous conjunctions, moving the narrative along and keeping to strict word limits.
In essence, run-on sentences are grammatically incorrect and should be avoided, and they are considered a bad thing.  That said, the odd comma splice is acceptable; plenty of established and famous writers like to use them. The thing to remember is not to overuse them.
Next week: Getting your story to flow.