Technical and academic writing are banes to creative writing for a few reasons. Today, I’d like to talk about contractions. Bottom line – unless you are Queen Elizabeth II or Data, they are a part of everyone’s speech and should be a part of your writing.
The absence of contractions in dialogue and first-person POV is jarring and doesn’t read naturally. It’s not how people talk, and we should aim to make our dialogue as realistic as possible – cutting out all the boring stuff, obviously (but that’s a post for another time).
There is a difference between:
I ran by Susan’s, and she wasn’t home.
I ran by Susan’s, and she was not home.
These sentences have different connotations. In the first one, it seems like the speaker swung by Suzy’s for a chat and she didn’t happen to be there. In the second, either Suzy Q was expected to be home and wasn’t or the person speaking is being accused of speaking to Suzy and is denying it.
People speak casually unless they are in front of a board meeting, a judge, professor, etc. In real life, nobody sounds like a freshman essay on global economics; neither should your fiction.
Another reason for contractions is to cut down on the clunkiness of sentences. This pair of sentences from one of my scifi novels…
I was lucky to still be alive. That didn’t mean I wasn’t annoyed.
would feel far more clunky without contractions. This may seem like a nitpick thing, but a whole book full of sentences without them is tiring.
I was lucky to still be alive. That did not mean I was not annoyed.
The final part of my editing process is to highlight the text and make my computer read the chapter to me. If any of the dialogue sounds stilted or unnatural, even after my fine tooth-comb, I catch it then.
Think about the words in your narrative that should or shouldn’t be contractions. Would the text seem more natural with or without them? Would the feel or connotation change if you were to contract or expand word-pairs? Would the sentence read more or less smoothly?