In formal writing those unfinished bits that lack a subject and often a verb are studiously avoided. But they have a real place in fiction and informal writing. There sentence fragments can be used to great effect or they can bomb, jarring the reader right out of the story. How to use them is hard to explain, at least for me. My ear tells me when they fit, but I still can’t always say why.
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Mortimer slammed the door and vanished from her life.
Stunned. Why would he do that?
Stunned? Who’s stunned? What’s the feeling related to? It hangs out there like a stray dog at a picnic. It’s jarring, and it draws your attention. Fragments are usually parts of sentence, but the rest of the sentence is understood. They’re most often used in dialogue because that’s the way we talk. Even then, the fragment is clearly related to a subject.
“Hey, Joe, are you going to the game?”
“Naw, too late.”
Too late refers to the game. The subject, which is understood, is It or The game. The verb is is. There’s still room for doubt, but the rest of the exchange should make it clear.
Fragments should fit in comfortably, using the same verb tense and subject as the preceding sentence. When they do, the reader supplies the missing words without thinking about it.
Here’s an example from my friend Maryn Sinclair:
They stepped into a marble-floored elevator, paneled with some kind of exotic wood. Laura surreptitiously brushed her fingers across the richly glossed grain. Some people in the world find this kind of elegance commonplace. An everyday occurrence. Not her.
Maryn could have written all the words and not used the fragments at all.
Laura surreptitiously brushed her fingers across the richly glossed grain. Some people in the world find this kind of elegance commonplace. [They found it] an everyday occurrence. [But Laura didn’t find elegance commonplace,] not her.
Then it becomes cumbersome and overdone and the flow is lost. So when you look back at what you’re reading or writing, consider how it could be said. Would it be helped by leaving a few words to the reader’s imagination? Or are fragments there and misused? Do they fit with the flow of the idea?
How do you feel about them? Love them? Hate them? Do you know how to use them?