Saturday, July 9, 2011

Sentence Fragments—Tricky Little Devils

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.
Michal Marcol / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
I see them in stories and wonder. Here’s an example, changed only slightly from the original to disguise it; it’s something I read in a book by a reputable publisher. 
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.
An everyday occurrence follows the same thought as the preceding sentence. The subject and verb are understood [to some people, elegance is] an everyday occurrence. Not her is the second fragment. It continues the same line of thought. She doesn’t find this elegance commonplace. When the fragments are used properly, it’s smooth and clear and the reader unconsciously supplies the missing words.
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?

17 comments:

Nancy Lynn Jarvis said...

I love the use of sentence fragments to punch up writing, but other than in dialog, I think they should be used sparingly. Now if only I could convince WORD they are OK.

Maryn Sinclair said...

Obviously, I use them. They make a strong point without cluttering the sentence with unnecessary words, whether dialogue or inner thoughts. Great post, Ellis, and thanks for using one of my examples.

Ellis Vidler said...

Nancy, unless you're writing eighteenth century historicals, fragments really help dialogue sound natural. In narrative, I believe in moderation (in most things, actually).
I keep Word's grammar checker turned off until the final run-through. Otherwise it drives me crazy--it's a software program, for heaven's sake. It can't think.

Ellis Vidler said...

Maryn, I use them too, especially in action scenes or something where the tension is high. To me they add an element of forward motion. They're part of my voice, what little there is.

Kaye George said...

I use them a lot. Maybe that's from writing a lot of flash fiction. I tend to remove every word I don't absolutely need (unlike in this sentence). I feel they can move the reader quickly through an action scene, or put the reader into the fragmented internal musings of the POV character.

Ellis Vidler said...

Kaye, I like that--fragmented internal musings. Yes, that's another good place for them. Who thinks in complete sentences?

Sally Carpenter said...

I used fragments in my book, which is written in first person, the way a person might actually think and talk. Fragments work well in suspense scenes where you want to set a mood of fear and also fast-pace action scenes.

Sally Carpenter
"The Baffled Beatlemaniac Caper"

Ellis Vidler said...

Sally, I'm so glad you and your character think in fragments. I'd be highly suspicious of anyone who thinks in sentences, much less paragraphs, but I've read some. Very distracting.

Cynthia said...

Love love love the fragment. Couldn't go a day without one. ;)

Donnell said...

Ellis, once again great topic. I like fragments if not overdone. Just as if an author spells everything out, I find the reverse jarring. If someone repeatedly uses fragmented sentences. I guess it's subjective, but I think you have to use care not to overdo anything. Do I get a grade for my answer? :)

And I like the example you gave using Maryn's writing.

Ellis Vidler said...

LOL! Well said, Cynthia.

Ellis Vidler said...

Donnell, I aim for moderation in all things, but it's still subjective. I think we all look for balance in our writing and in what we read. It's easier to achieve if we allow a little time to pass before we re-read. I think we see more clearly and have a better chance at finding the right balance. Just as songs stick in our mind, rhythms and constructions do too; and when something is very fresh, we may not see that we've gone too far.

Maryn Sinclair said...

I just noticed kind of/kind of in the example cited. Yikes. Good thing this is a work in progress. Where's that page?

Ellis Vidler said...

Maybe paneled with a burled exotic wood?

Camille Minichino said...

This is one of the best explanations of fragments, yes or no. Exciting!

Nancy Lauzon said...

Great blog, Ellis.

I love to use fragments, but I always feel a tiny bit guilty, and hear the voice of my Grade 7 teacher in my head. "Every sentence must contain a subject and a verb..." But I think there's absolutely a place for them, when done properly and with discretion.

Nancy
Chick Dick Mysteries

Ellis Vidler said...

Nancy, I think up through high school teachers were trying to drum the rules into us. After we learned them, we could figure out when and how to break them and use exceptions. It's a bit like history--how do you know where you're going if you don't know where you've been? Not sure that's a good analogy. Oh, well. ;)