Sentence Fragments

You know what you learned in grammar class: don’t use sentence fragments. According to that dictum, the only fragment allowed is an imperative sentence. In writing a novel, the subject becomes far more complex. Sentence fragments help create emphasis, in the same manner as exclamation points. After a run of complete sentences, no matter how much you have varied the structure of each one, a fragment stands out, drawing attention to what you are writing.

With the modern simplification of sentence structure, I would argue that the fragment plays a larger role. Because your options these days are more limited, a sentence fragment can be another tool in your arsenal. Combined with that is a parallel development. Prose is more colloquial these days. As a result writing has become an extension of the way we speak—and we speak in sentence fragments all the time.

Yet I don’t think the grammar teacher of yore was all wrong. A reader does need to ride on a flow of words. We are trying to get from one end of the book to the other, after all. A fragment is a broken sentence, so we have to stop a moment to provide context (what is missing). Too many interruptions tend to grate on the reader’s nerves after a while.

So, what is the best way to use them? My own preference is ride along a wave for a while, allowing the full sentences to create strong forward momentum. Then a sentence fragment slips in, and I think, that’s the narrator talking to me, creating emphasis. Of course, this general idea does not preclude using a string of fragments in a row, or having a section that is more dominated by sentence fragments. I’m just thinking in terms of how I’m going to sail through the page.

Occasional use of fragments roughly corresponds to how often a character comments on the storytelling. Even in the first-person narrative voice, she has to drive the story forward with plot events. She has to supply descriptive details to ground us in her fictional world. The more dominant the character’s thoughts, the more a fragment is employed as a tool. Just remember that too many fragments may make the reading experience a bumpy ride.

Exercise: Review a portion of your manuscript, examining solely sentence structure. If you are prone to writing full sentences, look for points of emphasis. Could you add a sentence fragment to pull the reader inside the character more? You may find that writing one fragment leads to writing several in a row. If you are prone to writing in fragments, on the other hand, be honest with yourself. How long can you read jagged prose without becoming fatigued by having to supply what is missing? How many of those fragments could be converted into full sentences, retaining only those that truly create emphasis?

“Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great or original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”
—Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.