Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Brewer’

Fragmentary Thoughts

By: Deborah Brewer

There is quite a bit of debate about the use of sentence fragments, or incomplete sentences, in prose fiction to create a voice that is frank, casual, and immediate. These sentence fragments are missing a subject (noun) or a predicate (verb). Some say fragments should never be used, because they are ungrammatical, communicate poorly, and make their writer look incompetent. Writers mistakenly believe fragments to be more invisible than good grammar when in actuality the fragments draw awkward attention to themselves.

Some counter, however, that genre fiction doesn’t need to adhere to the stuffy grammar of academics. Sentence fragments done well, are well and good, as evidenced by the fact that both genre and literary writers regularly take such poetic license.

What’s a writer to do?

Narrative voice punched up with sentence fragments is something we are seeing more and more in popular fiction. But as these casual, forthright sentences, are in essence, incomplete thoughts, we must ask whether they serve our readers well. When it becomes a question of style over function, I’ve had to ask myself, is “dysfunctional” a style I want to own?

Here’s what we know about George.

George was a tangle of emotions. Anger. Frustration. Shame.

The above sentence and fragments sound powerful on account of their rhythm, but do they communicate better than these complete sentences below?

George banged his fist on the desk. “Blast it all.” Bankruptcy was certain if he lost the Peterson account. He had to win it. To see his wife Margaret’s years of sacrifice come to naught would be unbearable.

One might argue that if the example were written in first person rather than third, the contributions of the fragments to a casual, frank voice would add weight to their inclusion. I contend. Swap George out for I, his for my, and the effectiveness of either set of lines remains unchanged.

I was a tangle of emotions. Anger. Frustration. Shame.

I banged my fist on the desk. “Blast it all.” Bankruptcy was certain if I lost the Peterson account. I had to win it. To see my wife Margaret’s years of sacrifice come to naught would be unbearable.

The Downside to Fragments

The main downside to fragments is that they leave a lot of meaning to be filled in by readers. Readers already must bring a great deal of imagination to a written story in order to manifest a three-dimensional world in their minds. I don’t want to make them struggle to decipher what I mean to say. I don’t want them to put my work down because my meaning is uncommunicative. I want them to relax and engage with my story.

The Upside

Despite the aforementioned negatives, sentence fragments can and do contribute to dialogue and first-person narrative in several positive ways. Many questions and responses require only fragments to effectively communicate. Fragments can be used in those instances in which words might not come readily to a character’s tongue, such as when they are reticent, hurried, confused, desperate, mentally impaired, or under physical stress. Fragments are also commonly used for emphasis.

This fragmented line without a speech tag, below, has an immediacy and a bite. It feels like it comes straight from the heart.

“So, what do you want me to do?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She rolled over and pulled her pillow over her head.

The following example demonstrates a character’s confusion.

They could hear someone breathing on the other side of the partition. “Bob? Joe?”

We don’t need them to say, “Bob, is that you? Joe, is that you?” to understand their meaning; because we all use truncated queries like these in our everyday conversations. The implied verb in this simple sentence construction is understood.

In this good example, a character is dying. You can almost hear him gasping.

He took a last desperate breath and spoke the words that, for her, would change everything. “Gold… Under the staircase.”

The character of a college professor might seem inauthentically stupid with lines like these.

The professor rolled his eyes. “The importance of grammar. A thing, generally. Except when not.”

A sentence fragment can make dialogue more emphatic, as in this example.

“I. Want. Ice. Cream.”

Be wary, however, of emphasizing a relatively meaningless word. This construction puts an undue emphasis on the word A, a relatively meaningless article.

“I want ice cream. A spoon, too.”

These lines, below, might work if they follow a running joke about the absence of spoons. Hopefully, the joke would have a strong enough setup to justify the awkward fragment at the end.

            “I want ice cream. And a spoon.”

This next example with an adverb works better, as the word emphasized with a capital letter carries enough meaning to earn its exceptional, fragmented place.

I want ice cream. Now.”

Don’t be Seduced by Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments are seductive, so be forewarned, using countless fragments is a bit like using ALL CAPS AND EXCLAMATION POINTS!!! in an email message. Both are great for emphasis, but as all emphasis, all the time, results in no emphasis at all, even using fragments often lessens their emphatic value. It’s best to save them, like exclamation points, for those few words you truly want to make stand out.

I asked a published author about sentence fragments. He said, unequivocally, that publishers are okay with fragments these days.
In every paragraph?
His answer was emphatically no.

For writing that shines with clarity and polish, consider using sentence fragments sparingly.

To eliminate excess fragments—

  • First, try to make a complete sentence with a strong verb.
  • Second, try to link the fragment up to the sentence before or after it, or both, with a comma(s), a colon, or a semi-colon.
  • Third, occasionally link the fragment to the sentence before or after it with an M-dash.
  • Fourth, on rare occasions, keep the fragment for characterization or emphasis.

Further Reading

Follow these links for further discussion.

Semicolons vs. Colons vs. Dashes

What is a Sentence Fragment?

Sentence Fragments: Use for Conversational Tone

Deborah Brewer

Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology,  Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.

Metaphorical Thrills

By: Deborah Brewer

What’s not to love about metaphor? Our language would be impoverished without its contribution to our poems, jokes, stories, and rhetoric. Metaphors enlighten us about one thing by relating it to something else. This connection flashes through our brains like an epiphany, one of the best feelings in the world. In his book, I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor, James Geary jests that “metamorphine” is a habit we all get into as children. We love to chase life’s ah-ha moments, those thrills of discovery—the satisfaction of our innate curiosity.

Writing with metaphors is fun, and adds so much to our work, but working with them can be tricky. Before we discuss how to write metaphors well, let’s review their definitions.

What’s in a Metaphor?

In the “The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992) pp.653,” is found the following reference:

METAPHOR … (1) All figures of speech that achieve their effect through association, comparison, and resemblance. Figures like antithesis, hyperbole, metonymy, simile are all species of metaphor.

In case, like me, you’ve half-forgotten, here are some short definitions:

  • Antithesis is the comparison of opposites.
  • Hyperbole makes an obvious exaggeration. 
  • Metonymy is name-calling or name substitution.
  • Similes are explicit (explained) comparisons.
  • Metaphors are implicit (implied) comparisons.

All of these are useful for adding interest to stories. Try adding hyperbole to humor, and metonymy to romance and fight scenes. You might use similes and metaphors when your characters unite, but antithesis when they go their separate ways.

Characters and Setting

When crafting a metaphor for your fiction work, consider the characters and setting in your story. Use an image consistent with that context, whether the setting is 1920’s America, or the narrative voice is that of a child. Keep in mind, that a good metaphor, like a good joke, requires some commonly understood background or a little setup for success.

It’s good when an effective metaphor aids in understanding, but it can also be destructive when deployed as a negative stereotype, or meaningless when it has degraded into an outworn cliché. Restraint is recommended when weaving a single metaphor throughout a work. Repeat it one too many times and it will lose its impact like a boring old joke. Outdated, overused, mixed, and bad metaphors are all well avoided.

The Old Cliché

These historical metaphors are so outdated they’ve lost their cultural context:

Stan sold goldbricks and well-watered cattle. The other landscapers hated him for it.

Do Stan’s competitors hate him because they are envious of his lucrative business model? No. A goldbrick is a counterfeit gold bar and watered cattle are those that have been watered ahead of an auction to tip the scale, and sales price, higher. Stan’s competitors hate him for being a crooked businessman, but owing to these outdated terms, modern readers might not understand.

A frozen metaphor has completely lost its original meaning and taken on a new one, while a dead metaphor has become so ubiquitous it no longer brings an image to mind. Here are examples of both:

            The time before the author’s deadline was running out.

The word “deadline” is a frozen metaphor. It was first used during the American Civil War. A line was drawn around a prison. If prisoners dared to cross it, they were shot dead. Now it means “due date.”

The metaphor of “time running out” is dead. It refers to the sand in an hourglass. Modern readers know what it means for “time to run out”, but the image of an hourglass won’t likely come to mind.

Here is a metaphor first without, and then with, some background to give it clarity:

She was like a daisy with the paparazzi.

She was a daisy, heliotropic, turning her eager face toward the light of the paparazzi sun.

This is a mixed metaphor full of clichés:

When the opposing team closed in on him, Marty lost it. Claws out and teeth bared, he was a cat’s-eye marble short of a bag, playing hard-ball for all he was worth.

When baseball’s the game, the cat’s out of the bag, the marbles are lost, and for all Marty was worth, he was still a few pennies short of nickel, the image of Marty resisting attack is not made any clearer.

Troubleshoot Your Metaphors

If we think of a metaphor as a meaning machine, how do we troubleshoot a broken one? In Geary’s, I Is an Other we find a hint in the example of Carl Jung. When a patient used a phrase such as “a ticking time bomb,” Jung would follow up with questions.

A writer might ask whether there is more to learn about the nature of this bomb. What happened in the moments before the bomb was set? What happens when the bomb explodes? Is there a way to defuse it? There is no need to include every little thing about the bomb in a story, but if the metaphor isn’t first clear in the author’s mind, neither will it be clear in the mind of a reader.

A metaphor comes in two main parts; the target and the source. These are connected by a verb, which is usually “to be.”

A bad, or “broken,” metaphor is, more likely than not, suffering from an identity crisis. The true identity of the metaphor’s target is for the author, still unknown. Thus, the first question to ask would be, who or what is the bomb? Who or what exactly is about to explode?

Consider this example:

She was a ticking time bomb, incessantly nagging until her husband blew up.

Who is the bomb? It can’t be both she and her husband.

The fix:

She was a ticking time bomb, incessantly nagging until she blew up. Her husband was on constant alert for the fallout.

A couple of years ago I read several books on metaphor and set a goal of writing 50 for practice. Here are two that struck literary notes:

She was a fancy font—so ornate and complicated, she was hard to read.

She met him at the library but decided not to take him home. He had a great cover, but his pages were all glued shut.

I encourage you to experiment with metaphors. While the little thrills of epiphany are alone worth the effort, it may also improve your writing skills. You might even discover a silken thread to tie one of your stories together.

Further Reading:

While there are many books about metaphor available, listed below are a few I’ve personally enjoyed.

I Is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How It Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary, 2012. An exploration of how metaphor touches every aspect of our lives. Find “metamorphine,” on page 151; Carl Jung on page 215. Borrow it from a library.

I Never Met a Metaphor I Didn’t Like by Dr. Mardy Grothe, 2008. A collection of metaphors from an author who has made collecting quotes a lifelong hobby.

Dream, the PPW 2022 anthology. The short story “Dream Crush” by Cepa Onion, and flash fiction stories, “Sleepstone” by John Lewis, and “Blanket of Joy” by Uchechi Princewill, all employ memorable metaphorical language.

Deborah Brewer

Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology,  Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.

Waxing Poetic

By: Deborah Brewer

What writer doesn’t want to improve their prose? Let me recommend dabbling in poetry to do just that. Reading, studying, and practicing verse have improved my fiction writing experience in several ways, improving my mood, my vocabulary, and my emotional expression. You might try it too.

Use Poetry to Ease the Blank Page Syndrome

Writers are often intimidated by the emptiness of a blank page. Poetry eases my blank page dread and replaces it with enthusiasm. Writing a very short piece that no one else may ever see removes the pressure from performance. I can revel in my imagination and create something that never existed before without imaginary critics looking over my shoulders. I don’t need to write melancholy verses to enjoy poetry’s benefits either, I can write silly poems that lift my mood. This mindset of joy and confidence stays with me as I write my fiction, helping me overcome procrastination and feelings of inadequacy. If this were the only benefit of writing poetry, it would be reason enough.

Break Out of Your Vocabulary Rut

Writing poetry also breaks me out of vocabulary ruts. Poetry requires rich, concentrated meaning from a very few words. Once I’ve exhausted my memory for poetry words, I call on my second favorite “dinosaur,” the thesaurus, for help. I might also research my poem’s subject online to refresh my memory of descriptive words or enter “Words that rhyme with…” into my online search engine. It’s common for people to comprehend more words than they regularly use in writing and speech. Searching for the perfect word, rhyming, alliterative, or otherwise, is a great way to limber and strengthen working vocabulary.

Find the Emotion in Your Writing

Emotion is at the core of poetry, as it is at the core of fiction. Poetry puts me in touch with my feelings. A poem is more than the mere sum of its words. Word placement, rhythm, and allusions all contribute to the emotion of a poem. While I do want to put more emotion in my fiction, I often don’t because emotions are scary. Writing poems helps me shed this reticence. It provides me with a safe place to play with my feelings and learn how to control their expression.

Now if perhaps, you’re wondering;
In my loneliest girlhood dreams,
Though other creatures joy did bring,
The brontosaurus reigned supreme!

Even writing terrible poems makes for great writing practice. For me, attempting a highly structured poem form, like a sonnet, haiku, or a quatrain, is a more entertaining brain exercise than working sudoku or crossword puzzles. You, too, might enjoy the puzzle aspect of highly structured poems.

Poetic Form – A Closer Look

There are so many variations of poetic form—ancient, classic, and contemporary—that you are sure to find one or two that suit you. Sonnets are grand. Haiku poems are meditative. Limericks are good fun. Odes of praise are usually serious, but can also be silly or satirical. Even highly structured poem forms are often written with irregularities, and you are certainly free to create a form of your own.

To a Button Lost

Oh, button iridescent,
Sweetest pearl of milky white,
Freed from m’ lady’s “precious” sweater

In the middle of the night.
Our dalliance was jolly
As we frisked about the house,
Until you hid between the floorboards
Like a timid little mouse.

Your snub has left me sullen;
My lady is fuming sore.
You have departed, dearest button,
Lost to me forevermore.

To improve my poetic capacity, I did a personal study of haiku poetry in late 2019. I remembered enjoying haiku in grade school and thought I might recapture some of that feeling. I read about the history of the form and its masters. I explored haiku organizations and publications online. I read lots of haiku. Finally, I wrote 50 haiku poems myself.

What is haiku? It’s a very short, poetic form adapted from Japan in the late 1800s, in which two images from nature are juxtaposed to invite feelings of quiet awe and inspiration.

During my studies, I chose some guidelines for my poems that would satisfy most haiku enthusiasts:

  • A seasonal reference (snow, flowers, fruit, falling leaves)
  • A focus on nature
  • Two concrete images with a change to a new image at the 1/3 or 2/3 mark.
  • A story or feeling is created by the marriage of the two images
  • Evokes a sense of quiet, awe, and/or the sublime
  • Uses sentence fragments
  • No rhymes or alliteration
  • No titles
  • A lower-case letter at the beginning of each line
  • The classic, English language grade-school structure—three lines and 5/7/5 syllables—or not

Below is a selection of winter haiku. The first poem changes images after the first line. The second poem changes images after the second line. The third poem eschews the classic syllable count.

a walk with my love
cottontails luxuriate
in winter’s soft light

owls hoot together
on a snowy moonlit night
dogs whimper and bark

tall pines
snowflakes fall
like petals

Freeform Poetry – Laugh at Yourself

When I can’t come up with haiku or don’t want to, I write whatever poems come to mind. One day, reflecting on an experience at a Pikes Peak Writers Conference, I wrote this short poem to capture a memory.

My smile full spent,
I retreat
to scones and tea

But a year into my poetry practice, I found this new poem to be more emotionally open.

Four hundred voices
Eight million eyes—
Refuge in a toilet stall

Perhaps you too have felt that way at a conference.

I’m not a published poet, nor do I aspire to be, but I enjoy and benefit from writing poems all the same. My own poems are included in this blog so you can see the very amateur level of my work and know that you too can write such mood-enhancing poems. If you need a use for your poems, consider writing them inside greeting cards, on bookmarks, or collecting them in a journal. Write poems about subjects you love.

I heartily recommend both the study and practice of poetry. Read some books, take a class, maybe attend a poetry reading. Then set a goal to write some poems of your own. (I usually write a full draft of a poem on the first day, and fiddle with it a few days more.) The practice may not make you into a poet laureate, but your prose will surely wax poetic.

A writer thought writing appealing,
But mostly, she stared at the ceiling.
To enliven her tomes,
She wrote flirty poems;
And now, writes with passionate feeling.


For further reading:

Write Like Issa: A Haiku How-To by David G. Lanoue (2017). An English professor and former president of the Haiku Society of America gives insight into the creative process of a haiku master.

Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years, edited by Jim Kacian, Philip Rowland, and Allan Burns (2013). This broad anthology includes poems both ancient and modern, an introduction by poet laureate Billy Collins, and a historical overview by Jim Kacian, the founder of the Haiku Foundation and Red Moon Press.

The Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayes (2001). Mayes, also the author of Under the Tuscan Sun, writes that “…almost everyone can learn to write good poems.” I hope that means me.

Deborah Brewer

Deborah L. Brewer joined Pikes Peak Writers a decade ago, seeking help with a cozy mystery. When the novel was completed, she stayed for the camaraderie. Now she’s writing short stories. An editor for the PPW 2022 anthology,  Dream, Deborah contributes to Writing from the Peak to help fellow PPW members write better with more enjoyment, and ultimately, achieve their writing dreams.