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.
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.
Follow these links for further discussion.
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.