Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Break the Writing Rules: Part Two, Fragments

Fragments. Incomplete sentences. Wandering around in public without a subject or verb to make them whole.

If you're writing a formal document, your language should be formal to match. However, as I mentioned in the first post in this series, when you're writing fiction, you can play with grammar, sentence structure, and other parts of the language to achieve a certain effect. What can you do with fragments? Let's find out.

Fragments are normally short (though you could write a long, rambling one if you chose), so they work well in scenes in scenes with high tension. I also like strings of nouns for lists. Here's an example (a paraphrase, actually) from one of my early works. The protagonist thinks there is something in his hotel closet, so he opens the door:

Two suits, neatly pressed. A pair of shoes on the floor. Empty hangers. Nothing else.

A similar list of verbs might work well in a combat sequence.

Fragments work best when used sparingly. A series of them can work, providing that the surrounding texts flows (so the fragments stand out and are obviously deliberate). Fragments can be overdone, even when used for effect. I read a book earlier this year that used clumps of fragments on Every.Single.Page. (There's another way to use fragments: to show emphasis. I see this most often used in dialogue. People don't always speak in complete sentences, so that's also good place to use fragments.) Some of the fragments were used in ways like ones listed above, but they were used so frequently they drew attention to themselves away from the story. I had to force myself through all of those fragments, so I can't recommend this story to anyone else.

Obviously, any attempt to catalog situations where fragments are effective will be (you guessed it) fragmentary. How do you feel about fragments? Do you use them for effect? If so, how? Please tell us in the comments.


  1. The key is writing fragments that communicate your message. That's a lot more difficult than it sometimes seems.

  2. Good point. That's why I suggest you need to know the rules before you can understand how to break them.

  3. I like fragments. Way more than adverbs. But you can't have nothing except for banana pudding to eat for long before you start to hate it. So I guess complete sentences are necessary for a complete meal.

    Well said on the post.

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