Ask the Editor: Is it okay to use sentence fragments in my writing? How much is too much?

This is a column by Kira McFadden

[jbox]Jeffrey Littorno asks:  I have been a high school English teacher for most of the last twenty-five years, so I know that sentence fragments are to be avoided at all costs. However, I have gotten into the habit of using them regularly in my writing to convey the seed of a thought or impression. What is your opinion on breaking the rules of grammar by utilizing fragments?[/jbox]

Kira answers:  A sentence fragment is a phrase or clause punctuated and capitalized like a sentence, but does not constitute a complete grammatical sentence. Many authors use them in their writing, and sometimes they can be very helpful. Like Mr. Littorno said, they are useful for planting the seeds of thoughts and giving a character voice.

At the same token, beware of overusing them. A seed of a thought or a plot point can be planted without using fragments, and often the work is stronger for it. Sentence fragments, when used in succession, also have a nasty habit of feeling repetitive or clunky—like something’s missing—and readers may have a hard time following the action.

Read the following two examples, and note how abrasive the first is compared to the latter.

The magic pole. That was what he needed. But how to get it? First the rope. Then maybe the stake. Those should help. Mark nabbed the yards of hemp and tied a noose on one end. Perfect. After lacing the noose around the stake and attaching the stake to a spear, he flung it into the wall. Clank. Miss. Clank, clank. Miss, miss. Clunk. There. All done.

There are nine fragments in the above paragraph. Though this is an exaggeration, I have read manuscripts with this sort of style. It’s distracting and the rhythm is too abrupt, making it difficult to get into the flow of the action.

On the ledge high above resided the magic pole. Mark needed it, and fast. A length of rope tied to a heavy iron stake offered some of the support he required to climb the steep wall, but he wasn’t strong enough to toss the rusty iron peg himself. It wouldn’t go pierce the rock if he did, so he wound it to the head of a spear.

Clank. The first shot bounced off the side of the canyon and dropped to the dirt. Mark reeled it in and tired again. Clank. Dang, still a miss. On the third try, clunk, the spear and stake dug into the stone.

In the second example, more of the scenery is revealed and the use of one major fragment, “Dang, still a miss,” gives a sense of voice. His strength and the limit of his abilities are also revealed. These could all be expressed in sentence fragments, but in the second example, the sentences are a little more complex and the scene reads more smoothly.

Much like similes and metaphors, sentence fragments should be used sparsely. If a character speaks and thinks in sentence fragments, then be sure to show the world you’re creating in complete sentences in your prose, and add the fragments in italicized thought, dialogue, or pepper it throughout the manuscript.

Some people in the literary community despise sentence fragments—if you’re thinking of approaching an agent, make sure your work has as few fragments as possible, and none in the first twenty pages of your novel. Why? Some agents may drop your manuscript into the trash bin at the first sign of too many sentence fragments, and for a select few agents out there, one is too many.

Also keep in mind that if you are a first-time author, you have not earned the salability that allows you to break the rules, so try not to. I’m not saying stay away from them like the plague, just reminding you to be aware of how many you use. If you can cut some and strengthen your work, by all means, do so. Conversely, if one here or there gives your novel the oomph it needs, keep them!

 

kiraKira McFadden is an avid enthusiast for all things publishing and writing. She has worked for two publishing firms and has helped local authors compile information for their works. You can visit her at http://inrugia.zxq.net.

 

Terry Odell

Actually, I much prefer the first example. I write in deep POV, and like to be well inside the heads of my characters. We think in fragments, and especially in a tense scene, fragments work for me. Short and choppy conveys the tension much more than formal, properly constructed sentences.

At least my editors have never seemed to mind. But that’s my voice. I turn off grammar check when I write, because it would drive me crazy to see it flagging all my fragments!

    Kira

    That’s quite fine. My point wasn’t to say never use them or to ignore them if your character thinks in them–my point was that many people tend to use them all the time and ignore the fact that, depending on their genre, authors need to diversify. Sentence fragments can be helpful as long as you’re not overusing them, which is something I am sure your editors would have caught if you were.

Andrea Dail

I definitely think that sentence fragments, in contemporary writing, can be added to taste – but I agree with your points about overuse and the possibility of losing the flow.

Thanks for this advice, Kira!

    Kira

    I am very glad I could help, Andrea. They are a tool and I agree completely–adding them is a choice of style and taste.

Virginia

I have to agree with Terry. I liked the first example better. It had a sense of urgency the second example lacked. However, an entire book written like that would be too much. I think it depends on the scene.

    Kira

    I can see where both you and Terry are coming from, and I do understand that my answers can be construed as, “Never, ever use this sort of device,” when all I mean is, “Be careful how often this device is used–there are better ways in some cases.”

    I agree that it depends on the scene, and literature needs diversity to stay alive and keep readers engaged. Sometimes that diversity means you need short sentences or sentence fragments. Happy writing!

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