Editing Tip #15

Don’t be Afraid to Fragment, Part 3

A look at creative sentence structures.

fragmentOne of the first rules we’re taught in school is to build a ‘proper’ sentence, because fragments are bad.  When you’re writing literary prose this is true.  When you’re writing fiction the lines begin to blur.

The Golden Rule:

Fragments in dialogue are expected, fragments in narrative prose are despised.

So, what then is a fragment?  It’s a sentence that is missing one of the key components.  And what are the components of a sentence?  At its simplest, a sentence has a noun and verb that convey a clear idea.  That’s fairly simple, yes?  If a noun is a person, place, or thing and a verb is an action word, the shortest a sentence could be is 2 words – right?  Wrong.

The beauty of the English language is in its malleability.

Stop! is a sentence because it is a command with a silent (implied) noun: “You stop!” or “Stop him!”  Basically, the sentences that come before and after “Stop!” give credence to the invisible noun and help the reader determine who needs to stop.

Now? is a sentence because it is a question with a silent (implied) noun-phrase: If the sentence before was, “Come here” and a person replies with, “Now?” the silent phrase is, “You want me to come here-” or something similar.  In this instance, the word now works as a verb in that it implies action yet to happen and the silent, repeated, pre-phrase gives credence to the understood meaning.

It kind of messes with your head, doesn’t it?

No. is also a sentence because it is considered a complete statement of fact.  It’s implied tag on “I do not…” floats in our minds without needing to be said.  However, that doesn’t mean any single word can be a sentence, and the rules start to get finicky here.  If you studied grammar and sentence structure you will understand how muddy the waters are.  If you’re just looking for some basic advice, I don’t want to bore you with a detailed language lesson – that’s why we hire editors after all… they pick up where we leave off.

Generally speaking, the only time you would ignore the Golden Rule is if your narrative voice is written in 1st person.  Then, your narrator is one of the characters and we are ‘listening’ to their thoughts as they tell us the story – and people think in fragments more so than they speak in fragments.  Just don’t over do it.

Sentence fragments are most useful when you want to visually punctuate an idea – similar to the use of shorter sentences to speed up action and build suspense.

When you revise and edit your 1st draft, consider where your fragments are (in dialogue or narrative prose) and assess accordingly.

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