Breaking the Rules Part One: Sentence Fragments

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A cluster of grey cracked rocks.

Writers and editors alike can be fixated on rules of language and grammar. And it’s easy to see why when definitions of grammar include:

‘The study or use of the rules about how words change their form and combine with other words to express meaning.’ – Cambridge Online Dictionary.

‘Grammar, rules of a language governing the sounds, words, sentences, and other elements, as well as their combination and interpretation.’ – Britannica.

Rules are useful and offer a bedrock of understanding how to convey meaning through our words clearly and unambiguously. I tend to gravitate away from the word ‘rule’, which implies a division of right and wrong, of superiority and opposition; I feel that convention and tradition are better terms that reflect the fluidity of language.

Many people take this rule mindset to heart. David Crystal, in his book The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, gives a case in point when the British government, among negotiating a treaty with the United States in the 1860s, telegraphed that they would not, under any circumstances, endure a split infinitive in the wording of the treaty. (Yes, really!)

Despite my aversion to there being a solid set of rules writers must follow, there are some that are better adhered to than others.

For example, subject–verb agreement, matching singular and plural subjects with their correct verb form, is required.

The arrow that grazed his arm was laced with poison.

The bandits that stole from the wagon are going to get caught.

Avoiding dangling modifiers is another:

Having worn the suit of armour for the whole day, the heat was stifling and it needed to come off.

Everything before the comma is referring to the subject of the sentence – the person wearing the armour. So, what follows should reflect that.

Having worn the suit of armour for the whole day, Jerome needed to take it off in this stifling heat.

What about those rules that are more malleable? Bending rules can be useful for a whole host of reasons. It’s important, however, to ensure such rule breaking is done with a purpose in mind. The offending rulebreaker that’s the subject of this post is sentence fragments.

The terms 'convention' and 'tradition' better reflect the fluidity of language.

Sentence fragments

Remember those times your schoolteacher or college tutor scribbled ‘not a full sentence’ throughout your work, drilling it into you that a sentence must have a subject and a verb? Well, they’re not wrong. But in fiction, an important — indeed vital — part of prose is the power rhythm and cadence have to influence reader’s engagement and emotional response. And sentence fragments play their part in this by:

  • emulating realistic dialogue or thought patterns
  • increasing tension
  • setting a certain mood

Let’s tackle each in turn.

Realistic dialogue and thought

We don’t think in complete sentences. Rather, our thoughts are fragmented, messy things and internally verbalised speech comprises only a small portion of human thought. This could help explain why when we speak, we use ellipses – not the punctuation, but the omission of words or entire sentences. We make use of the context surrounding the speech or text to fill in gaps in our understanding. Take this example from Joe Abercrombie’s A Little Hatred (the brackets show what’s been implicated):

‘His Majesty wishes to see you at once!’

‘[he wishes to see me] At the palace?’

‘[No, he wishes to see you] At the House of Questions, in the company of Arch Lector Glokta.’

If all speech was written this way, it would make some very stilted, artificial, and not to mention tiresome reading. And it isn’t just speech, but narrative too:

He caught sight of his standard. The white field, the golden lion. Hanging sodden at the near end of the bridge. And there was Stour Nightfall’s. The slavering wolf on grey. Drooping in the rain at the far end. A lion fought a wolf in a circle of blood, and the lion won.

In this passage, only the first and the last sentences are ‘complete’, but the clipped sentence style reflects the narrator’s deep focus and thought pattern as he surveys each element of the battlefield one by one.

Increasing tension

High-action scenes filled with racing heartbeats, pumped adrenaline, and terrified souls should be fast paced. Characters would barely have the time to order their thoughts and react to danger coherently. A mix of short and snappy sentences and fragments reflect a sense of urgency.

This was different to fencing. Different to the tamed world of point scoring and precision. Where losing meant nothing more than a bruised ego. This was fierce.

Chaos.

Swords crashed against shields. Faces twisted with anger. How do you tell friend from foe in this madness? He held his sword tight, nerves shot from anticipating attack. Hands trembling. A heavy weight crashed into him from behind, breath whooshing as he was driven face down into the mud. Rams couldn’t move. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t reach his sword as he squirmed and strained under the limp body pinning him in place. A sharp kick sent the body rolling off. Blood bubbled from their mouth. Spilling from the savage wound. Grass soaked with it. Hands dug into Rams’ underarms and heaved him to his knees. Before he could stand the soldier had already moved on, plunging into the thick of the fray. Rams wanted to say thanks. Nothing came.

Did you notice your reading sped up as you read this passage? Short sentences and fragments pull the reader along, forcing them to up the pace and share in the frantic experience of the viewpoint character. In such a state a character experiences brief glimpes of their surroundings, short flashes of perception, without much – if any – internalisation or processing of events.

A mix of snappy sentences and fragments reflects a sense of urgency.

Setting the mood

Here is a brilliant example from a master of horror, Charles Grant, in his short story ‘Through All His Blood Runs Shadow’ that shows how sentence fragments can be employed to dramatically enhance the mood.

‘Come into the alley, Michael. I want you to meet someone.’

Lifting his hands to his face.

‘No horns or brimstone. His blood is shadow, and his bones tin, steel, and twisted burned paper. His heart, Michael…’

Lunging into the unmoving crowd.

‘Garbage Michael. Just as you said.’

And grasping nothing.

‘Goodbye Michael.’

Michael’s ongoing actions have been split into three. Perhaps if it was written more ‘normally’, it would be made into a single sentence at the end or the beginning. But this wouldn’t capture the simultaneity of Michael’s actions and the other’s speech. It feels as if the voice is haughtingly following him into the crowd (without the need to tell the reader this – it’s been subtly shown to the reader through technique).

It would be a huge disservice to the author and reader if this passage’s effect were to be diminished to reflect an editor who’s a stickler for ‘proper’ sentence structure rules.

Final thoughts...

A sentence fragment is a literary technique that defies traditional language convention. This isn’t a bad thing. Think of two ballroom dancers. It’s conventional for the lead to influence and guide the partner’s movements, like a chime setting off a chain reaction. But the partner doesn’t have to follow, not always, and this could lead to some creative new explorations (as long as they don’t end up as a tangled heap on the floor). It’s the same with writing: having a solid grasp of the rules helps you bend them to create stronger fiction. Just make sure to do so with intent and purpose.

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