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February 9, 2011

I’ve recently seen a fair amount of discussion regarding the role of proper grammar in literature, particularly science fiction.  As I’ve said numerous times here before, I am a fan of using the rules of grammar to one’s advantage.  That is not to say that grammatical rules should always be followed to the letter, nor is it to say that grammatical rules are to be ignored.  The key is to know when to use proper grammar and when not to.

One of my favorite grammatical violations is the use of the fragment.  A sentence fragment is a group of words that does not form a complete sentence or thought.  We are taught from elementary school that it is important to write in complete sentences.  But why?

Complete sentences serve to balance out thoughts, group ideas in equivalent chunks or at least interchangeably functional units.  However there are times in a story (and yes, this is pretty much restricted to narrative storytelling, fiction or non) that a word or idea is greater than those surrounding it and moreover needs to hold a specific location in the narrative.  How can you call attention to an idea?  True, there are a lot of ways, but I have a favorite.  Fragments.

Consider films (or books, television shows, whatever) with a precocious, taunting serial killer.  What does said killer do?  Leaves hints about the crime.  But our killer never leaves the hints out in the open.  He steals a relevant picture, leaving the empty frame.  Or leaves the victim’s arms pointing like hands of a clock for the time of their next murder.  Or plants their favorite cop’s fingerprint at the crime scene.  Whatever the point is that the psycho is trying to make, it’s left in a way that draws attention to itself. Subtlety is key for them, not for the writer.  If something needs to pop off the page, it needs to be obvious; reading it should feel different than reading everything else on the page.

This is a trick poets use all the ti.  Pull a word out of the rhythm or meter of the piece.  Dedicate an entire line to a single word.  A fragment is a story is a form of poetic license, a good and honorable thing to do.  Don’t let your English teacher tell you otherwise.

I’ve used several different types of fragments already in this post.  Some of my favorites were a couple paragraphs ago when I started sentences with the word “or.”  Did you notice?  Starting a sentence with a conjunction is a freshman English sin rivaled only by ending a sentence with a preposition (another thing I do, saved for another post). “Or” implies there was something else there to begin with, but starting with “or” makes it clear that there wasn’t.  Except there was.  There was a prior sentence.  A prior paragraph.  This I find more akin to ballet than poetry.  Picture a beautiful ballet with an intense section of low strings playing short, angry notes.  The dancer advances and stops when the music does, staring the audience down.  Then the music picks up again where it left off, just for a moment; the dancer moves again, advancing further, more in-your-face.  This may happen several times, building tension or what-have-you.  This is what starting with “or” does, carries the previous sentence more in-your-face.  Or makes it feel more stretched and hopeless.  Or more hopeful.  Or more energetic.  Or builds momentum.  Or tension.  Or antici…  Oh, you get the idea.  It prevents the release provided by the beginning of a new thought.

Fragments can also serve to make a narrative more natural and conversational.  Who uses complete sentences when they speak? Really?  All the time?  No one.  At least no one I’d want to talk to for long.  This may be the lower brow reasoning for a good fragment as opposed to the higher-brow poetic excuse, but it’s possibly even more relevant in today’s literature.  I don’t wan to read a dissertation, I want to read a story.  I want it to pull me in, make me think I’m the one thinking and doing these things.  I’m not restricted to rules of grammar in my head.  I think indigestible chunks.  One idea at a time.

Are there other reasons to use fragments?  Sure.  Dialects, interrupted thoughts, pondering.  There are as many reasons as there are writers, I suppose.  Maybe more.  They might be used in a blog post or essay to emphasize the uses of fragments.  That might be a little pretentious, though.

I confess, I was inspired to write this because there are people out there that believe there is nothing more damning to the credibility of a writer than bad grammar.  But the thing is, fragments aren’t bad grammar.  Nor are run-on sentences or ending on prepositions or comma splices or dialectical spelling or saying will instead of shall or dropping the commas between stacked adjectives or a hundred other things that my computer might underline in green.  These are choices a writer makes.  Conscious, intentional choices.  It’s up to the reader to figure out why.  Usually this is done subconsciously, simply absorbed in the reading of the story.  My goal is to make these points invisible to the reader (as opposed to the trained pigs that mistake grammatical irregularities for truffles).  Sometimes I have to remind myself that it’s the story I wan seen, not the writing.  So if the fragment sticks out, don’t use it.  But when it comes down to storytelling versus grammar, my stories win out every time.  So there.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Brian permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:06 am

    Agreed. Whether it is grammar, story structure, character development or querying, you have to know all the rules. Only then can you know when and how to break them.

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