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Fragments and the Incomplete Sentence

March 11, 2012 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified March 11, 2012

If you’re of a certain age, you were probably taught in school that incomplete sentences are a no-no.

All sentences must have a subject and a verb and if they have supporting words, that’s even better. But never use sentence fragments—never, never, never.

Are you nodding because that’s the advice you got?

Well, perhaps that’s the way to teach language skills to children just learning how to write. Perhaps it’s the way to teach non-fiction. Or perhaps not. Creative non-fiction is filled with incomplete sentences. Perhaps it’s just a first step from a first teacher, and somewhere down the line someone else was supposed to teach us how to break that rule in order to create phrases that make a splash when they’re grammatically incomplete but oh so thoroughly complete in meaning.

Face it: readers of fiction know that sentences don’t need to be complete in order to make an impact. Fragments can be understandable. They can be strong. They can be necessary for the life of a passage.

And what readers know, writers know. And those writers know how to write grammatically incomplete sentences that are nonetheless complete for their purpose.

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So, now that you know it’s okay, sometimes preferable, to use sentence fragments, how do you use them correctly?

Use them, but do so with the knowledge that there are times and places where they work better than others. There are times when the paragraph or scene is better served by full sentences, with specific verbs and subjects. There are times when you need to spell it all out.

Not only are there places where fragments don’t work, there are some fragments that don’t work at all. For example, the shortcut style of instant messages and texts and tweets has crept into long fiction and sometimes just doesn’t fit.

Ever read something such as—

Tilly dropped the cookie sheet. For the second time. Betty turned to hide her face. Grin.

Grin? What does that mean? That Betty hid a grin? Couldn’t hold back a grin? That she wanted to grin? That Tilly was grinning? That a grin was threatening to break out but Betty couldn’t let it because the last time a grin escaped, her mother was so shocked she fell over backward—off the ladder she’d been perched on to take down Christmas decorations—and she’d tipped into the Christmas tree and of course that had listed toward the window, knocking out the newly installed glass and after that, with the hole in the glass, the cat had escaped, so Lady, the Pekinese with an attitude,  had to jump out after her and . . . Well, let’s just say that Betty didn’t grin unexpectedly any more.

It’s hard to convey something such as that with a simple grin.

What about—

Tilly’s boss told her to clean the cages before she took the animals out for their walks. Blank stare. How could she clean the cages with the animals still in them?

———————–

“I love you, my dear,” Zeke said.

But his shoes were tied, he was pulling on his coat, and his packed bags were sitting at the door.

“I’ll always love you. I just need to . . . find myself.”

Find himself? Cocked brow. Yeah, I’d show him where he could find himself.

What does blank stare mean here? Does Tilly offer one? Feel that she’s wearing one?

What of cocked brow? Where’s the verb? Who’s doing the cocking? Does the phrase convey what it should?

There are too many possibilities for what these could say to leave the reader with only blank stare or cocked brow. If you’re writing long fiction, take the time to provide enough information for readers to understand, to take in meaning and emotion.

In novels and novellas, even in short stories, we’ve got time. We don’t have to shortcut everything the way we do for social media. We get to expand.

That’s not saying you can’t use shortcuts, even single-word shortcuts. Just be sure that your shortcuts make sense. Remember the reader. And fit your shortcuts to the genre and era and setting of your fictional world. Fit them to the character.

Also, be aware that you’re using a shortcut and know why. Don’t use them only because you’ve  just spent an hour texting and that type of construction—a benefit when we text—is on your brain.

Write with deliberation. Use what works for the story, not what happens to pop out onto the page.

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There are other kinds of incomplete sentences as well. Again, some work, others don’t.

Fragments and incomplete sentences that work—

The April showers brought not only spring flowers but tornados. And devastation. John stood at the edge of his property, shocked. The house his grandfather had raised up from the Kansas field was no more, wiped away in a moment. He could see for miles where once trees had stood to block his view. Now? Emptiness. A vast void. The Kansas earth wiped clear of man’s presence.

———–

Paulette raced up the stairs, panting. Afraid she was too late. Afraid of what she’d find. Simply afraid. Hell, she was terrified.

———–

Danny wanted to forget his troubles. Forget his job. Forget his wife.

No, on second thought, he liked the job.

These fragments work because they make sense. They are based on what has come before. So . . . Explanations work as fragments. Repetition works. Answers to questions work.

Fragments and incomplete sentences that don’t work—

Tim was ecstatic. His excitement overwhelming him. X

———–

Diana put the dagger. X

 ———–

 Yes, I need you to bring. X

———–

While he read. And then he’d take a bath and have a glass of wine. While Diana read.

Why don’t these fragments work?

In the first example, a period has separated the wording of  an absolute phrase. But the two parts of the absolute phrase need to be in the same sentence. Replace the period with a comma, and you have a sentence that does work. Or, change the verb form of overwhelm and that works also.

Tim was ecstatic, his excitement overwhelming him.

Tim was ecstatic. His excitement overwhelmed him.

What about Diana and her dagger? That fragment doesn’t work because the meaning is incomplete. Where did she put the dagger? We have no idea.

Diana put the dagger inside her boot.

The sentence with bring is incomplete because bring is a transitive verb that needs an object. We need to answer the question bring what.

Yes, I need you to bring the dagger that’s in your boot.

The final example is a bit trickier. If the first sentence is the first in a scene, it has no connection to anything else and so while I read has no meaning. While is a subordinating conjunction whose purpose is to connect a dependent clause to the rest of the sentence. (There’s a bit more to it than that, but for our purpose, that’s enough.) Since there is no rest of the sentence, there is nothing to connect to. The phrase is meaningless.

Yet, we could use this grammatically incorrect snippet to mean something if we let it refer—connect, in a way—to what has come before.

When the similar while you read follows another sentence—when it so clearly refers to the previous sentence—it can stand alone. Is it grammatically correct? No. Does it work in fiction? You bet. You can even use such a sentence as a paragraph of its own, for emphasis—

Tim was ecstatic; his excitement overwhelmed him. Almost overwhelmed Diana too. But Diana only shook her head and put the dagger inside her boot.

“Yes,” Tim said. “I need you to bring your dagger. And to kill Smyth, of course.”

Then Tim would no doubt read Smyth’s diary while she took care of Smyth’s body. Tim would follow up with a bath and a glass of wine.  

Tim grinned, gave her a thumbs-up. Yeah, he’d sip his precious wine. Then it would be her turn to read the diary.

While she waited to kill Smyth’s precious wife.

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The way a writer crafts her sentences—fluid and detailed, short and to the point, peppered with modifiers, sparse and lean—is a reflection of that writer’s style. Sentence construction, rhythm, patterns, word choices, sound, the visual of letters on the page—these elements working together define a writer’s style. Showcase it. Make it.

And the use or absence of sentence fragments is one element of that style.

Put fragments and incomplete sentences to work for your fiction if it works for your and your stories. It’s allowed. It’s okay. It’s sometimes necessary.

But learn what works and what doesn’t. Be grammatically incorrect on purpose, not by accident.

 Use incomplete sentences for impact, for changes in rhythm, to convey a character’s personality or frame of mind.

Keep in mind—

Pretty much anything goes in dialogue. Throw the grammar rules out the window if doing so fits your character and the emotion of the moment. No one needs to speak in complete sentences. Let character speech raise the tension when characters don’t answer the question that’s asked but the one that’s implied or the one that’s ignored. Let characters be unclear. Let dialogue sound different from your narration.

Some sentences which look incomplete aren’t. And even if they’re grammatically incomplete, they are nonetheless acceptable.

Commands are complete in themselves.

Swab the deck [you swab is implied]

Do it.

Question words are complete.

Why?

When?

Answers to questions and implied answers to (implied) questions are complete.

Would she take the job? Yes.

She wondered if he actually did it. He had.

The punch line? Five balloons and one pet snake.

Interjections are complete.

Holy cow.

Yowza!

Damn.

Oh no.

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Might you need to use grammatically complete sentences for a company report or thesis? Sure. But even in those circumstances a good writer knows how to create impact with an incomplete sentence.

Write creatively. At the same time, write to communicate. Be clear, but use any tool, every tool, to create an impact.

Use sentence fragments if you can do so without confusing your readers (unless confusion is the intent).

Explore your options. Mix up your sentences so they’re not all the same. Not all by the book. Not all even sentences.

Write dramatic fiction. Write entertaining fiction. Write good story.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style, Grammar & Punctuation

7 Responses to “Fragments and the Incomplete Sentence”

  1. nelle says:

    Well done… in creative writing, having a solid foundation in grammar matters, but that does not mean you must adhere to the rules, not when breaking them serves the story you tell. We speak in incomplete sentences, and if we relate dialogue only in a grammatically correct way, it won’t seem real.

    I’ll add I make use of non-words in my writing as well, where the meaning is clear and it enhances the story.

  2. Nelle, I use non-word words as well. If people do, characters can. And they could both speak and think those non-words. A great point. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  3. Ladonna says:

    Hi,

    I typed in story flow and found your website, then checked out your latest post. Thanks. Your examples are excellent. :)

  4. Hi Beth. Excellent topic. I try to stick to the grammatical rules most of the time, but flow and rhythm sometimes demand a punchier approach. Thanks for reviewing the do’s and don’t’s. And providing examples.

  5. Ladonna, I’m glad the examples work for you. And I hope you find something useful every time you visit the blog. Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  6. James, I love how the rules make writing so much easier. But I also love the variety and options and the way options allow us to create outstanding stories. Or even outstanding scenes or phrases. Writing is fun.

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