Sentence Fragments

Will they make editors reject your fiction?

Julian Pavia, Writing for
4-minute read
Episode #316

I know many of you are fiction writers, aspiring writers, or just shake your heads when you read non-traditional grammar in fiction stories. I thought it might be fun to hear from someone who has to manage the crazy grammar that writers try—and sometimes succeed—to put through the editing process and into book form.

Today we have Julian Pavia, senior editor at Crown Books, a division of Random House.

As Julian’s example, he’s using the new novel Nocturnal by Scott Sigler, which came out April 3 from Crown, and he’s looking at Sigler’s tendency to use sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is something that isn’t a complete sentence. Often, sentence fragments are missing the subject that would be present in a sentence, but they can also be missing the predicate.

Here’s what Julian wrote, starting with the opening lines of Sigler’s new book:

“You’re not welcome here, Paul.”

Most places in the world, a statement like that sounded normal. Unfriendly, perhaps, but still common, still acceptable.

Most places, but not at a Catholic church.

If you’re like me, it’s perfectly clear to you what Scott is saying here. Granted, the lines have a certain clipped cadence that may not be everyone’s stylistic cup of tea, but they make sense, and Scott’s conveying information efficiently, getting a lot across in relatively few words. 

There’s Always a Catch

Be cautious about trying this stuff at home.

The catch here is that apart from the line of dialogue, there’s not a single “real” sentence in that excerpt. And this example is hardly an outlier. Fiction writers brutalize the rules of grammar on a regular basis. Fragmenting in particular is a useful device, in part because—if wielded properly—it can let an author get across information more economically than would be possible with proper grammar, with no loss in clarity.

Sometimes We Have to Stop the Madness

Here’s another example of fragmenting from Nocturnal — this time, something that didn’t survive to the final draft:

Echoing gunfire from above. Pookie looked in that direction and saw something amazing. A man leaping off the cavern’s ledge.  Rising up, then arcing down, his legs bicycling beneath him … 

This kind of fragmenting is a regular bone of contention for Scott and me. He likes to convey his action descriptions by machine-gunning fragments at us. On the one hand, this is a perfectly valid stylistic move: it conveys the way a viewpoint character, seeing things through a cloud of adrenaline, takes in the action in a series of disjointed snapshots. And fragmenting helps you write economically, right? So if by doing this Scott is helping an action scene flow along quickly, it should be a big plus.

But for me, this device can read awkwardly, especially when it’s used often (and Scott’s books have a lot of action scenes). It makes me trip. It feels unpleasantly choppy. And it’s fairly easy to tweak these lines in a way that doesn’t actually cost us much in terms of added words—or, putting it differently, the way Scott is fragmenting here is not, actually, doing much for us in terms of efficiency. 

What Is the Right Way to Use Sentence Fragments?

At this point you’ve noticed a problem with all this talk about what works and why: it’s completely subjective. That’s the thing about fragmenting, and all the other grammar-breaking tricks fiction writers often employ. They’re risky. When authors write without the safety net provided by the rules of subject, verb, object, etc., the only real guide for what’s right or wrong is their ear. The results can be ugly. Also, tricks like fragmenting can easily turn into stylistic tics—or, even worse, ways to excuse sloppy, lazy prose. And all those warnings go for published authors too—people who write for a living.

Use Sentence Fragments Sparingly and When the Story Calls for It

Sentence fragments in fiction can be a useful way of conveying pace, tone, and intensity. However, overuse can lead to lazy writing—fragments should be used sparingly, and for a good storytelling purpose. We amateurs should be cautious about trying this stuff at home. Which is why I always use complete sentences in my own writing.

That’s the end of Julian’s section, but I want to add one summary note myself. In the teaser for this podcast/article, I said we’d address whether sentence fragments can make editors reject your work. From what you just heard/read, you’ll gather that Sigler got his books published by a big New York publisher despite his tendency to use sentence fragments that sometime annoy his editor, so sentence fragments clearly aren’t lethal. Still, as Julian said, sentence fragments and other deviations from standard grammar are risky. When you’re working on fiction, pay attention to your grammar. If you are breaking rules, make sure it’s because it’s necessary and adds something, not just because it’s easier or you didn’t actually know the rules.

Nocturnal is a police procedural / 80s buddy cop movie / monster tale set in San Francisco. Sigler describes it as Lethal Weapon meets Hellboy. Read more about the story at scottsigler.com/nocturnal.


Blank-paper-in-typewriter-001 image, kori monster at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

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