For example – “Went to the beach.”
This phrase has no subject. It doesn’t reveal who went to the beach. It is a fragment.
In recent years I have noticed an increase in the use of fragments in written storytelling. It has become popular as a narrative device because, or so the authors believe, it quickens the pace of the story and provides more of a stream-of-consciousness feel.
I think not, and I will explain.
Fragments are appropriate for use in dialogue and interior monologue because people often speak and think in fragments. I do not think, however, that fragments are appropriate for narrative sections of stories.
Narrative is where the author tells readers what is happening. “Went to the beach” would be in a narrative section unless it was spoken or thought by a character.
Here is a longer example of narrative text:
The sun descended below the horizon. Waves lapped against the shore, and seagulls rode the wind with outstretched wings. Ben walked through the sand, his feet bare in spite of the cool breeze. A gull waddled up and bit his toes. Ben kicked it and grinned as the bird fluttered away.
Such narrative is easy to understand. Each sentence has a subject and a verb.
Here is how a fragment writer might render the same narrative:
Sun at the horizon. Waves and seagulls. Ben with bare feet. Cold breeze. Kicked a gull. Grinned.
When readers see this, their minds have to reconstruct the thoughts and figure out what is missing. Is the sun rising or setting? What are the waves and seagulls doing? Who kicks the gull? Did Ben grin or did someone else grin, someone who might be watching?
The answers might come to readers in a split second, but that tiny pause actually slows the reading process. It harms the pace and interrupts the stream of thought. It can confuse and puzzle readers, potentially jerking them out of the story.
Here is an example of a narrative fragment from a work-in-progress someone sent to me.
The third one paused. Sniffed the air.
“Sniffed the air” is a narrative fragment. It has no subject. Who sniffed the air? Most likely “the third one,” whoever it was. But it could been the point-of-view character who sniffed the air to see if “the third one” was emanating a tell-tale odor. Readers might figure out the correct answer quickly, but the pause to do so slows the story and harms the stream of consciousness.
Why would authors want to take the risk when the perceived benefits of narrative fragments don’t really exist and the potential risks are real? I think they should not.
On the other hand, fragments can be put to good use in interior monologue, like this:
Ben stared at a crab skittering across the sand. A fiddler crab? Maybe. Too dark to tell. Would his toes be in danger? Not to worry. The first-aid kit was in the car only a hundred yards away.
This paragraph begins with a complete narrative sentence that introduces interior monologue. Then the text describes Ben’s thoughts in all their fragmented glory. Yet, it is easy to understand because the thought pattern is connected and properly transitioned without need of explanation.
With narrative, the author tells what’s going on, and the reader needs subjects and verbs that don’t require a pause for interpretation. Narrative is supposed to paint the scene, so precise communication is important.
When an author writes with an intimate point of view, however, sometimes the boundary between narrative and interior monologue can blur. What might be called narrative can actually be what a character is thinking, and in such cases, fragments can be appropriate. In order to employ interior monologue fragments properly, an author needs to recognize the difference between true narrative and interior monologue that takes on a narrative purpose, that is, describing what is going on.
Here is an example of interior monologue that tells what’s going on (from a fellow writer’s work in progress):
There—through a gap in the trees where another ridge jutted up in the southern distance. Pale bodies coming this way. Heading toward the castle.
Fragments are appropriate here, because these are fragmented thoughts that flow directly from the point-of-view character, and since they describe what is going on, they are narrative in purpose. This is a blurring of the narrative/interior monologue boundary.
Most recent novels I have seen employ narrative fragments, making me assume that my opinion is in the minority. Yet, I can assure you that if you follow my advice to shun narrative fragments, your prose will be clearer and will avoid the problems that such fragments can cause.
Categories: Writing Tips