Narrative Fragments

A fragment is a phrase that poses as a sentence but is missing either a subject or a verb.

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.

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30 replies

  1. Great post! A lot of us aspiring authors need to work on this, and some multi-published authors too, I reckon.

    What do you think of narrative that purposefully employs fragments for poetic style? Or for an especially intimate POV (perhaps first person, stream of consciousness) where much of the narrative will be blurred like you mentioned? I don’t think I’ve ever written a full story like that, but I’ve read a few.

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    • Each time you use a fragment, you risk confusion. You have to be careful that readers will understand what you are leaving out without even the slightest pause. You, as the author, always know what is left out, but not so for readers.

      That’s why I recommend avoiding fragments in narrative, even if you are striving for poetic style. I prefer clarity over style.

      Even with extreme POV intimacy that blurs the boundaries, you can have the same risk. Proceed with caution.

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  2. The first examples of fragmenting you mentioned definitely do sound off, and it’s hard to imagine someone trying to write a whole book like that. ‘The third one paused. Sniffed the air.’ especially throws me off since it’d sound so much better if those sentences were combined (The third one paused and sniffed the air).

    I do agree that writing sometimes benefits from using fragments in the same manner as the last two examples you used, though. The example with the fiddler crab is a style I like to read and write.

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    • I have not seen anyone attempt to write an entire novel with fragments. They seem to come and go throughout the story, and I usually can’t figure out the reason for them at any point versus not using them at other points.

      The example with the fiddler crab is how I write interior monologue. When you use a complete (non-fragment) introductory narrative statement that draws a reader to an intimate POV with the character, then you are free to explore that character’s thoughts, including his or her fragmented thoughts.

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      • Have the novels that use fragments poorly been YA novels? I haven’t been reading many of those lately, but a lot of times when people complain about weird writing trends it seems to be a writing trend that’s gotten popular within mainstream YA.

        Haven’t thought about breaking down the style of the fiddler crab example in that way before this article, but your explanation as to why it works makes a lot of sense.

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        • Autumn, I see it mostly in YA and some adult thrillers. I guess it’s common in genres where the author is trying to ratchet up the suspense.

          Mr. D, you hit on something I’ve been wondering about. Is it better to write IM as part of the narrative, like in the crab example, or to italicize?

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          • Tracey,

            You italicize quoted thoughts and leave described thoughts without italics.

            In my earlier novels, I used italicized, quoted thoughts quite often, but I have drawn away from that in more recent works. Now I like to reserve quoted thoughts for dramatic or punctuated effect.

            I think I have a blog post on that topic. I will look around and see.

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          • Hmmm. I can’t find a post about it, but I did post a comment about it as follows:

            It is proper to italicize quoted thoughts but not described thoughts. It is true that more editors are frowning on quoted thoughts, and I don’t use them as often as I used to, but it is not wrong to use them.

            A quoted thought expresses the exact words a character is thinking at the moment, and you write it in present tense. A described thought is written in past tense but it isn’t the exact words that are thought.

            Described thought:

            George closed the front door. The click signaled the end of their relationship

            Quoted thought:

            George closed the front door. Well, that’s the end of our relationship. (the second sentence would be in italics)

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            • Makes sense. Sometimes I wonder if I overuse quoted thoughts. That’s something I’ll keep an eye on when I have time to edit my WIP again.

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          • The thing about using a lot of quoted/italicized thoughts is that they interrupt the story/narrative a lot and sound a bit unnatural. Making thoughts part of the narrative probably breaks readers out of the story less. It’s also more realistic, since most of people’s thoughts tend to just flow and exist as things they notice and feelings they have, rather than specific words that get quoted in their minds. From that standpoint, I agree with only using quoted/italicized thoughts for emphasis, like Mr. Davis mentions.

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        • I have seen the wide use of narrative fragments in both adult and YA categories. I don’t know where the fad began.

          I explore the method in the blog beginning here – http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/06/22/writing-point-of-view-part-5-exploring-a-characters-thoughts/

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  3. I believe I’ve used fragmented sentences in various projects as a method of building suspense, but, from what I recall, I don’t think they have been bad narrative fragments like the examples you gave. I generally combine them with short paragraphs to create suspense; I suppose I’ll need to re-evaluate that technique.

    Would you say there are any other acceptable uses for sentence fragments besides what you mentioned? I’ve used in one story during a dream sequence so as not to give away the character’s whole backstory at that point, since I would tell it in real time later. Is that method okay? Does it depend on the context of each use?

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    • I think all narrative fragments are “bad” fragments. If readers have to pause (even for microseconds) to figure out what is missing, then suspense is harmed, not enhanced.

      I think the only acceptable uses of fragments would be in dialogue and interior monologue, as I mentioned in the post. If you provide an example of a use that you’re wondering about, I will try to comment on it.

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      • Yeah, I should’ve specified that I’m fairly certain I’ve only used fragments for dialogue and interior monologue, rather than for narrative purposes. I’ll be sure to be careful with the technique, regardless.

        Here’s an example of fragments that I used in a dream sequence (I later worked them into the scene when it was happening in real time):

        “Wake up . . .”
        A pulse of pain.
        “Awake . . .”
        Cold feeling on his skin.
        “You came too close.”
        A scream.
        “So they will pay.”
        Another.
        “With their lives.”
        A third.
        “All but one.”
        A hollow silence.
        “Meet my demands.”
        The groaning of wood.
        “Or more blood will stain the rocks.”
        Slipping into darkness.
        He revives.
        Confused.
        Desperate.
        Frantic.
        Trying to get help.
        Mockery.
        Anger.
        A dawning realization.
        Shadowy figure.
        Sharp pain.
        Nothing.
        He wakes.
        “Play with fire . . .”
        A ferocious sensation.
        Burning, burning, burning.
        Struggling.
        “You thought you could sneak behind our backs?”
        A torrent of blows.
        “We are shadows; we are always behind you.”
        Struggling to breathe.
        “Now do as I have ordained.”
        Everything crumbling.
        “It is your gauntlet to wear…”
        His vision fades.

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        • Some of these are narrative fragments, and some are not. A few aren’t fragments at all.

          Some of the narrative fragments that would bother me are as follows:

          “A pulse of pain” – I wonder who is feeling the pulse and what it does.

          “Cold feeling on his skin.” – What about the cold feeling?

          “A scream.” – Who screamed? Or what did the scream do?

          “Another.” – What?

          These would cause me to put the book down and not pick it up again.

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          • Okay, good to know. Thanks for taking the time to give a bit of feedback, Mr. Davis. 🙂

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          • Mr. Davis, I have a question about this. Some of those examples seem that they might add a bit of mystery to the plot. It makes you wonder who felt the pulse of pain, what the cold feeling was, who screamed. The fragment, “another”, was confusing to me, but the others seemed fine as long as they were explained later on. In my opinion, as a reader, these questions make me think and my mind tries to piece them together to see if I can figure it out. I like that kind of narrative. It helps me get into the story and raises questions that I want answered, so I keep reading. Overall, I guess I am still slightly confused as to why these types of fragments stall the plot rather than move it forward.

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            • Shelby,

              You ask good questions.

              Raising mystery is a crucial element in storytelling, but that is easily done without fragments. Fragments often create confusion, not mystery. There is a big difference.

              The key to mystery is to raise questions, and fragments aren’t needed to achieve that goal.

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              • Okay, that makes sense. In theory, they can be used, but it’s better to do without them. I’ll remember that for my own writing! Thank you for your quick feedback!

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            • I suppose I assumed that after saying “A scream,” people would realize that “Another” meant another scream. But that’s the danger; as an author, it’s easy to assume that just because we understand something, our readers will understand it too. That’s not to say we should dumb our stories down, but rather pay attention to feedback on how things are worded.

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              • Perhaps to make readers understand this point you could say something along the lines of “Another scream echoed off the walls” or something similar to explain what “another” meant. Otherwise, I really liked this piece. It definitely made me want to read more and find out what happens! Good job!

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        • One thing this makes me wonder, in relation to the fragment thing, is how aware the character is in the dream sequence. Each of those fragments could probably have a little more detail attached to them to give the reader a more solid idea of how it feels. One of the first things described is a pulse of pain, but we have no idea what kind of pain or why it would make him scream so many times, especially after a random cold sensation.

          ‘The groaning of wood’, for instance, would be a little more clear if it was changed to something like ‘Wood groaning beneath someone’s steps’ or ‘The groaning of wood beneath shifting feet’, which would indicate the wood groaned because the enemy or whatever is walking around this character.

          I’m also wondering why the screams came after the cold sensation, rather than the pulse of pain. Or why the fragments are still occurring after it says he revives. Even if he isn’t aware of much and feels confused, it still feels like there’s steps missing in this sequence. The sensations he does perceive probably remind him of something as well, so his mind would probably realistically place them in some sort of context. In the wood example, the sound reminds him of a floor creaking under someone’s feet, so in that example, that’s the idea his mind assigned to that noise.

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          • While it is indeed a dream the character is having, perhaps a more accurate term would be a flashback. He is experiencing a couple of painful memories through a dream, in a fragmented state. And while we don’t really understand what’s happening now, we do later on when he’s talking about it with someone and I show it in real time. For example:

            -“A pulse of pain” becomes “A pulse of pain shot through Byron’s skull.”

            -“The groaning of wood” becomes “The [man’s] finger moved to the last [wooden] device, which was groaning in the wind.”

            -“Cold feeling on his skin” is revealed to be manacles on his wrists when he revives from unconsciousness.

            -The screams are not his own, but rather his family’s as they’re murdered.

            So the scene is meant to evoke curiosity rather than utter confusion, as it all makes sense later. Do keep in mind that I wrote this story a few years ago, so I may use a different method/make better use of this method when I rewrite it.

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            • Hm…maybe describe things in a way that leaves it mysterious, but still gives the audience more of a reference? ‘Cold feeling on his skin’ could instead be ‘Cold feeling on his wrists’ or ‘Cold feeling on his forearms’

              Part of it depends on what you want the reader to imagine at this stage, though. With the cold feeling part, the possibilities I imagined were ice, a blade, or maybe just that all the air in the room started feeling cold or something. I probably wouldn’t imagine manacles, since the inside of the manacles would have probably warmed up with body heat if they’ve been worn a while.

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              • Those are some good points. Thanks for taking the time to give some feedback! I think that, when I eventually rewrite this story, I’m going to change the dream sequence entirely. Never when we dream do we experience a perfect, beat-by-beat remembrance of past events. It’ll always look different. I could probably toy around with that and get a better result.

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  4. Some comments mentioned the desire to raise mystery at the beginning, which is an excellent goal. The problem comes when we cause confusion rather than mystery.

    Narrative fragments are not necessary to raise mystery, and they always carry the risk of confusion, so why use them? I started reading a new release from a major publisher that contained many narrative fragments. I was so confused by the end of chapter one that I had to quit. I truly had no idea what was going on.

    The key to raising mystery is to cause readers to ask questions that they want answered. This blog post mentions that concept – http://www.theauthorschair.com/2015/01/05/in-the-beginning-how-to-start-a-story-part-1/

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  5. Thank you Bryan for taking the time to post things like this. I really appreciate your summary of what has probably taken you years of journeying as a writer. This is encouraging to me, because by learning from others I can accelerate faster in my education.

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