Fragments are so versatile as a tool in prose. We’ve looked at a couple of ways to use them, and this week we look at another. Sometimes a writer wants to startle the reader after a period of calm or draw attention to a serious event. The fragment reminds the reader that what is happening is commonplace in the context of the story but not in life.
In Tim O’Brien’s short story, “The Things They Carried”, the reader focuses on soldiers and how the constant contact with death desensitized them. After reading passage after passage, a reader becomes somewhat like those soldiers, accustomed to the dark nature of war. Then, a friend, Lavendar, is killed and the reader experiences the graphic details of his death through the soldiers eyes. Through the use of fragment the death is truly made real, startling in its simplicity and intensity.
“Boom. Down. Nothing else” (O’Brien 55). Kiowa’s words reveal his shock and pulls the reader into the loss of a comrade. Within seconds, he repeats, “Boom-down,’ he said. Like cement” (O’Brien 56).
The reader is a witness to Kiowa processing his buddy’s death through the shock expressed by his fragmented thoughts expressed aloud.
Another way to startle the reader is to give them the unexpected using the fragment as an announcement of a change in motive or action. In Jodi Piccoult’s Nineteen Minutes, we read about a boy’s first hunting experience with his father. The boy waits patiently for the hunting trip. Never quite able to live up to his parent’s expectations, he hopes to gain his father’s respect. However, on his first experience, he finds himself falling short once more. Piccoult gives detailed descriptions of the moments leading up to the boy’s opportunity for redemption.
He could hear his father’s instructions as if they were being whispered aloud even now: Shoot underneath the front leg, low on the body. If you hit the heart, you’ll kill it instantly. If you miss the heart, you’ll get the lungs, so it will run for a hundred yards or so and then drop.
Then the deer turned and looked at him, eyes trained on Peter’s face.
Peter squeezed the trigger, sending the shot wide.
On purpose (Piccoult 157).
We believe the boy desperately wants this. He wants to shoot the gun; he is willing to shoot the deer. Then, when we think he is just a failure at this also, Piccoult startles us by revealing in two words Peter’s conscious choice to miss. He may have wanted to please his father and redeem himself; but when it matters, he makes a choice not to.
Fragments used to startle are only effective if used sparingly, as all fragments should be. Select them so they matter to the characters and to the reader.