medium_Sentence_FragmentsRemember your English classes? How many people suffered the rule of a Grammar Nazi? There are so many rules that my teachers had us commit to memory. When I began writing professionally, I discovered I’d been lied to. It was nearly as bad as learning Santa Claus didn’t exist. How could all those teachers have it wrong? Of course, they didn’t. As a writer improves, he is able to break the rules that the student must adhere to. One of my favorite rules to break is the fragment.

The fragment can break the rhythm of a long passage to startle or awaken the reader. It speeds the text to indicate moods of agitation or fear. It can break a mood or change it. Use of the fragment is a thin line to walk. Overuse takes away from its impact.

In fiction the most obvious use of fragments is in dialogue. People simply don’t talk in complete sentences. If you want your characters’ dialogue believable, the fragment is effective for adding to the nuances of true conversation. In The Innocent, Harlan Coben adds speed and tension to an exchange between two characters by offering fragmented bits of conversation.

“I insisted on seeing my daughter. So he set up a meet. That’s when I’m supposed to bring the rest of the money.”


“Tomorrow at midnight.”

“In Reno.”



“Again Nevada.”  (Coben 249)

Coben provides important information regarding a plot point while adding tension and speed to the prose. We are always eager to ‘show’ our characters through body language but sometimes it’s best to simply allow for rapid fire dialogue. The reader will follow and feel the rising tension without realizing you’ve done it solely through fragmented dialogue.

This is one great use of the fragment. We’ll look at another next week.

Do you use the fragment in dialogue?



Filed under Writing

10 responses to “Fragmented

  1. I can’t imagine dialogue without the fragment.

    • Unfortunately, I can. Beginner’s manuscripts suffer from it. However, it’s an easy problem to fix.

      • That’s not too surprising and yes it certainly is.

        On slightly different note, what bothers me is the amount of published books I see on the shelves that have poor writing. Hanging modifiers and sentences are what really itch me, for example: ‘Chris read the book, scratching his forehead, reached for the glass next to the table. Drank it.’ Grr -_-. That’s my rant!

      • Just to add, in my example there is a fragment, or a clipped sentence, but like you said: it’s use is a thin line to walk and works best in dialogue.

  2. Oh, my. That drags across all my nerve endings. The shame of it is fragments used well are so effective but used for no purpose or in error can destroy the prose.

  3. When I first got serious about writing, I carefully went back and corrected my fragments. Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? No. I lost the voice so much needed for hooking my readers. Now I still eliminate many, but keep the ones that make the story fly off the page.

  4. ‘Ignore all’ is my button of choice when spell-check highlights a fragment. However, your point on overuse is interesting, and I shall pay attention to when, where, how and why I am using this technique. Thanks

    • It was an exciting discovery for me to find that my fragments could carry more weight if I exercised restraint. This was difficult for me because I love fragments. Now, I allow them to flow in the first draft but then I question each one. If it doesn’t fit one of the four uses, I hit delete or rewrite a sentence.

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