Tag Archives: Fragments

Fragments Foreshadowing

I meant to finish up with fragments last week but life intervened, and I had to “deal” with those crises. Now, I’m back to finish the talk of fragments with my favorite use of fragments: foreshadowing.

In Nineteen Minutes, Josie’s biggest issues are her nonexistent relationship with her mother and fights with her boyfriend, Matt. After making up with him after a fight, she feels good about life.

“I’m lucky, she told herself, the word streaming like a silver ribbon through her mind. Lucky, lucky, lucky” (Piccoult 10).

Within hours–pages in the book–Matt will be dead along with nine other people she knows, Josie in the hospital and her world forever altered. The refrain of a one word fragment foreshadows the irony of what happens to Josie and her life.

A fragment can be used within the action emphasizing the moment where an event occurs that starts a chain of events in motion that foreshadows the complicated levels of an event of simplicity. In The Innocent, two young men are leaving a frat party when something silly becomes something not funny at all.

That is when some of his beer spills. Not a lot. Just a splash. But it’s enough (Coben 2).

That splash leads to a fight, which becomes involuntary manslaughter, which means a prison sentence for the main character. The short fragments foreshadow tragic events to come in the story of Matt Hunter and emphasize the trivial nature of the inciting event, a simple beer spill–not even a lot–which leads to a significant life change for Matt.

The fragment, long the bane of grammarians everywhere, is also the stylistic equivalent of an exclamation point for the writer. It provides style opportunities for adding a layer of simple to complex distinctions. It adds a level of fear or concentration or rhythm. The fragment is one of the writer’s tools and if used effectively can bring the reader and writer to a common understanding. If not used correctly, the reader is too aware of its presence. We walk a delicate balance when using this tool in our prose.


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Fragments: Startle with Purpose

medium_Sentence_FragmentsFragments 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.



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Emphatic Fragments

medium_Sentence_Fragments Fragments are a delight to use when they serve a purpose. Last week I discussed the use of fragments in dialogue to lend realism to the speech patterns of characters. This week we’ll explore  its use to provide emphasis or impact. A writer acts much like a magician with a bit of sleight of hand. In this case, a fragment can be used to draw the reader’s attention to an important story element or object without being obvious. These fragments can come in dialogue, narration, or internal thought.

In The Innocent, Coben’s character, in a more playful exchange with his wife, repeats only part of her comment to place emphasis where he wants it.

“The video only lasts fifteen seconds.”

“Fifteen seconds.” He considered that, shrugged, and said, “So we’ll extend foreplay” (Coben 19).

Fragments are frequently used to play up the intensity of a situation. In “Bullet in the Brain,” Tobias Wolff writes of a man’s dying moments and the intensity of his thoughts, his memories. These fragments emphasize the beauty of one moment in time in the man’s life.

“This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects…” (Wolff 161).

In the intensity of death, the character sees pictures in his mind that represent fragments of memory. The reader feels the intensity of the shorter phrases surrounded by the more detailed description of the overall story.

Prose can speak or it can sing. The writer’s use of fragments can determine how well the story sings.


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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?


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