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.
Remember 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.”
“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?
It’s National Grammar Day. I am sure there are a few of us out there celebrating this. We talk a lot in my classes about this difficult language of ours. I cannot imagine learning it as a second language. So many rules all of which we break six ways from Sunday and rarely with good reason.
Our language is bizarre in so many ways. Just look at read. We read today, but we read yesterday. Look at that sentence in print and it looks fine, read it aloud, and the problem is obvious. How does a non-native speaker pick up on all those nuances?
We deboard a plane and defrock a priest, but we debut a novelist. Seriously? In the first, you are exiting, in the second you are robbing someone of something, and in the third you are bringing annointing someone special. All with the prefix de- meaning separation.
And pronunciation won’t save you. A nook (well, before Barnes and Noble anyway) is a small space but a kook is someone off their rocker. A non-English speaker would expect that double “o” sound to be the same; but of course, it’s not.
Then there’s that whole article thing. We can’t make it easy and say use a consonant with a and a vowel with an. No, we have to say use a consonant SOUND so instead of looking for the letter, we have to sound it out. Okay for a native speaker but again, hell if you’re learning this language first time around.
She wore a ring. Consonant sound = a
She sliced an onion. Vowel Sound = an
Happy National Grammar Day!