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Debunking Writing Myths–“Never use fragments, one-word sentences, or one-line paragraphs.”

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Never use fragments, one-word sentences, or one-line paragraphs.

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If it makes sense, works for the story you’re telling, and flows for you, use it.

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I’m elbow-deep in judging entries in a national contest for unpublished authors right now. And in so doing, it’s easy to see which writers use fragments, single words, and one-line paragraphs because they’ve seen it in published books and thought it looked cool—but it isn’t a natural part of their voice/style as a writer—and for which ones it flows naturally. Because when it’s something that is natural and comfortable for the author, the reader won’t even notice it.

I recently read a historical romance in which the author employed a purposeful technique of dividing up complex sentences into incomplete fragments. It got to the point where not only was it noticeable, it was jarring and got to be annoying after awhile—because all she needed was a conjunction or a verb and they would be complete sentences which would have flowed much better.

When fragments, one-word sentences, or one-line paragraphs are forced, it’s obvious. So how do we make this part of our writer’s toolbox?

Not everyone will. This may not be a technique that will work for every author. Most of us who employ this technique may not even realize we’ve done it until we go back and re-read what we wrote during the revision process. And sometimes, what we think works well as a fragment may not work for readers—because they don’t have the whole story and backstory running through their head as they’re reading the way we do.

But when they work, they really work.

Fragments, one-word sentences, and one-line paragraphs are very handy when there’s something important, something vital happening—and the author needs to punch home a point. Fragments and one-word sentences work well after long sentences. One-line paragraphs work well to break up a page of long paragraphs of narrative.

Let’s look at the opening paragraphs of Ransome’s Quest:

      No moon. Wispy clouds hid most of the stars. He could not have asked for a more perfect night. Before him, the house glowed like a lantern atop the hill. Behind him, his men waited for his command.

      Julia Witherington was back in Jamaica. Finally. The pirate paused a moment, trying to count the years—the ages, the epochs—he had been on the quest to strike back at Admiral Sir Edward Witherington.

      Julia was married—and had brought her husband here with her. The inimitable Commodore William Ransome. The admiral’s favorite; the man he’d taken publicly in hand as son long before Ransome married the admiral’s daughter. The one man in the world the pirate hated almost as much as the admiral.

And from later in the book:

      “You owe me a pair of boots, Miss Ransome.” Salvador tossed the waterlogged ones back into the privy. Suresh bustled about him, helping the captain don fresh hose and boots, a neckcloth, waistcoat, and his gold braid–adorned coat.

      Charlotte did not dare move throughout the proceeding. Once Salvador again resembled a Royal Navy commodore, he crossed to exit the cabin; but before he did, he turned and looked at her.

      Here it came—the rebuke for her action. Would he yell? Be deadly calm like William?

      “In that trunk, there”—he pointed to an ornate chest under the hammock she’d slept in—“you will find clothing you can borrow until yours dry.” He left the cabin, Suresh his silent shadow.

      Strange man.

      Unsure of when the pirate captain or his steward might return, Charlotte peeled out of her wet dress and crossed to kneel before the trunk. She lifted the lid, and a delicate scent of roses met her nose. Closing her eyes, she inhaled the scent, picturing herself in Lady Dalrymple’s rose garden again.

Sure, I could have made those all into complete sentences:

      There was no moon.
      Julia Witherington was back in Jamaica, finally.
      Julia was married—and had brought her husband, the inimitable Commodore William Ransome, here with her.
      Captain Salvador was such a strange man.

But see how they lose their impact that way?

Sometimes, I fight with these fragments and one-liners. Sometimes, they do come out initially as the less impactful full sentences—but that’s what the revision process is for. Sometimes, I write the fragment and when I go back and re-read it later, it doesn’t even make any sense to me. But for the most part, when I’ve lost myself in the flow of the writing, these things happen naturally—because my writer’s voice has taken over and drowned out the internal editor that tells me shouldn’t/can’t/don’t/never.

But I have to go back to why I first started using this technique. I started using this technique because it came naturally to me. I love long, drawn out, complex sentences. But I can’t structure every sentence that way. And sometimes, I just need to quip. And that’s what a fragment or one-line paragraph is. It’s the punch line. It’s the quip. Even if it’s not meant to be funny—even if it’s meant to be jarring or suspenseful. It’s the slam of a door, the bang of a gun. The piece you want to stick out for your readers to remember.

Fragments. Love them, hate them. They’re here to stay.

Do you notice it when authors use fragments, one-word sentences, and one-line paragraphs? Does it ever get to a point where it’s so noticeable it takes you out of the story? As a writer, have you ever struggled with this technique or tried to implement it even if it didn’t feel natural?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 7:18 am

    I do notice…but since I tend to think in fragments, it doesn’t bother me much at all. Unless it is excessive, if it contributes to the story, I don’t have a problem with it at all.

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    • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 2:55 pm

      Isn’t that the truth? Most of us tend to think in fragments and speak in run-on sentences. 😉

      Like

  2. Patty Smith Hall permalink
    Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:10 am

    I’m big on using fragments or one word sentences, mainly because that’s how I think. A fragment or one word can add punch where a complete sentence might drag the passage down. But I also think it’s important not to over do them–just a nice balance.

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    • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 2:56 pm

      I think that was one of the things that bothered me in that historical novel I read that overused the fragments. They weren’t used at times when the author seemed to need to increase the pacing or punch something home. The placement of them was odd, and smoother, whole sentences would have worked better.

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  3. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:36 am

    Kaye, First I want to thank you for responding to my comment on Jody Hedlund’s blog. I understood where you were coming from, with freshman writers coming down hard about rules and not always seeing the story beneath the rules. Excellent point.

    I love your points here, too. Jody wrote on her blog yesterday it’s wonderful to read a book and forget you are reading. You alluded to this, but when someone is structuring their work with fragment after fragment, it is too jarring and feels like a car stop/starting.

    Great thoughts here today!
    ~ Wendy

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 2:57 pm

      Great analogy with the car starting/stopping. And anyone who’s ever learned to drive a stick-shift car is very familiar with that jolting feeling.

      Like

  4. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:41 am

    I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone discuss this before and am so glad you did. Yes! I see it often and it drives me nuts, because it does not always work. Especially when the technique is overdone. When it does work, it adds to the story and I barely notice it. Well, I always notice it from a writer’s stand point, paying attention to how others use it. I use the technique at times, judiciously. In my novel, I used it more often with one of my characters because it was part of his voice (the strong, silent type). Using incomplete sentences was scary at first, and my text editor doesn’t like it! My personal editor (Mom) had to get used to it. But am careful with it because I am writing historical fiction and I have seen it misused in historicals where the voice came across choppy, clipped, snarky, and would have fit better if it was a contemporary novel. I think it all started with Max Lucado, but it doesn’t work for everyone. When it does work, such as the examples you shared, it makes a point. And it should, if we want something to stand out. (For instance: Gone. Dead. ) There’s nothing worse than over dramatizing or drawing attention to non-significant words or statements, but it can be very effective when done thoughtfully.

    Like

    • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 3:01 pm

      I’m glad you brought up the point about how it can affect the tone of a historical vs. a contemporary. One of the reasons I went to RQ for examples instead of one of the contemporaries is because I knew I’d find them in the contemporaries. I wanted to see how I’d used them in the historical. And it’s interesting (to me) that the two characters’ viewpoints I found them in easily were Salvador the pirate’s and seventeen-year-old Charlotte’s. I know I do it in all my characters’ viewpoints, but theirs seemed to lend themselves to it better.

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      • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:55 pm

        It is definitely an effective way to bring out a character’s voice. And once the voice is established is seems natural. Sometimes it get thrown in for effect and doesn’t fit. I think it’s a good idea to ask if it’s really working in each situation. I read a historical draft and the heroine spoke constantly in fragments and it made her so unlikeable. She sounded like she got to the historical from a chic lit through a time machine. Any way, you do it well, and I hope I am learning to follow your lead.

        Like

  5. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 11:14 am

    Your example, “strange man” in particular makes me feel closer in to the character’s POV. It’s her voice. It feels somewhere between narrative and internal thought. And it’s something that works for some POV characters more than others, I’ve found. It depends on their voice.

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    • Tuesday, March 29, 2011 3:02 pm

      Yes! I think if more writers would employ this type of deep internal thought instead of doing something like—What a strange man, she thought—they would get a better grasp on deep POV and readers would fall even deeper into the characters’ heads.

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  6. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 5:21 pm

    Im not sure I have noticed it before but will probably look for it now.

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  7. Tuesday, March 29, 2011 9:55 pm

    I’ve noticed it and I’ve used it. The only time it jars me out of the story is when it is used over and over and over. Used sparingly…and if it flows well…I think it does make a great impact on the feel of the words.

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  8. Wednesday, February 15, 2012 2:54 pm

    I always wondered who came up with all these “rules” I always hear banter around. I hear the don’t use fragments rule so often I want to scream.

    It’s writing. It’s art. Art is not about coloring inside the lines. So many successful and published authors use fragments that I wonder how well read those who say such things really are.

    Like

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  1. Flannery’s Favorites–Day 1 « KayeDacus.com
  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Debunking Writing Myths | KayeDacus.com

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