Debunking Writing Myths–“Never use fragments, one-word sentences, or one-line paragraphs.”
Never use fragments, one-word sentences, or one-line paragraphs.
If it makes sense, works for the story you’re telling, and flows for you, use it.
I’m elbow-deep in judging entries in a national contest for unpublished authors right now.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.
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?