Sunday, December 13, 2009

Fragments redux

Coming from comments on the last post:

Fragments make sense in deep POV, but I've read that editors will 'repair' them, killing the voice. Is that still true?

Deb, thanks for letting me talk about one of my favorite subjects! I could go on and on and on....
(I can just imagine the other commenters:
"Deb, did you HAVE to mention fragments? You know she's going to rant--"
"That's what Deb wants! She thinks it's funny to poke that stick at Alicia and run away."
"She knows that Alicia has final grades to get filed, and she thinks it's fun to distract her!"
"Deb is pretty smart."
"As long as we don't actually have to read this long rant -- oh, and she's going to do another one!-- about fragments.")

SOMETIMES fragments work -- not in deep POV specifically, but when you are narrating using the character voice (kind of first-person but with the third-person pronoun). Surely not all character voices are full of fragments. I mean, if I'm deep in the POV and voice of an erudite British Oxford don, fragments probably don't make sense-- this guy probably was speaking in full grammatical paragraphs at age 3. Deep POV isn't a set of rules (like "use lots of fragments" :) but a writer's approach to presenting the character, and when you commit to that, you commit to presenting -this- character, and that can mean using this character's voice (that's actually a further choice-- most deep POV narrations these days will be in the character's voice, but that's a rather recent trend, and some authors-- Koontz comes to mind-- can do deep POV and still be mostly in their own authorial voice. Maybe we should discuss that later).

And so does this character exist-- not just think-- in fragments? Deep POV and character voice are not simply "in the mind and thoughts." Deep POV is NOT stream-of-consciousness. I wrote a post on stream of consciousness, which was an important literary trend in the start of the 20th Century. Often when writers today talk about deep POV, they act like they mean stream-of-consciousness (which is being in the MIND at this MOMENT of the character, while -- in my definition-- deep POV is being in the character, who is more than just his mind). If you read Ulysses and Finnegan's Wake and the other famous s-o-c books, you'll see the danger of replicating the inner workings of the mind-- often it's just about unreadable.

Very, very few books actually get in there and report the inner thoughts as they happen. (Most of us don't even think primarily in words anyway-- we think in memory blasts and images and associations as much as we think in words. So even trying to convey thoughts in words is modifying these to make them readable.) That's partly because actual thought -- even in words-- is unreadable: illogical, dissociative, and spastic. But it's also because that sort of narration can be boring and unfocused on what the reader is reading for, which is probably not those flashes of memory occasioned by the sight of snow, but, you know, the story.

In fact, in deep POV, we are NOT replicating the inner workings of the mind. We are instead trying to create an experience FOR THE READER (the reader is all-important) of being this character, and this character is more than his mind, and what counts is not exact replication but how you go to create the experience for the reader.

And the first rule is: Don't narrate in ways that make the reader stop reading, because she can't be this character if she can't bear to read the scene. :)

Now obviously different readers have different reasons to stop reading. I get bored with a lot of "world-building," where other readers love that. But keep in mind that most readers are comfortable with a certain degree of syntactical conventionality that is useful when conveying the scene in written language. We do expect capital letters at the start of sentences, and quote marks around dialogue (though we can adapt-- there are some books without one or the other of those that even I, hidebound pragmatist that I am, have got through).

So we might always think about the concessions we're already making to the conventions of written language. Most of us don't think putting a capital letter at the start of a sentence interferes with our "voice", right? And once we start accepting that some conventions just make it easier for the reader to get into our story (because they're not being distracted by relatively meaningless departures from convention), we can start evaluating which breaks from convention are helpful when in creating the right experience for the reader.

(And one way, btw, to seduce readers into accepting your syntactical innovations is to ease them into it, maybe have the start of the book fairly conventional, and add in innovations where they work most effectively. For example, deep POV is often more effective in high-emotion and high-action moments, but not necessarily so helpful in conveying information about the setting or situation, which is why often we do that at the beginning of the scene in a somewhat more distant POV. So we should realize that deciding to do a book in deep POV doesn't mean that we always need to be in deep POV at every moment-- rather when it deepens the reader's experience.)

So onto fragments, and it's interesting how often this comes up. Some fragments are "voice," "character." Some are just the writer being lazy or defiant, frankly. Sometimes the editor can tell which fragments add to the story and the voice, and which just annoy... but do you want the editor having to make that decision? Especially as many editors will fix all of them? (House style, remember, is going to trump "voice" every time. Sorry. But reality trumps desire on this blog, at least once in a while. :)

The best way to make sure that the character's voice is kept in there is NOT to overuse the more annoying,I mean innovative, aspects of voice. Use fragments when they count, not all the time. If we're judicious about when some break with convention really does add to the reader's experience, we're far more likely to slip it by the editor-- I mean, the editor is more likely to read this as a moment where the character is particularly emotional or in tune or whatever. The editor might not let it go if the narration always fragments sentences, if there are fragments regardless of which character is in viewpoint, if there is no distinction in sentence construction between highly emotional moments and more thoughtful moments. Sin judiciously, and you're more likely to get away with it. :) Okay, let's put that another way. If you construct sentences and paragraphs in ways that add to the reader's experience, that make the experience exciting, deep, whatever that passage calls for, then the editor might go with it and allow it.

(Again, this is not necessarily entirely a choice the editor gets to make... and the copy editor might have some control here too. So keep that in mind -- that's the price of having your work pass through two or three editors as is customary and usually helpful in so many publishing houses. If you don't want that, well, there are places to publish that don't have editing.)

Now there is character voice, which is often related to deep POV but not the same thing. After all, first-person narration is definitely "character voice," but might or might not be very deep POV. In fact, a lot of first-person narrations are deliberately deceptive, which might mean keeping the reader OUT of the narrator's mind.

So what if your character's voice is all fragmentary? Hmm. Well, the tradeoff for the authenticity might be unreadability. If you don't want that trade, I'd certainly think of being in a more restrained (authorial) voice and/or a less deep level of POV for most of the book, and only in the fragmentary POV/voice when I want to give some sense of what he sounds like or what his mind is like. Just because he has a unique voice doesn't mean that's the best voice to use in narrating everywhere. I'm thinking of the lovely book Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale, which actually has a hero who thinks fragmentarily (he's had a stroke). Kinsale has a few passages (very emotional moments) in that voice, but most of the book is in the heroine's voice or a restrained and eloquent author voice (Kinsale has a wonderful voice).

Not to say that a book can't explore the unusual voice. But if the book isn't ABOUT that voice (as Ulysses really was about the narrative/voice experimentation), does the whole story benefit from being told in that voice?

Back to fragments--
A fragment is really just another type of sentence-- an incomplete one. And just like any sentence form, a fragment will work in some situations (and some constructions) but not others. If you have a good editor who is sensitive to this, yes, she's probably going to take the ones that don't work (and with many writers, that's most of the fragments, because most of their sentences are incomplete). That might or might not "kill the voice".

There isn't some blanket allowance-- "Fragments are allowed in this book!" or "Fragments are part of my voice!" Fragments in and of themselves don't work anymore than rolling through a four-way stop on the road works. They work when they work-- when they're right for this moment and this passage and this character and this moment. My saying, "Sometimes a fragment works," doesn't mean always. Sometimes, say at 2 am, on a deserted road, when there are no cars anywhere around and most important no police cars, it works to roll through that four-way stop. That doesn't mean that every four-way stop sign can be ignored if we feel brazen today. :)

Too many writers use deep POV as an excuse to fragment too many sentences. There is still the need to communicate to the reader in a language and syntax the reader can understand (this is why the French character thinks in English :). That should be "easily understand" if you are not meaning to write the more narratively and syntactically complex innovations of the more extreme literary fiction. Do you want the reader to have to study your passages to discern the meaning? Then that's the more narratively and syntactically complex, etc., and I'm not talking about that sort of fiction. I'm talking about fiction that is meant to tell a story about these characters, which is what most of us write.

Also, some types of fragments are easier to "hear" than others. The ones that are actual fragments-- that is, fragmentary elements, incompleted thoughts, bits of information-- do in fact convey that bittiness that gives a particular staccato feel to the narration. What doesn't usually work for me is when the writer just breaks off part of a sentence, like this:
He headed for the door. Which was closed.

Now there can be some reason to break that off. But more often, there just isn't. The writer just adds that afterthought, and there's really no meaning reason to keep it separate from its sentence. (Really, most of the fragments I see in submission are like that, and I think that sort of fragment gives them all a bad rep. :) If you can join the fragment to an adjacent sentence without altering the meaning, why not do that?

And "sentence and paragraph construction" is key here. Fragments are a part of a whole, not just apart from that whole. They might not be part of a sentence, but they are part of a paragraph. They only work if they work in that paragraph or in the larger passage. The question is-- why is this thought or info presented in a fragment? What is the reason for the incompleteness? That's important. That's essential, in fact.

For example, let's say I'm writing a passage where the character is describing the setting of her 10th year high school reunion and how it makes her feel. A lot of fragments-- bits of this and bits of that-- can work, if the character is feeling fragmented, if she can't focus, if she's distracted by something else.
Back again. The high school gym. The strobe light flashing intermittently, illuminating her old classmates, the ones who bothered to come, and hurting her eyes. The streamers from the last prom and the smell of basketball-team sweat. And Johnny, still mysterious, still elusive, standing in the shadows near the exit. The silver-foil sign-- "Welcome Class of '99!" -- the message missing the comma. The timorous teen band in the corner, laboring away at old N'Sync hits.

But there should be a reason for the bittiness, like the presence of her high-school boyfriend distracting her. And I notice that even with that, I'm selecting and revising. Here are my revision thoughts, dictated by my left brain right this moment:
Johnny ought to be at the end of the paragraph, not in the middle. I like the sweat thing, but the rest of the paragraph is mostly visual (N'Sync isn't, maybe put those together, before the strobe light?), so I might find some visual bit to replace it. I don't like all those participles in that third sentence, so I might use "flashed" instead of "flashing," thereby making this a sentence. :) I'd worry also about the sign because the punctuation isn't exactly right (needs a comma before "message", but that doesn't work with the dash... must find a way to fix that because it will always bother me). The "old N'Sync hits" is summary, not this very moment-- they'd be playing only one song this moment. So Google and find an old N'Sync song they're playing right now. Be in the moment. What's happening right this moment, not the whole evening? Also, I might start with "She was back again" or "Tracy was back again," just because that feels better. Anyone can be back again. And without a subject, the reader might think I mean "the high school gym is back again," and that's not what I mean. SHE is back again. In the high... (should I have "In the high school gym?" I don't know. That sounds sort of clunky and directive). Okay, you know, I really want to be all fragmenty and flirty, but the truth is, I think that opening should be "She was back again in the high school gym." In fact, you know, if I'm in deep POV, would I think "the high school?" What do I think when I think of my old high school? I actually think "BHS," don't I? I mean, "the high school" could refer to any high school, but the school she went to isn't any high school. It's very specific. So how about "She was back again in the BHS gym"?

(Yes, my left brain thinks in parentheticals and emoticons.)

So, point is, my immediate drafting voice might start out with all fragments, but my revising voice starts knitting things together, shaping the passage (most important thing last), connecting thoughts, all that. That's actually ME, not the character. The character might not care all that much about having the sensory detail presented coherently (visual first with the strobe light illumination), but I do, because I think the reader likes the more logical presentation, so she can assemble it into a coherent picture.

But I would still end up with some fragments in there. And I'd keep them because they added to the paragraph somehow, not because they're fragments and because the first time I drafted this they were there, and therefore they're my "voice". Actually, my voice is more in the revising than the drafting-- even if I get it right in the drafting, I will know that because I try to revise it and can't make it better.

So-- long post, as per usual. But if there's anything to come out of this, it's -- fragments are part of an entire whole-- the paragraph, the passage, the scene. Does this particular fragment add something to this paragraph? Does -being a fragment-- add to the meaning? There's nothing inherently cool about fragments. If this one works, it works. But it works because it works, not because it's a fragment. So if I say, "Fragments are okay," I don't mean every fragment is fine by nature. Think of it rather as another type of sentence. All forms of sentences are okay... in some situations. Is this right for this situation? There's no blanket endorsement here. It's all about the context. (And to some degree, it's about the writer's skill-- some can pull off stunts I wouldn't want lesser writers to try at home. :)



Shelby said...

So, what you're saying is, there are absolutely no absolutes in writing.. :)

It has to do with the context of it all.. the package as a whole.

...and less adverbs.

Edittorrent said...

Shelby, yes, there are absolutes, but they change all the time. :)

I am a modifier-lover, alas, so I like adverbs. In their place. And deftly chosen. But innovative and sensitive stylists can make almost anything work.

Anassa said...

I have a character who narrates in about 30% full sentences, 70% fragments, and that's very definitely his voice, not mine. I struggled with it initially. He speaks like so:

Snowing today. It's been threatening long enough. Was getting impatient. Commute's gonna be longer, though.

He's not the only narrator. The other one is almost entirely full sentences, and gets most of the narration too. But I still have a problem, don't I? *sigh*

Dave Shaw said...

I rarely write fragments outside of conversations and internal thoughts, and even there I'm sparing of them, so I guess this is a minor problem for me. Still, it's interesting to see Alicia's revision thought process.

Anassa, in your passage the only thing that doesn't work for me is 'Was getting impatient.' Would he really think that phrase, rather than something more immediate like 'About time!' or 'Finally.' or 'Took it long enough.'? The last would require changing the sentence before, of course. The rest seems natural enough to work, at least out of context like this. Just my opinion, of course. ;-)

Anassa said...

Thanks for the opinion, Dave. The passage I gave was inspired by the view out my window, so it's a bit of a free write. That said, you're probably right. A different expression would likely work better. I'm glad you followed the rest, though!

Anonymous said...

Well, you know, you have to decide. It's not a big deal to put "I" in front of that "Was getting impatient", is it? Why not find the fragments that can easily be made into sentences, and make a few of those sentences? So the fragments that remain are GOOD fragments that aren't just incomplete sentences, but meant to be fragments? The problem isn't so much fragment, actually, but SHORT. Too many short elements in a line might make it sound staccato and sort of sing-songy. Think about connecting some of those very short elements to make longer elements if you think the rhythm might be annoying--
Snowing today-- it's been threatening long enough. Glad it finally came. Was getting impatient. ....

Just keep in mind that you have to negotiate between the authentic character voice and the readable voice, and that is something you might experiment with. You should never feel, however, that you have to stick with whatever this hard-bitten guy dictated to you. Yeah, it might be his voice, but it's your book. :)

It's good that the other POV character doesn't use many fragments, because this will help distinguish them.

Anonymous said...

Dave's thoughts about "was getting impatient" are much better than mine. Yes, "About time!" sounds more realistic.

Moose said...

Yes, indeed, "about time" is more realistic.

Deb Salisbury, Magic Seeker and Mantua-Maker said...

Hurray for rants! ;-)

You've answered all my questions and concerns: Handle fragments with care. And if I use only a few, my heart won't get broken if an editor 'fixes' them.


Leona said...

woah. I go to work for one day and you all have to send Alicia on a rant. I'm so exhausted I can't even finish it. However, I'm starting to believe she reads minds because she often says I'm going to say X and lo and behold I was thinking X. I'm a terrible fragmenter. I always put a period at the end of the main thought and fragment the explainer. I've had to edit for that quite strongly.:(

**sigh, Nevertheless, despite many posts on many things, it has never hurt me to hear it again. Wish I could wave my magic wand and all my troublesome habits would go away.

Eva Gale said...

I think I use them sparingly. Now I'm worrying. I'll have to check. I DO use them though-mostly for dialog and as an exclamation to a thought.

Dialog is one of those words that if you stare at it long enough you'd swear it was spelled wrong.

Jami Gold said...


Yes, I know that "dialog" is an accepted variant of "dialogue", but I always spell it the longer way because it matches "monologue". :)

I don't usually do fragments too much. However, I've been known to do dashes between the main clause and the explanatory clause all the time in my first drafts. Luckily, that's pretty easy to fix in revisions. :)

Jami G.

Alicia said...

Jami, there's also "catalog". We should discuss how to spell that red tomato stuff we put on hot dogs. Do you start with a K or a C?

Leona, this: "I always put a period at the end of the main thought and fragment the explainer." is a really good way to term it-- "the explainer".


Jami Gold said...


I wonder if some of these spelling differences are regional (like soda vs. pop vs. coke vs. soda pop - I saw a map once with the US usage distribution, very interesting). I use "pop", "catalog", and "ketchup", and I grew up in the Midwest, if that means anything. :)

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

'Soda', 'catalog', 'ketchup' - Vermont/New York border area. Is that the Deep North? The folks here in South Carolina (northern edge of the Deep South) think I don't put enough syllables in my words.

alicia said...

I remember when I lived in Boston, what I called "pop," and everyone else calls "soda," they called "tonic."

Ketchup. :)


Jami Gold said...


I found the website ( with the map. The study itself (off the main page) mentions: Other, lesser-used terms include ‘dope’ in the Carolinas and ‘tonic’ in and around Boston, both fading in popularity. Other generic terms for soft drinks outside the US include ‘pop’ (Canada), ‘mineral’ (Ireland), ‘soft drink’ (New Zealand and Australia). The term ‘soft drink’, finally, arose to contrast said beverages with hard (i.e. alcoholic) drinks.

I just find stuff like this fascinating. I wonder if Heinz has different 'K' vs. 'C' packaging in different parts of the country (like Best Foods and Hellmans)?

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Okay, let's everyone go check our refrigerator for the spelling:

Ketchup (Midwest).

You know, they actually have Tomato Ketchup on the label. Are there other kinds of ketchup?

Or is that like "au jus sauce?" Doesn't "Ketchup" mean "Tomato-ey Condiment?"

Alicia clearly wasting your time

Jami Gold said...

Oh, Alicia, you'll be very sorry you asked this question, as I have Googled way too much about this issue while fighting my I-really-shouldn't-be-doing-serious-editing-when-I'm-104-degrees fever. :)

Wikipedia is both wonderful and evil for this stuff. LOL! Up until the 1900s, ketchup referred to many types of dipping sauces, many of which were nut-based or mushroom-based. Tomato-based ketchup is a relatively new (again, 1900s) recipe. But once it arrived on the scene, it quickly became the most popular. *bows* I am a Research Queen. LOL!

Jami G.