This is a sample chapter from “The Language of Fiction,” to be published in December 2012.
I generally advise my students to disable the Microsoft grammar-check function when they write fiction. It’s not an anti-technology statement—I’m all for anything that gives you a linguistic advantage, such as the spell check and the thesaurus features. My problem with grammar-check is that it’s often incorrect. It seems like any time I deploy “that” as a conjunction instead of a demonstrative pronoun, or when I use “feast” as a verb instead of a noun, up comes the squiggly green line, telling me to fix an error that never was.
It must be said that Microsoft isn’t always to blame. Usually when I disagree with the little green line, I actually have made a mistake, and the only reason I’m not grateful to Bill Gates and his minions is that I meant to. After all, as a fiction writer, I’m allowed to ignore a technical rule for the sake of effect. Grammar Check doesn’t know when I’m doing this, nor should it—it’s calibrated for standard usage, the style we employ when writing cover letters or expository essays. So I just turn it off.
You shouldn’t take such an act lightly, however. The freedom to selectively ignore the rules of grammar confers upon the fiction writer a grave responsibility to know these rules as well as anyone. This is because of the caveat that comes with the writer’s prerogative: you can violate whatever language rule you want, as long as the reader understands that you know you’re violating it.
This could be one those “if you take nothing else away from this book…” adages. It relates to the core problem I discussed in the introduction, how beginning writers often believe that creative writing doesn’t involve thinking about such mundane matters as grammar and punctuation. This attitude might be encouraged when the young writer notices that Toni Morrison doesn’t appear to know certain rules of capitalization, or that Virginia Woolf doesn’t always respect standard comma placement. If the masters don’t know their grammar rules, then why should we?
Of course the answer to that is simple: the masters do know their grammar rules, it’s just that they know them so well they are able to exploit them for effect. It’s not as if Morrison wrote “The Thing to fear was the Thing that made her beautiful” because she thought “thing” was a proper noun, or that Mrs. Dalloway would have more commas if Virginia Woolf had had access to Microsoft. When great writers violate the rules of grammar, they do so out of artistry, not ignorance, and the reader never supposes they spliced a comma or wrote a fragment simply because they messed up. Once you truly understand the mechanics of language, it’s time to think about how you can play with those mechanics to create certain effects.
In that spirit, this part of the book will begin by looking at instances in which writers deliberately misuse punctuation for artistic purposes. This chapter will examine how periods can be misused to create sentence fragments, and the next chapter will look at how writers misuse commas. After that, we’ll go back to looking at the standard methods of punctuation. But I hope you’ll keep in mind that a masterful writer always thinks about punctuation in a conceptual sense, so that she can be ready to employ it in non-Microsoft-approved ways that add aesthetic value to her prose.
USES OF FRAGMENTS
A sentence fragment, sometimes called an incomplete sentence, is a phrase that pretends to be a sentence when it doesn’t have the qualifications. We already saw in Chapter Eight that to make a sentence you usually need just two things, a subject and a verb (and when the subject is implied, as in “Run!”, you don’t even need that many). Furthermore, these two things have to express a complete thought. “When I listen to Mel Torme” contains a subject (“I”) and a verb (“listen”), but it doesn’t finish a thought. This phrase happens to be a dependent clause, because it depends on something that comes before or after it (such as “I dance when I listen to Mel Torme,” or “When I listen to Mel Torme my cares disappear”), but not all fragments are dependent clauses. For a group of words to be considered a clause, they must contain a subject and a verb, whereas the only requirement for being a fragment is to not be an actual sentence. All real sentences are independent clauses; they don’t need any help to complete their meaning.
So basically, a group of words may contain a lot of other things, but if it doesn’t contain a subject and a verb, and if it doesn’t express a complete thought, it’s a fragment, not a sentence. Microsoft will almost always underline such constructions, because technically speaking it’s an error to put a period at the end of something that doesn’t do the full work of a sentence.
Sentence fragments are a major concern in composition classes, where they look something like this: “The federal government is deeply in debt. Which is a problem.” The fragment in this example (“Which is a problem”) results from putting in a period where it’s not appropriate. Periods, after all, sever the relationship between phrases. Any given period asserts that the group of words to the left and to the right of it can exist separately. In our example, this isn’t true—the words to the right of the period after “debt” don’t complete a thought by themselves, so they need to be connected to the first phrase, which is an independent clause. In this case, a comma will make that connection successfully: “The federal government is deeply in debt, which is a problem.” When someone is trying to sound authoritative, as when one discusses the deficit, a misplaced period comes off as an obvious and harmful error.
In fiction, however, where the reader accepts—indeed, expects—artistry and novelty and the manipulation of rules, the error can create a strong effect, in part because it’s inherently dramatic, but also because using a fragment places emphasis on its content. Look at how the character Carl Spackler in the film Caddyshack uses a fragment to end his long story about meeting the Dalai Lama:
So we finish the eighteenth and he’s gonna stiff me. And I say, “Hey, Lama, hey, how about a little something, you know, for the effort, you know.” And he says, “Oh, uh, there won’t be any money. But when you die, on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness.” So I got that goin’ for me. Which is nice.
In delivering the monologue, Bill Murray pauses for a few beats after “goin’ for me,” which tells us we should hear the final word group as a separate sentence. If he had paused only briefly, thus implying a comma rather than a period, we would hear “So I got that goin’ for me, which is nice.” That version would be grammatically correct but not as effective, because the funnier part (“which is nice”) would be attached as a subordinate clause and thus de-emphasized—we would focus more on the independent clause “So I got that goin for me.” By giving those last three words their own sentence, Murray tells us to pay extra attention to them.
But why is that line worthy of emphasis? What’s the reward that comes with the risk of being ungrammatical? In this case, it’s simple: the phrase “Which is nice” points out the ridiculousness of the character, and stressing that ridiculousness makes it funny. The endearing and delusional Spackler thinks he needs to rhetorically emphasize a phrase that is unnecessary—do we really need to be told that it’s “nice” to know you’ll have total consciousness on your deathbed? Of course not, and the fact that Spackler thinks the point needs to be emphasized with a fragment invokes dramatic irony. That is, we understand something that the character does not, and humor arises from the gap in understanding. (I know it’s annoying when English professors explain why things are funny, but that’s never stopped us.)
Fragments are often used as indicators of emphasis in pop culture and cultural texts, especially in visual advertisements. Billboards, movie posters, and the like can only use a limited number of words, so the words must pack a punch. The original poster for Die Hard, for example, gives us “Twelve Terrorists. One Cop.” while the tag line for Gone in Sixty Seconds is “Ice Cold. Hot Wired.” In these instances, the copywriters have eschewed subjects and verbs and just thrown up some unattached nouns and modifiers. They don’t want to communicate anything but an immediate image or sensation, so coherent sentence construction is unnecessary.
Fiction writers can use fragments in a similar way. That is, the writer might decide that grammatical integrity is less important than sensory impact, so he strips the sentence of everything that doesn’t actively contribute to the image or action. Because the technique is both easy to read and inherently dramatic, it’s a favorite style for writers in genres like thrillers and crime novels. In an essay in the New York Times Magazine, Colin Harrison both discusses and imitates the style:
The commercial thriller writer works hard to make speed. Short sentences help. So do bodies. That are dead. And discovered in certain places. Often the dead people were carrying secret papers. Often there’s a blonde in the hotel lobby. The man who finds the body often finds the blonde. Or the blond finds the man. Because she’s looking for the papers, too.
Harrison uses four fragments here in order to show what they do in terms of creating suspense. He likely wouldn’t use any of them if he weren’t parodying a thriller writer; “Short sentences help, as do dead bodies that are discovered in certain places” is more the style of a New York Times magazine essayist. But the abruptness makes his point—phrases like “That are dead” and “Because she’s looking for the papers, too” show how genre writers use incomplete sentences to lurch the reader onward, to spring surprises upon him with broken-up fragments of meaning.
We can find the technique in literary fiction as well, as in the opening of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.
London. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow- flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Every “sentence” in this passage is actually a sentence fragment; nothing here contains the subject-verb arrangement requisite for sentencehood. The ones that have subjects and verbs, like “it would not be …” are dependent clauses. And it doesn’t stop with this passage—the string of fragments goes on for nearly four hundred words.
Besides just proving that he could manage it, Dickens seems to have another reason for beginning the novel this way. If you try to convert the fragments in the first paragraphs into actual sentences, you’ll be left with something like this (additions italicized): “It was London. It was Michaelmas. Term was lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sat in Lincoln’s Inn hall. There was implacable November weather. There was as much mud in the streets…” In other words, if Dickens had used proper grammar, he would have been stuck with an abundance of weak, bland constructions—“it was,” “there were,” and and so on.
Of course, he could have rearranged the syntax to remove the passive verbs—“During Michaelmas term in London, the Lord Chancellor sat in Lincoln’s Inn hall, removed from the implacable November weather which had brought as much mud to the streets…” But this is an entirely different style, presumably one Dickens didn’t think worked as well. So he arrived at a more elegant solution—instead of trying to find synonyms for the passive words, he simply dropped them. He knew that the fragments would still communicate what he wanted them to, and that the reader would focus on the images (“dogs, indistinguishable in mire,” “horses splashed to their very blinkers.”). It’s not so different from the Die Hard copywriter deciding that the phrase “There were twelve terrorists and one cop” wouldn’t provide the same emphasis as “Twelve Terrorists. One Cop.”
But it goes beyond just wanting to be emphatic, I think. You’ll notice that in Dickens’ fragments, he’s not always just flashing up an image. In fact, he often comes close to writing actual sentences, and only avoids them by using participles instead of verbs. For example, when he shows us the fragmented image “Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas,” he could have replaced “jostling” with “jostled” to create a proper sentence, without losing any vividness. So why didn’t he? Perhaps he had just settled into the style and liked the feel of it—after all, many authors use sentence fragments to create an economical, crisp tone. Or…
Maybe Dickens had discovered that the continued use of fragments creates an interesting and useful paradox: stripping the non-active elements from the language (“it was,” “there were,” etc.) actually freezes the action to some degree. In this case, the fragments make us see an ugly, angry, urban scene as a tableau, rather than as a moving picture: the Lord Chancellor sits motionless on his bench, the dogs stand still and miserable in their coats of mud, the smoke hovers eternally. Verbs, after all, imply movement, while nouns and modifiers just sit there until a verb makes them do something. In beginning his novel without any verbs, Dickens makes us experience the scene as a still life, before jolting it into motion with actual sentences.
A final reason to use fragments (although you may think of others) is to imitate the clipped, truncated style of a journal-writer, or perhaps someone recording events for an audience that doesn’t care about style, such as a captain writing a ship’s log. This may not seem like a very common occurrence, but there are a surprising number of novels written as diary entries or logs, and almost all of them liberally use fragments. To cite a quick example, William Boyd’s Any Human Heart is told via the journal entries of a man named Logan Mountstuart, and it includes many passages like this: “La Fucina. A perfect Fucina day. Just the three of us—though we don’t see much of Cesare this year.” It makes sense, as far as verisimilitude goes. If the only audience for your words is yourself, the sole thing that concerns you is getting across your point. Why bother inserting pronouns and passive verbs just to make things grammatical?
So that would be my response to Microsoft’s green line, should it, in its personified form, ever ask me why I get upset when it appears under my fragments. Fragments, I would say, are useful things. They can focus the reader’s attention on the object or sensation, and they avoid diluting the image with passive verbs. They can contribute to an economical, no-nonsense style. Used repeatedly, they can create an overall sensation of stopped motion. They can imitate a narrator who’s writing a journal or a log. And they can be inherently dramatic.
THE DANGERS OF THE FRAGMENT
Upon hearing this last point, the personified green line would pounce. “Aha!” it would say, twirling its mustache, “Drama! Yes, drama is an important feature. But tell me, Monsieur”—for some reason, the green line is French—“zis drama, is it not very close to . . . melodrama?” Indeed it is, I would have to confess.
To put it simply, melodrama is the quality of being a bit over-the-top. It can be hard to differentiate between something that is melodramatic and something that is dramatic, and in fact we don’t always split that hair. When we claim someone is a “drama queen,” we mean they behave in a melodramatic fashion. In 2011, as trade rumors centered around the NBA forward Carmelo Anthony, whose nickname is “Melo,” sportswriters used infinite varieties of the pun “Melo-drama.” The term worked because the story contained a lot of “drama,” in the colloquial sense of people getting riled up about a trivial thing, which is to say that they were being melodramatic.
But in narrative we do have to differentiate, and the differentiation is especially important for our purposes, because the line between drama and melodrama often comes down to language.
If something in a work of fiction causes a powerful and genuine emotional response in the reader, it’s generally due to the harmony of character, situation, and language. When Jane Austen gives us the wonderful line “Elinor was then at liberty to think and be wretched,” we are moved to pity because 1. we’ve come to love and respect Elinor (character), 2. we didn’t anticipate the plot twist that provoked her grief (situation), and 3. the syntax and word choice of “to think and be wretched” is graceful, understated, and surprising (language). In any genuinely dramatic moment in literature, you’ll find a similar alignment of these three forces.
When one of the elements tries too hard to create emotion or drama, melodrama ensues. If a writer trots out an orphan with leukemia who loves puppies, then his use of character is overt and clumsy. If the cop-hero finds out that the elusive bank robber is the same guy who killed his partner, then the situation is being manipulated to create drama. But we’re mostly concerned about the way language transgresses.
When language creates melodrama, it’s usually the result of a misuse of one of the techniques that can create genuine drama, which is why we have to be so careful and precise during highly charged scenes. Two such methods involve italics and exclamation points, which we’ll talk about in a later chapter. You can also use understatement and hypotaxis (understating a dramatic clause by making it subordinate: “I was eating tacos when Lance shot me”). Yet another of these techniques, as you may have guessed, is the use of sentence fragments.
The very thing that makes fragments useful to us in many situations—their ability to focus the reader on one image or sensation or point—is exactly what might lead us into melodrama. In effect, fragments can make us focus too much, so that it becomes embarrassingly obvious what the author wants us to pay attention to. Melodrama comes out of the reader’s perception of the author’s neediness, his fervent desire to make the reader feel a particular emotion. There’s nothing wrong with having that desire; all writers should. The problem comes when the writer’s neediness makes him try too hard. That’s what happens when a fragment is used in a clumsy manner. Like a guy who gives a girl a diamond ring on the second date, a writer who has lost control of his fragments shows his desires too artlessly.
Thus, the green line may serve a purpose when it underlines a fragment, even one we’ve made intentionally. Instead of thinking about its appearance as a signal that we’re necessarily making a mistake, perhaps we should be more generous. Maybe the squiggly line is simply saying, “Monsieur, I understand ze fragment may be used for dramatic purposes. Still, perhaps ze gentleman would like to consider if, in zis case, ze dramatic effect is worth it. N’est ce pas?”
Indeed, c’est vrai, most of the time it is a good idea to pause and think about why you’re using a fragment, and what the potential dangers are. Still, I don’t think I’ll turn my grammar check back on, mostly because I don’t really know how.
Now that we’ve looked at the uses of fragments, and ended with a warning about how they sometimes cross the line between drama and melodrama, it could be useful to take a slight detour. I have to confess the next subject doesn’t quite fit under “nuances of punctuation”—in this case, punctuation isn’t at issue the way it is with sentence fragments, where the location of the period causes the error. But I’d like to discuss it now because it fits with the general theme of fragments, and also because there’s nowhere else to put it.
The method I’m talking about might be called the “paragraph fragment.” It’s the technique of using a single sentence as an entire paragraph in order to create drama. Since paragraphs are usually longer than one sentence, it may seem that a very brief one is a fragment or shard of an actual one (see how I’m trying to squeeze in the theme?). Paragraph fragments can strike the reader as a legitimate and powerful means of calling attention to a sentence. But sometimes—a lot of times—they come off as melodramatic.
Let’s take as an example a paragraph from Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” On the story’s last page we see, sandwiched between two long paragraphs, the separately indented line “The man himself lay in the bed.” The sentence is powerful, because it gives some important information about the character while supplying a grisly plot twist.
The story itself is a bit gothic, and thus Faulkner may have felt at liberty to use a technique that, in its emphatic nature, gets associated with genre pieces like horror and thriller narratives. Or perhaps he just really wanted you to pay attention to that line, and he suspected this would be the best way to do it. I tend to give credence to that idea. Faulkner must have known that some of his passages get a bit self-indulgent, and that readers don’t always pay full attention when they get halfway through one of his 500-word paragraphs. To make sure the reader focuses at this key moment, he uses indentation. It works—the news comes as quite a surprise, and it’s nice to receive it without the clutter and distraction of other sentences. In any case, I’ve never heard anyone complain about this aspect of “A Rose for Emily.”
Nevertheless, the technique is frequently dismissed as heavy-handed, for the same reason sentence fragments are. In the seminal Art of Fiction, John Gardner condemns “superdramatic one-sentence paragraphs…of the kind favored by porno and thriller writers” because they result in forced emotion. While Gardner has an extremely low tolerance for sentimentality, you can see what he means; paragraph fragments attempt to emphasize something in a fairly obvious, often clumsy way. One indication of this is a fact mentioned in the previous paragraph—they regularly appear in genres whose writers prioritize narrative expediency over aesthetic principles. The thriller writer James Patterson, for example, uses paragraph fragments so much that it’s become a signature of his style. Here’s a passage from his novel Now You See Her:
The fact, of course, was that there was no Kevin Bloom. I wish there were more times than not, believe me. I could have really used a romantic Irish playwright in my hectic life.
The truth was, there wasn’t even a Nina Bloom.
I made me up too.
I had my reasons. They were good ones.
The worst kind. The kind where forever after, you always make sure your phone number is unlisted and never ever, ever stop looking over your shoulder.
It started on spring break, of all things. In the spring of 1992 in Key West, Florida, I guess you could say a foolish girl went wild.
And stayed wild.
That foolish girl was me.
My name was Jeanine.
Patterson doesn’t use the fragments with much subtlety here; he indents pretty much any time he wants a sentence to resonate. In fact, he uses so many paragraph fragments that there might be a point of diminishing returns; they lose some of their dramatic impact when they’re used in such numbers. Because Patterson is unapologetic about his lack of literary pretensions, he probably doesn’t care about any of that. Plus, as he has learned to his bank account’s benefit, it’s easy to read this kind of prose. On virtually every page of every one of his novels, you’ll see paragraph fragments, not only because they add emphasis, but because he knows his readers don’t like long blocks of text.
Of course, subjectivity comes into play in deciding such things. It’s easy to recognize that Patterson’s fragments are a bit pulp-fiction-y, but usually—at least in literary fiction—whether or not a paragraph fragment deserves its emphasis is a tougher call to make. In the following passage from Rose Tremain’s Restoration, a long paragraph shows the narrator reminiscing while at the funeral of a friend, then a one-sentence paragraph comes in to complete the chapter:
…at the graveside I found myself remembering how, at Cambridge, some cunning thieves calling themselves “Anglers” had tried to steal it and all Pearce’s possessions from him. They worked with a long pole, on the end of what was a hook made of wire, and such a pole had been thrust through Pearce’s open window one night while he slept. He had woken up to see a chair moving in a glimmer of moonlight three feet off the floor and floating out through the window. “It was only,” he told me, “when the pole came back into the room and I saw it move towards my ladle that I understood there were villains at work and not ghosts. And so I cried out angrily, and my shouting frightened them and they ran away.” He laughed when he had told me this story and then he said: “Perhaps it is always easier to frighten away the living than it is to frighten away the dead? What do you think, Merivel?”
But I cannot remember what I answered.
This last line calls attention to itself, surrounded as it is by a thick block of text on top and a half-page of white space at the bottom. One reason it may not seem melodramatic, though, is that the content of the line doesn’t strike us as overly dramatic or sentimental—at first glance, most of its impact comes from the simple fact that it’s indented. What that indentation does, however, is prompt us to think about the line separately, and in doing so we ponder its significance in a way that is necessary for our appreciation of the anecdote. While it’s not strange that Merivel can’t remember what his response was—the event happened decades earlier—his failure to know the answer to Pearce’s question takes on an added significance as he stands at the man’s grave. For Merivel will never be able to “frighten away the dead” figure of Pearce; the man’s goodness and generosity will stay with Merivel like a curse, ultimately prompting him to become a better person himself. The reader is prepared for this, and understands some of it at the time, because Tremain has indicated the importance of this otherwise inconspicuous line by separating it.
If that one works to create genuine emotion, maybe we should close by looking at an example that could be considered more divisive:
Billy’s daughter Barbara came in later that day. She was all doped up, had the same glassy-eyed look that Edgar Derby wore just before he was shot in Dresden. Doctors had given her pills so she could continue to function, even though her father was broken and her mother was dead.
So it goes.
You may recognize the famous refrain “so it goes” from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, in which he uses the phrase dozens of time to express a weary acceptance of tragedy and inhumanity. It’s not always used as a paragraph fragment, but when it is, some may object to it on the grounds of melodrama or sentimentality. Here’s why:
Even when it’s packed into a normal paragraph, the phrase is emotionally loaded. It often follows the mention of some terrible death, and thus its weary acceptance of man’s awfulness may seem like an emotion worn overtly on the sleeve. True, it’s understated in the sense of what the words actually say; “and so it goes” is a version of that modern shibboleth of stoicism “it is what it is.” But even that understatement might seem overly dramatic, because we’re so clearly meant to understand that it’s understatement. Plus, if it were genuine understatement, it wouldn’t use indentation to call attention to itself.
In any case, when you take a phrase that’s already teetering on the brink of sentimentality, and set it apart as a separate paragraph to remind the reader of its profundity, you might have crossed the line. That’s the danger of the paragraph fragment—sometimes it doesn’t just call attention to something, it does so in a way that makes a reader think you’re trying too hard to achieve that emphasis.
Then again, sometimes it serves as a dramatic device in a work of enormous emotional power and resonance, like Slaughterhouse Five. No one said this would be easy.