Wow it really has been forever since I’ve done one of these, hasn’t it? To be precise, it’s been 6 months. I feel like this is becoming a biannual thing at this point- but ho hum, this was only ever supposed to be a casual sort of series, talking about how all different writing styles are valid, so I don’t suppose there needs to be a time limit on that. And since the idea of this series has always been to talk about how writing styles are rarely “good” or “bad”, I reckon it’s appropriate that I’m returning today with one of the most divisive topics of all: the art of fragmentation.
Because technically speaking using fragments in writing is not grammatically correct. Quickly defined, a fragment is a verbless sentence. But I also like to think of it as when a sentence is literally fragmented on a page, in a sort of image poem style, the words dissolving into nothing. Such as…
“Blood gushed rhythmically from my open wound,
then from my eyes,
We Were Liars, e lockhart
If you use a fragment, chances are your Word Doc (or whatever you’re using) will put a glaring red line under it telling you CHANGE IT NOW OR WE’LL LEAVE A DEMONIC CROSS ON YOUR SPELLCHECK. See, there’s a reason your English teacher told you not to use them, they were only trying to help you 😉
But *controversial opinion time*- this argument doesn’t wash with me. Now, I am hardly telling you to throw out the grammar rule book (quelle horreur!); what I am saying is that there may be reasons you can bend them a little. Observe:
Here, Van Gogh does something very interesting with perspective. He takes the overhang and moves the line where it falls so that the viewer feels like they are inside the painting. Of course, this is a completely inaccurate and impossible angle, and by rights shouldn’t work at all AND YET it is part of this artistry that makes the painting so compelling. Even better, there is evidence that Van Gogh knew EXACTLY what he was doing here- in his letters to his brother, he drew many of the subjects of his paintings (including the café) often with the correct perspective.
Point is, Van Gogh understood precisely how perspective was supposed to work… altering it to suit the effect he was trying to achieve. Thus, this is a prime example of knowing the rule in order to break it.
My point is not just that rules are made to be broken- it’s that without pushing the boundaries art wouldn’t be the same. I’m not saying we’re all Van Goghs, but that if we always shout down innovation there won’t be any Van Goghs (ooh look at me being all self-referential to my old Difference in Style post about innovation 😉 )
So, I hear you ask, what makes fragmentation an interesting artistic choice? Well, quite simply because it can create a compelling voice, mood or tone. It’s particularly useful in first person povs and writing dialogue. Here’s some of the reasons why (and when) it works well:
– Fragmentation can break up standard speech and make it seem more natural. I’ve heard some people saying dialogue should be written as if there’s an eavesdropper- but here’s the thing, even if you’ve seen the most adept speaker interviewed, chances are at some point they’ve given short, snippy answers. Simply put, we don’t speak grammatically all the time.
– It can be used to denote trauma or characterise someone as unstable. This is often a huge element in YA and writing authentic teen voices (cos if you’ve ever met/seen/been a teen, you’ll know they don’t speak perfectly). Also, fragmentation frequently appears if you choose to mix things up with an unreliable narrator. Not to get into my whole *unreliable narrators are awesome* view again, the reason fragmentation is a good choice here is that it literally reflects the incoherent or untrustworthy voice of the narrator. To put it simply, if you see lots of fragmentation, you know something’s up with the narrator. It can be the first clue that the mc has unresolved issues.
For me personally, I’ve found many wonderful books that use extensive fragmentation in an artistic and original way. My take is this can feel like narrative poetry. I have found a few beautiful pieces of work that employ this technique, some of my favourite examples being:
While that’s my view, there is plenty of arguments out there to use it sparingly, and that’s more than fair enough. Obviously, there’s a lot like that, so here’s just a handful that spring to mind:
Of course, it’s perfectly okay to not like it at all- you’re on the right side of grammar history 😉 Frankly, the point of this series has always been that it’s a-okay to have different tastes and embrace whatever style suits you best. For more posts like this, feel free to check out the other articles in this series:
So where do you fall on the fragmentation debate: sparingly, lots-of-it-please or not at all? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!