sentence fragments

People who teach composition often have a bit of a blind spot about sentence fragments. A sentence fragment is (by one popular definition) a partial sentence that has been incorrectly punctuated.

To this I say: hogwash. Hogwash, say I.

I will admit that not every genre lends itself equally well to the kind of stylistic flexibility that produces these so-called sentence fragments. Legal documents, I suppose, really are better off without them. But that’s about it.

The important thing for those of us who write fiction to remember about sentence fragments is this: people don’t talk in classically defined sentences. Written dialog will sound stilted if you insist on making your characters toe the line that your fourth grade English teacher drew in the sand. For example:

The kids always go crazy just about now. This kind of summer night.

Sure, it’s a fragment. But put quotations around it and see what happens. “The kids always go crazy just about now,” said Laurie. “This kind of summer night.”

Characters talk in melodious fragments and riffs. It’s a complex process, getting the right. It has to do with syntax and tag words and a good balance between direct and indirect dialog.

Elmore Leonard, who is a master of written dialog, put it like this: “The main thing with my dialog is the rhythm of it — the way people talk, not especially what they say.”

A character who insists on toeing the line and speaking Stilt probably doesn’t belong in your novel. Another interesting quote from Elmore Leonard, which comes from an NPR interview:

“From the very beginning, my purpose was to [let the characters talk],” Leonard says. “To first of all establish the characters, as many as possible in the first 100 pages and audition them. Let’s see if they can talk. If they can’t talk, they’re liable to slip from view or get shot early on.

“If I have several bad guys, and I only want to end up with one of them, then I have to decide which one I want in the end. Normally, it’s the one who’s the most interesting talker.”

To be clear: I don’t like every novel the man writes. In the last years especially he’s been uneven, though Pagan Babies truly impressed me. Here’s a bit of dialog from it (note the fragment, and the deft representation of non-native English — this is set in Africa, this scene in a confessional).

“Bless me, Fatha, for I have sin. Is a long time since I come here but is not my fault, you don’t have Confession always when you say. The sin I did, I stole a goat from close by Nyundo for my family to eat. My wife cook it en brochette and also in a stew with potatoes and peppers.”

“Last night at supper,” Terry said, “I told my housekeeper I’d enjoy goat stew a lot more if it wasn’t so goddamn bony.”

The goat thief said, “Excuse me, Fatha?”

“Those little sharp bones you get in your mouth,” Terry said, and gave the man ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys. He gave just about everyone ten Our Fathers and ten Hail Marys to say as their penance.