On Sentence Fragments And Other Stylistic Jibber-Jabber

I received this comment here at the blog:

Dear Chuck,

“Can you help me? There’s something I need to do, but I haven’t got the strength to do it.”

From one Star Wars fan and student of English to another, I came here today looking for answers. Respectfully: I didn’t like what I read of your book, but I also have a serious question. This was the first book of yours I ever tried to read, and I just couldn’t get into the choppiness of the writing style. So far, the wookieepedia entry on your book is more syntactically coherent than the book itself. It actually made me grateful that Amazon Kindle has a preview option so that I got to sample your “strong” voice before I spent any money on the book. Honestly, I found your style to be unreadable, which was a disappointment to me because I really wanted to read the stories you were given the opportunity to tell, and I’d hoped to read your subsequent novels as well.

In contrast to the style I read in Aftermath, I notice that you write in complete sentences here on your blog. So here’s my serious question: why did you *choose* to use so many sentence fragments in Aftermath? It’s become clear to me that you did it on purpose, not because the rules of English grammar escape you. So what was your authorial intent? What were you trying to express that conventional English doesn’t allow? Since you used such a choppy style on purpose, what was your purpose?

Thank you for acknowledging my freedom to Not Like Things. But, maybe I’m missing something, and a clue to your stylistic choices might help me see the light. All told, I’d rather like something than not like it, especially when it comes to STAR WARS. I want to be on your side. Help me understand.

Thank you,
Kevin

And I thought I’d answer it.

I’ll take it on good faith that this post isn’t actually a trolling rib-jab (which honestly, I’m not too sure about given some of the snark present in the comment) — even so, it’s something to talk about, so goddamnit, I’m talking about it.

Before you do anything else, please go read this link from Grammar Girl on the subject of sentence fragments. In it she uses the work of a very fine author, Scott Sigler, as an example. In his book Nocturnal you’ll find passages like:

Echoing gunfire from above. Pookie looked in that direction and saw something amazing. A man leaping off the cavern’s ledge. Rising up, then arcing down, his legs bicycling beneath him … 

and

“You’re not welcome here, Paul.” Most places in the world, a statement like that sounded normal. Unfriendly, perhaps, but still common, still acceptable. Most places, but not at a Catholic church.

I’ll add some passages from some other authors –

Here’s a bit from Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters:

He’s lying on his side, his legs pulled up, eyes closed, face serene. The recovery position. Only he’s never going to recover and those aren’t his legs. Skinny as a beanpole. Beautiful skin, even if it’s gone yellow from blood loss. Pre-adolescent, she decides. No sign of acne. No scratches of bruises either, or any indications that he put up a fight or had anything bad happen to him at all. Above the waist.

Here’s a bit from Toni Morrison’s Beloved:

There is a loneliness that can be rocked. Arms crossed, knees drawn up, holding, holding on, this motion, unlike a ship’s, smooths and contains the rocker. It’s an inside kind — wrapped tight like skin. Then there is the loneliness that roams. No rocking can hold it down. It is alive. On its own. A dry and spreading thing that makes the sound of one’s own feet going seem to come from a far-off place.

Here’s a bit from Kai Ashante Wilson’s The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps:

Buffalo riders? Were they? Yes! Look at the beaded leathers, the long locked hair, their complexion not some singular color like other peoples, but three shades at once. How did it go? Oxblood, amber, good earth… Everything just as in the tall tales and melancholy songs brothers told or sang at nightly camps.

A bit from my own Blackbirds:

The man, the trucker, the Frankenstein. Louis. He is going to die in thirty days, at 7:25 pm. And it is going to be a horrible scene. Miriam sees a lot of death play out on the stage inside her skull. Blood and broken glass and dead eyes form the backdrop to her mind. But it’s rare that she sees murder. Health problems, all the time. Car accidents and other personal disasters, over and over again. But murder. That is a rare bird.

Or, finally, a bit from the book in question, Aftermath:

Chains rattle as they lash the neck of Emperor Palpatine. Ropes follow suit—lassos looping around the statue’s middle. The mad cheers of the crowd as they pull, and pull, and pull. Disappointed groans as the stone fixture refuses to budge. But then someone whips the chains around the back ends of a couple of heavy-gauge speeders, and then engines warble and hum to life — the speeders gun it and again the crowd pulls — The sound like a giant bone breaking.

I’ll stop, but I think that helps cover it.

So, the question here is, are sentence fragments okay? Technically, they are the dreaded “bad grammar,” which is to say they are red-stamped as INCORRECT and if you use them, a Grammar Agent will rise up from a pool of mist gathering upon the floor and the agent will bludgeon you about the head and neck with a sock filled with dangling prepositions.

But here’s what we need to understand: grammar is not math. Math is a set of pre-defined, provable rules. TWO plus TWO equals FOUR and you can demonstrate that on your wiggly fingers or fugly little toes. But grammar is a series of stylistic proscriptions. It defines what you cannot do not by provable experimentation but simply because someone, somewhere, chiseled that shit in stone based on subjective choice. That’s not to say those proscriptions are bad! They are a very good base from which to begin, just as if you’re going to draw a person’s face, it is very good to learn that the eyes go here and the nose goes just below them and the mouth goes just below that and OH HEY HERE COMES PICASSO and he basically just shakes human facial features up in a Yahtzee cup with two hits of acid and then, bam, art.

And even still, there are people out there who don’t give a hot cup of fucks about Picasso. They look at his work and despite any recognition he has received, they just don’t like it.

Which is fine. Nobody requires you to like everything.

Stylistic choices are choices of presentation, and presentation is not universally liked, loved or loathed — it is simply the way that the author or artist sees the world and chooses to portray it. James Joyce had his own way of writing. So did Langston Hughes and e.e. cummings and T.S. Eliot. In music, I remember when people said Nine Inch Nails “wasn’t music.” And people once said rock and roll wasn’t music. Punk isn’t music. Dubstep isn’t music. Music that doesn’t feature entreaties to the Glories of God Almighty aren’t music. And on and on and on.

Sentence fragments are one such stylistic choice in an author’s cabinet. And they are totally okay. Just as it is totally okay not to like those choices. I, for one, really like them. I like reading them (when in the hands of a deft author) and I like writing with them (whether or not I count as a deft author or a daft author is up to you). Why do I like them? Because to me, reading is only partly done with the eyes. The rest is done with the ears. What I mean is, words are really just crude scribbles on paper meant to symbolize a spoken language. Writing is a translation of spoken and heard sounds. It is interstitial. It is a middleman. Sentence fragments, when handled well, mimic human speech in an interesting way — because people don’t speak in crisp, grammatically correct sentences. (Practically speaking, this also helps turn a book into audio. It provides something that reads more like a natural, organic script rather than a formal reading of narrative. And the Aftermath audio is damn near a radio play, so it was ideal to nail that tone for audio. I like to hope it sounds good to the ear.) I read words on the page and ‘hear’ them inside my head, and so I’m interested in breaking out of stilted, formal structure so as to find my way to something more rhythmic — occasionally staccato, occasionally more flowing, but something that mimics sound and speech and song rather than something in concretized prose.

That’s not to say one should write in all sentence fragments. But using them is fine.

I’m fond of saying that we need to learn the rules of writing in order to break them, and we need to break the rules of writing in order to learn why we need them in the first place.

(I’ll note here that the strong distaste by some for both the fragments and the present tense in Aftermath is, I think, because those are stylistic choices you don’t see very often in tie-in fiction, which usually cleaves to straight-down-the-middle prose. So, those who have read like, 400,000 Star Wars novels have never really seen present tense or fragments used in such a way, and as a result, that can be understandably jarring. Those choices are far more common in YA, thrillers, crime, and so forth, and I write those things in part because I like those conventions. I wanted Aftermath to have that broken, lyrical punch — a sense of urgency and rhythm. I like to hope I was successful, but, as with all things, YMMV.)

So, I don’t know what to say other than, it’s okay to make strange stylistic choices and to break the rules of grammar, and it’s also okay to not like when they’re implemented. (That said, those choices do not automatically render a work “unreadable.” That is a harsh axe to drop and pretty much any officially-published novel will meet the bare minimum of being “readable.” Further, the presence of an audio book pretty much confirms the book to be readable, unless the narrator stops in the middle of the book and just starts weeping and babbling Lovecraftian gibberish.)

Writing involves a series of stylistic choices.

Sometimes these choices mean breaking rules.

It’s okay to make these choices as an author.

It’s okay to not like these choices as a reader.

The end.

95 comments

  • I think this gets to part of the problem for some readers:

    “It provides something that reads more like a natural, organic script rather than a formal reading of narrative. And the Aftermath audio is damn near a radio play, so it was ideal to nail that tone for audio.”

    Which is great, if you really give a shit about audio. My guess is most readers like to, uh, read. Audio? I could care less about it. I read because it allows me to create the voices, the sounds, in my head. That’s how I get into the book.

    • Yes, but if you read the rest of the post, you’ll see I draw that connection — for me, at least, reading IS an act of audio. I hear it in my head. (Which you do, too, it seems: “the voices, the sounds, in my head.”) So, for me, that replication of the cadence of speech and sound is more meaningful than stilted, formalized blocks of prose.

    • That’s a really shitty way to phrase it. Yeah, most people who enjoy books like to read them, but a lot are unable to, and most books sound like shit when they’re read aloud because the authors don’t bother to make their prose sound remotely natural. Audio books are important, even if you don’t personally care about them.

  • Don’t give rules too much credit. At least, don’t credit them with some sort of objective value. We don’t *need* to learn THE rules, we need to learn some rules, a variety perhaps, and use them according to situations and our intentions. The need is merely that some sort of structure is the conveyance of meaning, but the structure itself is negotiable. We are given a deck of 52 cards: What are the rules? We have to decide what game we are playing first for any rules to even make sense. The rules have no value outside the game being played. A queen is more valuable than an 8? A spade more valuable than a diamond? You have to follow the 6 of clubs with either a club or another 6? None of this matters unless you are playing a specific game by specific rules, and the rules only stand for that one game. Our use of language is exactly like that. There isn’t one set of rules that governs all applications. What we mean we mean within the confines of how and why we are expressing ourselves. And there are so many rules that its almost a miracle we can figure each other out. It may not be self evident what game we are playing, but we are masters of our native tongue, and there is often enough evidence that a person speaking sensibly makes sense for us too. Narrowing the acceptable rules to just a handful is a misunderstanding of rules and a discredit to our manipulation of rules. Language is like a tool, and we use it for a variety of purposes. Each purpose asks us to use language in a more or less specific way. So language can be thought of as doing many jobs, and each of these jobs requires language to perform a task in a sometimes different manner from other tasks. Language is a tool kit for a variety of purposes. Rules? Don’t be a slave to rules. Ask first what we are trying to do, and then you may find that there is more than one way of getting what you want. There can be a variety of tool uses that achieve our purpose. The purpose we have is the important thing, not the rules for using specific tools. A hammer is not governed by the rules for using a saw, Don’t put the cart before the horse…….

    • I mean, you need to know how commas work and you need to know what a sentence fragment is and — ultimately, English has quite a few agreed-upon rules, even ones that are flexible, and it’s vital to know them.

      And then it’s vital to see how they can be broken effectively.

      First you learn to walk, then you learn to run, then you learn to parkour off a rampaging kaiju’s back.

      — c.

  • This is as good a post as any to say this, Chuck. About a week ago, I picked up a copy of your book The Blue Blazes, and loved the style. And thought, “I really need to find this kind of playfulness with language in my own writing,” because I write in past tense and it takes me forever and I hate my first drafts and the language in the later revisions is grammatically correct but boring.

    And then I realized that I do have that playfulness with language — in my rough, pre-first-draft writings. Which I write in present tense. Reading your book, I suddenly realized that it’s okay to keep doing that, that the issues I’ve been having with my later drafts is…well, me. I’ve started writing the latest draft of my WIP in present tense, and it’s not only easier and faster, but I’m much happier with the result.

    So I just wanted to say thank you. It’s a *head-desk* kind of revelation (as in, if the rough drafts were so easy for me in present tense, then why did I ever think it was a good idea to switch to past tense in later drafts?), but I hate to think how long I would have continued to struggle if I hadn’t read your work.

  • I didn’t wade through the comments, but I really appreciated this post.
    I STILL haven’t read Aftermath (Go ahead and blame the lovely Kameron Hurley for that one. Nyx got her claws in and hasn’t let go yet).
    However, my husband (who’s a high school English teacher) has read it.
    He’s an avid fan of Star Wars. He’s an avid fan of this blog.
    And yet he didn’t like Aftermath. The writing just bugged him.
    He liked the story. But overall, the experience wasn’t super enjoyable for him. And that’s due to the grammarian in him, I suspect.

    That said, I love that it’s OKAY for your book to be on bestseller lists and for people I love to not love it, without my having to love them any less.
    I think that sentence didn’t make much sense. Whatever.

    I also love that it’s OKAY to go nuts with “proper” sentence structure and write prose in present tense.

    We live in exciting times, no matter what the naysayers have to say about it. You keep doing you.

  • I don’t think if you don’t like this style, it somehow means you “don’t get it,” which Chuck didn’t say. Just saying that myself.

    I like it for the most part because it brings you super-close to the scene, but…if overused, I think it can start to sound pretentious since people don’t talk like that for a whole paragraph in real life. It starts to look gimmicky if it stands out more than the words, which then, weirdly, waters it all down. It’s like a movie full of close-ups. The director has nowhere to go when the s**t really hits…something. We’ve already been all up in someone’s grill. The power moment of bad news, or whatever, falls flat if we’re just back in another close-up. The constant “technique” loses its effect after a while. To paraphrase Elmore Leonard, sometimes the best way to get somebody through the door is to just say, “He walked through the door.” Straightforward can also allow a reader to add his or her own essence.

    Very gracious post. Appreciate you sharing your process!

  • February 10, 2016 at 8:48 PM // Reply

    I don’t understand the people who say they simply cannot read present tense. Have they never read a script? Or listened to any sort of comedy? If someone can’t parse it, the problem is with them, not with the text.

  • If people complain about sentence fragments, I tell them to read James Joyce then come back to me and explain why sentence fragments are wrong. They don’t come back.

    Seriously, if people want to live in 2016 pretending that Modernism and Post-modernism never happened, that’s up to them. But they should probably refrain from reading anything produced after 1922. Lest their heads explode. Into little red fragments,

  • I’m shaking my head in confusion right now. What is this guy actually trying to ask you?

    ‘Why did you write this book in a way I didn’t like? Especially when you’ve written other things that aren’t this in a different way that I like much better? Can you please consider not writing the way I don’t like from now on, and only write more like the way I do like?’

    Whuuuuuuu……? **head explodes**

    I’m not sure if he intended to sound like someone who’s been living in an underground nuclear bunker for the last fifty years, but as a self-proclaimed student of English I think he might need to broaden his reading horizons a bit if he doesn’t want to spend his life regularly disappointed like this.

    I love your style Chuck, as do many, many others. And I use sentence fragments in my own writing as well. They aint going away any time soon, so the haters have got a choice; learn to like them or…. well, just read authors who don’t use them. Blimey, that was WAY simpler than trying to persuade the authors who do use them to cease and desist, wasn’t it? Who’d a’ thought?

  • It’s not about the fragments when a writer is writing, it’s about stating true to the charicter, how they think, and feel at the given time. Along with how the mood is during that scene. If it’s like a battle then thoughts are going to be choppy, and as every thing is through that pov then the entire prose will be to.

    Chucks prose has a nice flow to it imop and shows the the horror of what’s going on around the moment. That’s how deep pov is at times.

  • February 15, 2016 at 5:11 PM // Reply

    As a general rule, I don’t care for present tense. I make exceptions when the writer knows what he/she is doing. I love Chuck’s books in present tense. I love Hilary Mantel’s books on Thomas Cromwell which were written in present tense. I’ve loved other books as well.

    I use sentence fragments in my own writing. Don’t object to them in other writers’ work either — with some exceptions. If the writer has written a long, complicated sentence and simply left out either a subject or a predicate, that’s the kind of fragment which will get under my fingernails like a splinter. I’ve done copy edits on any number of manuscripts containing just that sort of fragment.

  • Truth — I’ve had copy editors almost bury my mss under a tsunami of pencil marks, each reading “sentence fragment! sentence fragment!” And other copy editors complaining “Run-on sentence!” Yep, I use both, depending. (On tone, on function, or maybe on the weather.) Luckily my editor, of course, understood that a novel isn’t an English-class essay. Do it your own way, and fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.

  • It’s possible to have formal sentences that also read well aloud, and have a good flow to them. 1984 is a good example of that. That book flowed so well; I’m generally a slow reader, but I read that thing in one sitting. Choppy “sentences” call too much attention to themselves in my opinion. I think writers should try for flow and proper sentences at the same time.

  • Sentence fragments convey timing, pause, inflection, action, intensity, humor … the list goes on and on.

    At least they do for me.

    I love sentence fragments.

    I drink them every day, like the red wine running endlessly into my half full cup.

    Sentence fragments are a stylistic choice — one I choose often.

    Carry on.

    :)

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