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.