I believe it is a time-honored tradition, in fiction, to bend rules for a literary effect. I'm printing a short story for my critique group tonight. One critique-er is a very by-the-book kind of person, who gives formulaic advice. This is incredibly helpful, because there are details I routinely gloss over that come to my attention as a result of that feedback. And, obviously I am learning to view my work more critically as a result, because I am now here, asking this question.

Question: Is it valid to use sentence fragments (or run on sentences) in fiction, to add to the emotional experience? A sense of immediacy, pounding, heart thumping, racing action? Here is an excerpt, to give you an example. It has a sentence fragment (first bolded example) and at least one run-on sentence (last bolded example.):

The younger one was in her face now, wedging her left eye wide open. No! No, no, no!! “No!!” she screamed. She tried to turn her head sideways, tried to squint her eyes shut, but this one was strong too - and her eye was forced open. Then a blinding light, like both suns at midday, straight into her left eye. He was looking through the device, then an expulsion of gas, and everything in the left side of her skull was contracting, pulling, all at once. No! They know! “Help!!” She struggled all the harder, adrenaline coursing, giving her extra strength, the pain in her shoulder forgotten.

“God!” said the younger man, his face lit with pleasure.

The older one laughed. “That’s a good sign! The other eye, quick!”

Then her right eye, the same violation, the same expulsion, the same involuntary, brutal contraction. She thought her skull would crack from it. No! I’m not a degenerate! She screamed, “You are the abominations!” kicking, struggling, her left arm dangling like a rag doll. The one holding her pulled himself back and barreled his knee into her, with a force like a battering ram, straight into the small of her back, it felt like it would go straight through her. Howling again, she lost feeling in her legs. He dropped her, and she fell.

I believe the answer may be a simple yes, rules are meant to be broken and communicating urgency is a good reason for it! But perhaps there are nuanced guidelines on this, and having any feedback ahead of group may help with our discussions tonight.

  • 3
    In general, this type of fragmenting is much more used in poetry than in literature, but I think it's perfectly fine to use it here to create a dramatic effect.
    – Alexander
    Nov 29, 2017 at 18:19

2 Answers 2


I think it is fine and reads well, however, I do not ever break the rules of breaking :-)

I don't embed dialogue or italicized thought in exposition. No! I'm not a dengenerate! should appear as a paragraph on its own, for example. The same for No! They know!, and then "Help!"

FYI: I use italicized thought for literally the exact thing being thought.

In exposition, I don't mind indirect thought, unitalicized, like "Karen thought it was beautiful, she didn't know that level of control was even possible."

  • I have wondered about the paragraph thing many times. :-)
    – SFWriter
    Nov 29, 2017 at 18:42
  • You can incorporate an explanation of action after text, many authors do. "Kevin, don't you dare," she said, eying the scissors in his right hand and the handful of Angela's hair in his left. Angela turned to look at her cheerfully. /break/ "Mommy! I'm getting a haircut!"
    – Amadeus
    Nov 29, 2017 at 19:58

You always can break the rules, the question is should you? All effective rule-breaking justifies its own use in writing. The danger, however, is that rule-breaking writing calls unwanted and unhelpful attention to itself and away from the content.

The advantage to rule-following writing is it becomes invisible, so that the reader sees transparently through it to the content. For that reason, I would say always follow the rules unless there is a truly compelling reason not to.

In this example, I think the effect falls short of what would justify the technique. "Then came a blinding light, like both suns at midday, straight into her left eye," is only one more word, and is much less obnoxious to read.

  • Thanks Chris! It's funny? how we try to balance unique voice with meeting all the segments of potential readership. I don't want people to find my writing obnoxious... :-)
    – SFWriter
    Nov 30, 2017 at 16:10
  • @DPT It's usually most effective to sprinkle departures from the norm sparingly. If you start piling them up, it's generally a bad sign. The issue is that non-standard writing doesn't usually come across as a unique voice, but as amateurishness --unless truly handled by a master. Nov 30, 2017 at 16:45
  • As I am reading my complete novel it looks like some of the fragments were shorthand notes to self, as in, one more shortcut I was taking, to add to the list. Adverbs, tropes, and on, and on. I am making a new version and will compare side by side to sort it all out.
    – SFWriter
    Dec 1, 2017 at 21:18

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