In today’s blog, I want to talk about fragments in writing and how you can use them to bring your writing alive. Australian author, Nikki Gemmell used fragments beautifully in her memoir, After which I’ll use as a case study.
Most of us have been taught to write a complete sentence with a subject and a verb. E.g. The girl sat on the grass. The girl is the subject and sat is the verb.
But sometimes, we want to add a little zing to our writing. Spruce it up. Bring it to life. And there are a number of ways we can do that. (I’ve just used fragments there!)
A fragment is an incomplete sentence. It doesn’t have meaning on its own. It could be a word or a few words. Note that some complete sentences could be two words, e.g. Mary sat. That sentence has a subject and a verb. Mary is the subject and sat is the verb. But fragments don’t make sense on their own.
I don’t recommend using fragments in educational or scientific bodies of work, such as essays. Fragments have a poetic feel and are suited to memoir and fiction. Also, they should be used sparingly or thoughtfully placed so as not to confuse the reader.
If used correctly, fragments can bring your writing to life.
Nikki Gemmell is described as, “one of the most original and engaging authors of her generation and in the US as one of the few truly original voices to emerge in a long time… The French literary review “Lire” has included her in a list of what it calls the fifty most important writers in the world – the ones it believes will have a significant influence on the literature of the 21st century. The criteria for selection included a very individual voice and unmistakable style, as well as an original choice of subject. (Goodreads Review)
I agree with the quote above because one of the aspects which makes Nikki’s voice original is her use of fragments. Her metaphors are unique but it’s how she places the words on the page which piques my interest and I believe contributes to her “unmistakable style.”
I will explore some examples of Nikki Gemmell’s work to help you understand how to use fragments and experiment with your own writing.
Nikki Gemmell is an Australian author who pushes boundaries in her novels and in her articles for The Australian. She has a strong voice and I admire that. I heard her speak at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival in 2018 and I thought she was intelligent, eloquent and very down to earth. I wanted to talk to her but felt like I’d gush like a fangirl, so admired her from afar. Now I wish I told her how much I loved her writing! Maybe one day. Maybe now…in this blog!
Nikki Gemmell is the best-selling author of thirteen novels, and four works of non-fiction. Her books have been translated into 22 languages. She writes books for children under the name of N.J. Gemmell.
A review in the Sydney Morning Herald describes her memoir After as a “harrowingly revealing memoir, she is no bride stripped bare but a daughter naked in her grief.” The reference, of course, is to her famous, international bestselling book, The Bride Stripped Bare which was published anonymously in 2003.
And her writing can be beautifully summarised from the same review:
“Ultimately, writing, a constant in all the chaos, provides solace and refuge. Although Gemmell’s pain is raw, her prose is polished. She deploys heightened and finely crafted language to express her jagged and extreme emotions, rich with metaphor, symbolism and imagery – the recurring motif of shattered ceramic lanterns, the references to the Japanese art of kintsugi, in which broken pottery is repaired with veins of gold paste adhesive. Her cadences invoke mourning incantation and supplication. The impact is cumulative and powerfully affecting, at times almost overwhelming, certainly for any reader who has been in a similar situation.”
“Have you ever done what you dread to do, identify someone close to you in a morgue, on that thin steel table? I did. Just now. And I have to write this out, to piece together what has happened into some kind of coherence. And because writing is my ballast through life’s toss.
Carry me in on a stretcher from this experience, carry me in.” (After, p 7.)
Writing in the present tense makes the reader feel like they are part of the story or at least walking the journey with the author. It has a personal feel as does asking the reader a question directly. Some people don’t like this but I feel it’s what gives Nikki a unique voice and style.
The book begins with a visit to the morgue to identify her mother’s body. There can’t be anything more horrifying than that. There are two arguments for starting with such a dramatic opening.
One is that you have to introduce your characters first and let the readers get to know them in order to develop intimacy and care for the characters before such a dramatic event unfolds. Why should the reader care?
The other line of thought is that the drama hooks the reader in. It introduces the conflict first which should be interesting enough for the reader to want to find out what happened or what happens in the end. Personally, I like the dramatic opening because I believe we as readers can bring in enough of our own experiences to understand how the character must feel. I don’t really agree with the review above that you needed to have had a similar experience to feel the impact of Nikki’s story.
“Can’t make it. To a chair. To sit on. Constable B stays on the floor with me, refusing a chair herself, a drink, a vegemite sandwich.” (After, p 69.)
The highlighted fragments show how the author is feeling. It’s how we think in times of shock, grief or despair. We don’t form nice, complete sentences in times of stress. Often we don’t make any sense and that’s what Nikki is capturing in her writing. There is a sense of verisimilitude – a realness to the situation.
Another example, “Please. Relief. From this year. This life.” (After, p 182.)
These one-word sentences (fragments) express so much. This is the “cadence” the reviewer from The Sydney Morning Herald was referring to. It has a poetic quality to it.
In the latest book I have written (coming soon), Wobbly Woman Memoirs – Looking for Love, I use fragments a lot and even go as far as giving each word its own line to give it even greater poetry and cadence.
For example when describing how I didn’t feel worthy as a child:
“That’s the ‘it’.
It felt like getting A’s weren’t enough.
It felt like…
I wasn’t enough.”
Can you see how it reads like poetry, is fast to read and shows the reader how important the words are by giving them their own lines for dramatic effect? Compare that to if they were words on one line.
If you are writing a memoir or even fiction, using fragments can be a powerful way to help bring your writing alive. Experiment. Find your voice and style. Reading great works such as After, by Nikki Gemmell can only serve to improve your writing.
I highly recommend reading After. Nikki is honest and writes with vulnerability. It had a profound effect on me, making me question my thoughts and beliefs around euthanasia, death and grief. It also helped me to understand the dynamics within my family – the mother-daughter relationship and how could I learn from her story. So beautiful!
Find a piece of writing you are not quite happy with or needs developing.
Or find a piece of writing that is very personal and has significance to your story.
Can you break it down into fragments? Either one word or shorter sentences?
Try putting one word on a line for emphasis.
Read it out aloud.
How does that sound?
How does that feel?
What is the result?
Leave your comments below. I’d love to know how this works for you. Or join our Virtual Writers’ Group on Facebook and share the before and after.
If you found this useful, please join me for my next
The photos of Nikki Gemmell and her books were taken from her website
Other images by Pixabay