ODE TO THE SENTENCE FRAGMENT by MF Wahl

Okay, the title of this post is a bit misleading, as it’s not really an ode. I’m no poet, so I’ll leave the poetry to those who know what they’re doing with it.

What I want to talk about here is the stylistic choice to write with sentence fragments. Many authors feel it’s a big “no-no” to write in anything but complete sentences. We’ve had it drilled into our heads since we could hold a pencil that every sentence, no matter what, must contain a subject and a verb. This leaves many an author quivering at the thought of breaking this time-honored rule.

I’ve always been the type of person that feels rules are meant to be broken (just ask my long-suffering friends and family). My philosophy for writing is no different. It’s why I’m not afraid to broach taboo subjects, kill off characters, and make stylistic choices based on the story, not the rules of writing.

I’m a big fan of writing with sentence fragments. Not all the time, mind you, that would do a huge disservice to the work, but when it’s warranted. Well used sentence fragments can underscore the intensity of a scene, or help a reader to understand the severity of a situation. They can push action sequences along quickly, and even give the reader a better perspective of a characters state of mind.

To illustrate my point here are two quick passages from my zombie novel DISEASE. The fragments are highlighted.

“It makes a sickening thud as it connects with the man’s skull. He goes down and without even a momentary pause, springs for Alex, now at eye level. Alex tries to dart around him, but the man is quick. Very quick. His hand snags Alex’s pant leg and drags the boy toward his gnashing teeth. Alex thrashes, kicking wildly.”

“Lot howls in the darkness. The little brat is gone! Disappeared into the bowels of the hotel. She screams, her vision red with fury, each step draws her deeper into the corridor. She stumbles through the hallway, gripping the side with her bleeding hand, shrieking.”

The sentence fragment in the first paragraph serves to convey the surprise and anxiety felt by the character without needing to jump into the character’s head. It keeps the action flowing while giving it a slight pause between sentences that intensifies the entire paragraph. The reader may not even realize the fragment.

In the second passage the fragment also serves the character. Here it underscores Lot's fury along with her quickly deteriorating self-control. Because of the fragments we have a clear window into the magnitude of a destructive obsession that drives her throughout the book.

Despite the benefits, using sentence fragments in writing is not without its risks. Readers are not used to seeing them, and it can be jarring to some. It's possible some may even think another round of editing is needed. However, I've found that most readers adjust quickly and the reading experience is enhanced by skilled sentence fragment use. 

Sentence fragments are one of many powerful tools in the writing toolbox that can be used when crafting a story. I profess my love of the sentence fragment. They. Are. Awesome.

If you’re interested in my novel DISEASE you can find an extended excerpt below. For more information, and for writing and self-publishing advice, please visit my site: www.mfwahl.co

I can also be found on social media:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RealMonsterHaus

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/writerwahl

 

DISEASE

Chapter One Excerpt


M.F. Wahl

www.mfwahl.com




1


Casey’s frazzled nappy hair is held back tightly. The elastic has seen better days. A few thick, kinky strands stick to her face and threaten her dark brown eyes. Sweat drips from her brow. Casey pinches a match between her dark fingers. She wipes her forehead with her arm, careful not to drip on the empty matchbox she clutches. Her lungs vaguely call from somewhere far away, begging for oxygen.


The match flares. The sound of the strike is lost as a loud crash shakes the wall she leans against. It rattles her teeth. Flakes of plaster dust her shoulders. A small flame leaps from the match.

Her hand trembles, a strand of firecrackers clenched in it. She brings the fuse to the fire. It sparks, and then catches.


Casey tosses the explosives into the next room.


She breathes. Her chest fills with the stench of decomposing flesh. Lying nearby is a rotting body, a lifeless lump, its head smashed into the dust-laden area rug beneath it. Grimy, broken pictures of the family that once lived here smile down from the walls. They are frozen; forever grinning approval at all that may transgress under this roof.


Casey is pushed into motion by the roar of gunpowder disintegrating cardboard shells. She grips the door jam and peers into the adjacent room. Inside, a disheveled man roots through a hoarder’s paradise of broken furniture, searching for the source of the noise. This is Casey’s cue to flee.


Against the wall leans a baseball bat. It’s worn and splintered. Blood slowly thickens on the wood, clotting in cracks and crevices. Tufts of hair cling to it, visible by the early morning light. They are from the dead man. Casey curls her fingers around the bat and creeps toward the back of the room as quietly and quickly as she can.


Aged floorboards creak underfoot. Broken glass crackles. She timidly shifts her weight with every step, picking her way around a broken flat screen and a mouse-ridden couch. She skates a foot around a crushed frame on the floor, avoiding the crinkle of a moldering marriage certificate that has escaped.


An overturned desk lays cockeyed in the corner. When she finally reaches it, Casey thrusts her hand underneath. A small, clammy hand grips hers and she yanks. Alex’s blond hair catches the light as he soars to his feet. Tears cut deep rivets through the grime and dirt on his nine-year-old face.


The wall shakes again, raining more plaster.


Casey remembers seeing a back door in the kitchen. The only other way out is past the man they just escaped. It isn’t worth the risk. Casey and Alex creep through the main hallway into the kitchen. She’s holding her breath again. The man in the other room continues to tear through piles of garbage and broken furniture. Once loved items clang and clatter, hitting walls and falling to the floor.


The Tanners used to live here. It says so right out front on their still intact mailbox; bills sit inside, unpaid for over three years. Credit card applications and sales flyers now a rotting memento of times past. The man with the putrid face does not mourn them. No one does.


SQUEEEEEEEK!


Casey’s stomach drops. Her eyes ratchet to her foot. Next to two long-abandoned dog bowls her toe jabs through a thin excuse for a shoe. Her foot presses a rubber newspaper: The Daily Growl.


 “Shit.”


The man in the other room peers sharply into the darkness. His eyes are swollen and bloodshot. One orb is so overinflated it bulges from its peeling socket. Rips blanket the dulled cornea and try as it might, the eyelid is unable to close.


Black, clotted blood forms dried rings around the man’s neck. Flake by flake, it falls to his chest, as though his jowls are the world’s most profane croissant. His lips peel back in a snarl.


The smashing of glass rings through the air.


Back in the kitchen Casey pushes her arm through the broken window of the door. The damned thing is jammed – of course. Alex stands beside her, thin-lipped and fidgety. He knows the stakes are as high as they get.


Casey pulls back her arm. Glass nicks at the skin. It’s useless to try the knob from either side. The only way this door is opening is if she forces it.


Casey slams her foot into the wood just beside the knob and lock. She drives her heel into the door. Her foot punches through wood and for a moment it sticks. Cheap piece of shit! It isn’t even solid. She looks over her shoulder just in time to see a shadow approach.


Like the mouth of a hyena, the man’s skeletal jaw gleams teeth from the darkness of the hallway. Alex pulls on Casey’s arm. The man launches himself at her.


There is no time to think. Casey acts on instinct. She rips her bleeding foot from the piece-of-shit door and shoves Alex into a corner. She raises her bat.


It makes a sickening thud as it connects with the man’s skull. He goes down and without even a momentary pause, springs for Alex, now at eye level. Alex tries to dart around him, but the man is quick. Very quick. His hand snags Alex’s pant leg and drags the boy toward his gnashing teeth. Alex thrashes, kicking wildly.


Casey crashes her bat down on the man’s head. Skin leaks down his face, alleviated from its tenuous grip. The blow knocks him sideways, but he doesn’t loosen his grip on Alex. Nothing slows him down. She swings again, with skull-crushing force, caving a dent and causing the man’s remaining hair to stand awkwardly askew.


He turns his repugnant face toward her. A raspy attempt at a growl escapes his chewed lips.


SLAM!


Casey’s bat finds a home. Chunks of bone and tainted flesh splatter the lace curtains adorning the windows. She hits the man again, and again, and again. Finally he stops moving, his skull obliterated, now twin to the body lying in the study.


Breath tears through Casey’s lungs. She blinks away sweat. Alex is still on the floor next to her. His large blue eyes stare at the pummeled skull inches away from him. He’s seen worse, she thinks. Casey offers Alex a hand up. “Are you okay?” He looks up at her, but says nothing.


Casey grabs an old dishtowel that lays on the dusty countertop. She wipes herself clean of dead skin and bone. Her adrenaline is fading and with it her strength. Her arms feel like strands of over cooked spaghetti. Her empty stomach spasms, cannibalizing itself.


She can feel Alex’s watchful eyes boring a hole through her. He’s hungry too.


Barely able to remain steady on her feet, Casey investigates each cupboard in the kitchen.


Empty.


Empty.


Empty.


She grips the countertop and takes a calming breath. She can’t waste energy on feeling sorry for herself. Defeated, she slides against a wall and sits on the floor. Alex copies her exactly.


“Sorry, Kiddo. Looks like another night of rock soup.”


Alex continues to stare at her. God, is that stare ever disquieting when he wants it to be. No wonder he doesn’t speak. There’s never any need. Everything he has to say, he says with those eyes. She bets someone once gazed into them and imagined his entire life for him. Some mother or father somewhere, a lifetime ago.


There’s no way they imagined this.


Casey looks away from him and closes her eyes for a moment. Sometimes it’s just too hard to look at Alex. When she reopens them she focuses on the one cupboard her tired mind missed. It’s on the floor near the dog bowls and that dumb rubber newspaper. Man Bites Dog reads the headline. Good one.


Casey pulls herself across the kitchen floor and swings open the cupboard door. Her baggy eyes brighten immediately. Far in the back sits one lonely can. A big black spider shambles away. Casey snags the can and dusts off the label. A smile springs to her face. DOG CHOW. She turns, beaming at Alex. Finally, a little luck!


“Dinner!”


Alex silently opens his knapsack. Casey watches as he methodically searches its contents. His fingers slowly slide over items, ferreting out a can opener. He holds it out to Casey. At least he understands food. Casey crawls over the dead man lying on the kitchen floor to join the boy. She opens the can. Her stomach rumbles, aching. She hands it to Alex first.


Without hesitation Alex jams his fingers inside the can. He pulls out a glob of mush and stuffs the quivering, fat-laden mass in his mouth. No need to chew this delicacy. Just open up and down the hatch. Alex digs in for seconds and Casey finally takes some for herself.


She feels as though the tin is polished off before she can blink. Stabbing hunger pains demand more, but they have nothing. Haven’t had anything in days. Casey hopes the kid is at least partially satiated. A loud, hollow growl from the pit of his stomach is her answer.


The empty rumbling of his stomach is oppressive in the silence. It would be nice if he could speak, or would speak. Who the hell knows? Casey feels each growl on top of her own. His precious face looks up at her, his belly protests loudly – it’s enough to kill anyone, no bat required.


She closes her eyes and leans her head against the bottom cupboard. She once thought the graveyard shift as a paramedic was a grind. The two-week overnight rotations in the city were brutal and especially dangerous. That seems like a vacation now.


***


A monumental hotel looms in the scorching sunlight, over a baked and unmanicured lawn. Barricaded windows reflect the sun’s rays across the huge expanse of field between the looming building and the thick dark forest resting beyond the grounds.


Through the brambles and low hanging branches is a well-worn path that leads to a clearing. Once, adventurous hotel guests used it as a hiking trail. Taking in the natural beauty of the wilderness around them.


The concierge, known by staff as Poppy, used to put apples near the mouth of the trail every winter for the deer. The animals would venture out evenings and early mornings, their bodies shaggy with thick fur. Guests would ooh and ah and snap pictures. Most would slip him a few dollars for being so helpful and friendly. This attention to detail put his kids through college.


Now Poppy is gone. Many consider him one of the lucky ones. Heart attack, just after the world fell apart. No emergency number to call, no doctors to save his life, no need to bear witness to the utter destruction of modern civilization. It was quick, unlike the death of so many others. Unlike those who still roam in some kind of heinous limbo.


Only one of Poppy’s girls remains in this world now. It’s a blessing her father never lived to see it. Who knows if anything is left of the bright engineering student inside the shambling mess she is now.


Lot bore witness to it all.


She saw the downfall. She saw the peoples’ desperate need for law and order. She quelled their fears and worries, and now she stands before Aaron. Her wavy grey hair pulled back from her brow with bobby pins, her hands clasped before her, and a solemn expression on her weathered, yet appealing face.


She raises a hand to play with the necklace around her neck. A blue spiral triangle. She’s had it for many, many years now. Before all the horror. The chain sways gently against her throat, caressing her olive skin as she moves toward the older man before her. He is on his knees.


Marge is a thick, buxom woman. It’s up to her and the bulging Arnold (or whatever his name actually is) to protect the community. To deal with threats from without, and within. They are both career military. They crave structure and regulation. They hold Aaron down.


Opie, a weasely looking man, lurks in the background. He says nothing. Just watches from a slight distance.


Beads of sweat trickle down Aaron’s face. His shirt sticks to his skin as he struggles. “Is this what you want? You support this? A society where political dissidents just disappear?”


Lot raises a well-groomed eyebrow in mock surprise. “Aaron, you are far from a political dissident. You are a coward, plotting the upheaval of our entire society.”


“Your society. Your—”


“Yes. My society. Because of my teachings we have survived The Plague. For three long years we have struggled and persevered because of me. And you are a heretic.”


“Amen.” Comes the sentiment from Aaron’s captors. His breathing quickens, whistling through his nose with force.


“Is this what you want? A society where anyone can disappear without a trace?”


“Without a trace? I think not, Aaron. You are to be an example. A strict warning to those who wish to sow discontent and spread lies. To those who threaten what I have worked so hard to build. You will serve as the poster child for those who would strike the hand that feeds them.”


“You’ve strayed from your own teachings, Lot! What you’re building here is an abomination! You’re more concerned with being Queen for a Day than—”


“Can you hear yourself? I have saved the life of each and every person under my roof. What have you done? Become a thug – a terrorist. Death will be my greatest gift to you.”


Aaron’s head drops. His face softens. He closes his wet eyes. He breaks, snaps like a twig. They always break when facing their inescapable mortality.


Lot’s mind turns to brave men. False men on a Hollywood movie screen, facing down death with a jaw of steel. Standing with bared chest thrust valiantly forward, ready to take the sword. The television screen flickers, a smile flashes across celebrity lips. Beaming defiantly with the knowledge that he faces a good death, a meaningful death.


But it’s just acting. Life rarely follows that script.


A smile of triumph lights upon Lot’s lips. She presses them together, concealing it just a little too late. Perhaps she let it slip purposefully. This is a war, and they must all go out groveling. There will be no martyrs made on her watch.


“I’ve been with you since the beginning, Lot.”


“And all good things must come to an end, my dear.”


“What about my wife?”


“What about her? You can’t honestly expect us to keep her here after all of this. After you’ve corrupted her mind against us? Against me?”


“Please, don’t kill—”


“Don’t be so banal. She’ll be sent to live with the Castlefield colony.”


“Sent to live? Is that what you call it?”


Lot can feel the prickling of eyes on the back of her neck. Thick Marge and Arnold are honed in.


“You’ve done this to yourself Aaron, not I. I’m merely an instrument of justice, and mercy. Your wife could be out here next to you.”


Aaron sucks in his breath as though Lot punched him in the gut. “Monster.”


Her delighted eyes smile back at him. An electric thrill fills her belly. Thick Marge clears her throat.


“We better hurry this up, Lot.” Thick Marge runs a sleeve across her brow. Arnold nods in agreement, his bulging neck muscles ripple under his brown skin. Lot’s eyes flick to Opie. He scurries away.


It’s time to wrap up this fine piece of theater. The woods are teaming with disgusting, rotting corpses – The Risen. Out here it doesn’t matter who you are. Murderer or newborn babe, everyone is a walking, five-course dinner. Lot’s dancing grey eyes lock in on her prisoner.


“I don’t often attend executions Aaron, but your actions have been so devious that I feel it necessary to speak to you, to hear your reasons why. I pray that you plan on going to your grave with a clear conscience.”


He spits at Lot’s feet. A light spray settles back on his quivering lips. Terror leaks from his pores. Lot imagines she can feel it rushing over her like a river current. She breathes deeply, steadying her appearance for the outside world.


Opie returns, shouldering an armload of heavy chains. He drops them near a tree in the center of the clearing.


Aaron’s voice trembles. “My conscience is clear, Lot. Is yours?”


Lot doesn’t hide her smile from him this time. It is a smile that can melt the bark from trees. It is a smile that turns blood to ice pellets, that courses through veins and explodes the heart. It is a smile no one else can see through. “Perfectly.” She says.


Aaron bites his tongue. Lot can feel the words die in his mouth. She knows he thinks of his wife. He screams. It is the desperate, broken scream of a man beaten. She nods at Thick Marge and Arnold. They drag Aaron kicking and screaming to the tree. Arnold smacks him across the mouth. “Quiet down, traitor.”


“You can’t do this! You can’t do this!”


Padlocks click around tight chains. Opie plants a wind-powered noisemaker in the ground nearby.


“Without your support, she has no control!”


Arnold grabs Aaron’s face. “Scream all you want. You’re only hastening the inevitable.”


Lot turns away. Thick Marge and Arnold are quick to follow.


Opie starts the noisemaker. It begins to whine.


“Opie, stop this, please.”


Opie sheepishly casts a glance at Aaron. The doomed man has no clue who betrayed him. He holds Aaron’s eyes for a second, and then scurries after Lot and her henchmen, leaving Aaron to face his grisly death alone.


“You’re just as guilty as she is! Even more so because you know this is wrong. You know it’s wrong, Opie! Those poor children!”


Opie shuts out the screams, as he has done many times before, and is gone from the clearing.


The noisemaker picks up pitch as the wind rises. Aaron’s body shakes with fear. It won’t be long now.