Any student of English language is, at some point, taught that sentence fragments should be avoided. A sentence needs a verb, or a verb needs a subject, and the lack of one or the other means the sentence makes no sense. But take a look at any half-competent screenplay and you’ll find it full of clipped sentences, which still make sense. This is because screenwriting is about communicating a plan of action, a blueprint, not a full-bodied description or a fortress of flawless grammar. Grammar does matter, but the English language is flexible – the question you have to ask is when is it okay to bend the rules?
A brief note about grammar in screenwriting
My earlier post about grammar to watch out for in screenwriting pointed out grammar issues that really matter when writing for the screen. They’re not just there to make sense of the writing, they’re there to make the action flow, to make the dialogue more believable and to generally make the script tighter. Used properly, sentence fragments can do all three of these things too. As long as the screenplay still makes sense. Let’s look at each point in turn, with examples of where fragments work and where they don’t.
1. Making the action flow
Charles runs to the car. Gets in.
The second sentence is a fragment, it has no subject. On its own, it would make no sense. But the first sentence sets the context, no one is going to be confused by what it is happening. What we’ve actually done here is not trim a second sentence down, it’s split one long sentence into two sharp ones: Charles runs to the car and gets in. This is a common way to use fragments, effectively in place of conjunctions. Another might be for repetition:
Charles hits his head against the desk. Again. Again.
We don’t need the subject or the verb to give the full action: He does it again. It’s clear. The point in both of these examples is that an earlier indicator has told us who the subject is, or what the verb is, and the following fragment is clearly understood. This can also work following dialogue, but beware that it might not be as clear:
Runs to car.
Amongst the most common fragment you’ll find in screenwriting comes from the removal of state verbs, often leaving descriptive words as sentences on their own. This is possible when the action is passive – sitting, standing, being, feeling, anything that doesn’t necessarily require a specific movement can, in effect, be left out.
Charles shivers. Freezing.
Charles on the bench, book in hand.
Senses are also easy to drop, such as taste, and – very common – sound. When it is clear that a sound is being emitted, we don’t need to be told it’s a sound. Likewise, fragments are useful when an object is moving and the operator isn’t important.
Howling in the distance.
All these sentences serve to make the action tighter without losing any meaning. This also makes the script easier to read for the most important points. You may wish to be more descriptive, it is a matter of style, but in general, if it makes sense with less words, then losing as many as possible will make the script easier to follow as a tool.
When fragments for actions don’t work
Fragments stop making sense when we start removing words that are necessary for a clear understanding of the description. Never, for instance, clip prepositions that provide direction, or subjects that clarify who is doing the action.
Charles runs car. – confuses the meaning.
Charles and Bill outside. Lights cigarette. – we need to know who lights it, because of the preceding plural.
2. Believable dialogue
Flawless grammar in real life conversation is rather rare. English is adaptive, and the sentences we speak play off the context of our surroundings and what has been said before. Fragments are incredibly common in everyday speech, because the details are already understood; and a screenplay that doesn’t have fragments in its dialogue will look very unnatural. Consider this:
Why’d you run to the car?
(out of breath) Potatoes.
Does that make sense? It might be clearer if Charles, panting from his return journey to the car, told us “I needed to get some potatoes.” But this urgent situation, it would take a certain type of person, or someone looking to emphasise a certain point, to speak in such a way.
Another common place for fragment use in dialogue is when people tell stories. When we tell each other stories, the subjects and verbs are quickly understood and dropped in favour of a shorter tale.
I ran to the car. Got the potatoes. Cut ’em just in time for dinner. Nightmare. Bloody nightmare.
Such storytelling in dialogue almost takes the form of a list. Again, not everyone speaks like this, but you have to have a reason behind the way your characters talk. It’s safe to say the above example, with fragments, would be more common and natural than the grammatically correct version:
I ran to the car and got the potatoes. I cut them just in time for dinner. It was a nightmare. It was a bloody nightmare.
Fragments in dialogue are also very effective for demonstrating cold responses, for instance with the interactions of a surly teenager or an aloof superior. It serves a purpose that you’d see in real life.
3. Making the script tighter
As should be clear from both the action and dialogue examples, as well as making the action flow and the speech natural, these fragments serve an overarching purpose of making the script shorter. Every word that can be removed without detracting from the sense of the screenplay should be. It is, of course, a matter of style, and some scripts, beautifully written with flowing writing, make for a lovely read. But for the most part a lovely flowing read is the antithesis of clear direction. It also leaves less room for interpretation, and although you want your screenwriting to fully realise your vision, you also want it to be open to adaptation. Note every detail and the script becomes very restrictive, and more difficult to make.
This is just a brief introduction to the topic: sentence fragments are a pervasive and interesting thing, in screenwriting and in the English language in general. They don’t stick to rules, they bend according to your matter of style, and really it is the method that most effectively tells your story that should dictate how you use them. For the most part, the points highlighted above will lead to more effective storytelling. If you find it works differently for you, that’s the beauty of the English language, and you’re free to adapt. As long as you know why it works differently.