In ordinary narrative writing, sentence fragments are no-nos. In lyrics we use them all the time. Often lyrics wind up clunky and less rhythmically assured if we assume we need to write in complete sentences.
You can get some practice with lyric “raw material” in sentence fragment form by using sense-based writing tools, like the object writing techniques Pat Pattison has introduced in his books. These involve generating associative streams of words, not yet intended as rhythmically or rhymically shaped lyrics. (Wait—is “rhymically” a word? “Rhymic” apparently is, so why not?) When writers first try such techniques, their prose is often too “journalistic” and correct, as if they were constructing polished short stories or essays. This generally means words are not flowing out fast and loose enough: there’s too much editing going on. To defeat this, some writers try spitting out isolated words in lists. If you’re object writing about an apple, you’ll get: “Red. Sweet. Crunchy.” The sweet spot for the best object writing “flow” is between these extremes: the phrase or sentence fragment is perfect. A series of sentence fragments creates snapshot pictures or other sensory “bursts” for the reader, and potentially for the listener as well. And, while the goal of these techniques is not to arrive directly at extended lyric passages or entire lyric sections, it is possible to lift out isolated gems—an image, metaphor, phrase or line—into song lyrics. These will often take the form of sentence fragments.
Examples. Joni Mitchell’s classic “Both Sides Now” is brilliantly constructed so that each verse begins with three image fragments, like: “Bows and flows of angel hair…” True, the last line of each verse makes the list of fragments into a whole statement: “I’ve looked at clouds that way…” But the listener first hears and takes in three fragmentary lines in sequence. Each creates a vivid sensory image, without a complete grammatical construction.
One of my favorite songs of a writer I greatly admire is Pierce Pettis’ brilliant “Alabama 1959.” Give a listen.
Notice where he uses sentence fragments vs. complete statements; it’s artfully done.
Here’s the first couple of verses; I’ve put sentence fragments in italics:
Chicken wire floats in the big parade
Marching bands and the prom queens wave ->
From an old home movie fading with time
Daddy had hair, Mom was thin
Look at the silly clothes they wore back then
Studebaker truck parked in the drive
Lyrics ©Pierce Pettis. Quoted with permission.
The second and third lines in the first verse are deceptive: one long phrase wrapped around two clear lyric lines. (The line as I found it online was “prom queen’s wave…” making the whole long phrase, technically, a fragment. Since public lyric sites are undependable, I checked with Pierce himself. The actual line is: “The prom queens wave / From an old home movie…”) Then Pierce shifts to complete sentences; in fact, the first line of the second verse is two complete thoughts. Then the “Studebaker” line takes us back to “snapshot” imagery, sentence fragment. As the song develops, fragments give way to complete statements, thoughts, and—despite the whimical humor with which the song begins—profound thoughts at that. The seeming technical detail of the grammatical form of the lyric lines perfectly supports the narrative, the emotion and the meaning of the song.
Your Examples. What are some favorite songs of yours that use variations on the “sentence fragment” device? Study your example song, and notice how fragments are interwoven with other forms of lyric lines, both within sections and within the flow of the whole song.
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