Prepositional phrases that is.
Now, before you get yourself riled and start hollering, “You want me to cut out all my prepositional phrases?” The short answer is no.
Prepositional phrases are an essential tool of any writing toolbox. Used to show a relationship between nouns and or pronouns, writer’s use these phrases to add clarity to visual relationships.
For example: He ran his hand through his hair.
Here the prepositional phrase shows a relationship between a male’s characters hand and his hair. The relationship and the visual is clear.
However, the problem arises when a writers don’t trust themselves or their words. They get carried away with adding clarity. The prepositional phrases they chose steal the power from the prose.
One of my favorite examples is: He cried in sadness.
The act of crying shows the emotion. Hopefully, given the context of what came before. He is standing at a grave or has been hollered at should give the reader the cue of what the crying represents rather than the writer needing to tell.
These power-stealing prepositional phrases can be found almost anywhere in a manuscript, but most often are found hangng onto the end of sentences. These telling hanger-on-ers threaten emotional power, create missed opportunities and cause cognitive bumps for the reader.
Let’s look at an over the top example of hanger-on-ers.
“I won’t let you get away with it.” He came at me with demon-fire in his eyes.
In these sentences there are three prepositional phrases. He came at me with demon-fire in his eyes.
On the surface, these phrases may seem;
- create clarity,
- even hold a power descriptor.
If we understand how reader’s read, we discover less of what makes for writing compelling and more of what makes writing blah.
Reader’s mind on reading
- Western readers read left to right.
- As they read they create information pathways.
- In nonfiction they build on facts, knowledge, how-tos in layered fashion.
- In novels they typically form visuals.
- Think of it as creating a mind-movie
- Reading one phrase or sentence creates an image. The next phrase of sentences builds onto that image.
- This all happens in a nanosecond.
For example: Haloed in sunlight the girl had blond hair and a pale complexion. Her blue eyes held enough heartbreak to wilt the sunflowers she offered.
Here, the reader moves through the sentences from the sunlight haloed girl to the blond hair and pale complexion to the eyes and lastly the wilted flowers. Each phrase builds the image.
Let’s look back at our example and break it down.
He came at me with demon-fire in his eyes.
With he came, the writer intends to create action. However, as there is no specific visual cues, it is a teller. With a teller the reader must create the visual image that he believes best fits the context of the moment. He creates what he came looks like.
Then the writer includes another piece of information to show relations. Using the preposition at, he tells the reader where the he came. He came at me is a fine use of a clarifying prep, however, it only tells information. Without specifics the reader is not given a visual representation of the action. He creates the image of the he coming at the point of view character, which may or may not match the writer’s intention.
Likely, it is in the next phrase where the writer believes she put in the visual and the power. He came at me with demon-fire.
While demon-fire is power, it is unfortunately a cognitive bump. With this new information, the reader stops reading, goes back and inserts demon-fire into the visual. He then move on to the final phrase in his eyes.
Ah that fire is in the eyes, but what if the reader thought it was in his fists, or in his steps. Yes, again, he bumps back to the beginning to readjust the visual.
Because reading takes place in that nanosecond, and bump-backs occur just as quickly, it may not seem like a big problem. However, you can think of these hanger-on-er’s like ants on your kitchen counter. If you see one, there is likely many more waiting to scurry from the woodwork. Fighting these ants can become an overwhelming, frustrating and result in calling an exterminator.
Reading with an array of bump-backs and unclear telling lessens the visual, causes overwork, frustration and can lead to the abandonment of a story. As writer’s we never want our stories abandoned.
The fixes are usually simple.
Instead of creating visual-cue bumps that tell a reader, keep the description part of the action.
Example 1: “I won’t let you get away with it.” His demon-fire gaze blazed hotter than a blowtorch.
Or even use a prepositional phrase that doesn’t disturb the visual image building. His demon-fire gaze caught me in a never-let-go-net.
Here, IN shows the relationship but remains visually pleasing, as well as adds voice and emotion to the work.
But what if you need the he to come after your character?
Example 2: “I won’t let you get away with it.” His eyes sparked demon-fire, and he blazed across the alley. His grip singed my wrist. His breathed torched my lungs.
In this rewrite, the characters stay in action. The eyes spark, he blazes. While we still use across, this modifying clause does not change the previously created visual and serves to remind of the setting and mood. The last two sentences are also active sentences of a grip and torch of breath that show character emotion. If the writer had not opened her writing up to the action of the moment, likely she would have missed an opportunity to empower her prose.
Give It A Try:
- Do a hunt and search for the most commonly used prepositions (about, with, under, in, on, from, for, over, across.)
- How many of these do you find hanging off the end of your sentences?
- How many are telling prepositional phrases?
- Do they create visual bump-backs?
- Try taking three, five, ten, one hundred ten from passive, telling, distancing moments in your fiction to active and powerful pull-readers-in moment.
There you have it. Nix the Preps and Power-Up Your Prose, and if you give it a try, be sure to share a before and after in the comments.