Writing Better Prepositional Phrases

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Writers describe what is happening on stage through action, dialogue and inner thoughts/emotions. Many times, these descriptions emerge through use of prepositional phrases, showing readers directions and enriching the experience. But overusing prepositional phrases can lead to trouble.

Writing Tip for Today: Clean, tight writing often depends on a good command of how and when to use prepositions. Here are a few tips:

Rabbit Hole Managers

One preposition problem occurs when a writer tries to cram as many as possible into the same paragraph. String together three to six sentences with multidirectional prepositions and readers may feel as if they should have left a trail of breadcrumbs to keep from getting lost in the Preposition Forest.

A writer who adds a string of prepositional phrases in a paragraph is likely to make readers feel as if they have whiplash. Consider this paragraph:

He stormed through the door and stepped into the foyer. Where in the world had his wife hidden the key? He’d searched beneath the rock outside and looked under the mat only to be forced to jimmy the lock with his credit card. Under the single bare bulb, he screamed into the dark hallway and then leaned around the corner, hoping that his wife was on her way down the stairs with a flashlight to give him an explanation of her less-than-optimal reasoning. This passage contains no less than seventeen prepositions.

Every writer is a manager. As you write, you are directing your readers’ attention, managing what they remember, pay attention to, or skip over. The writer builds a “continuous fictional dream” one prepositional phrase at a time. By following the character’s actions, dialogue and inner life, readers uncover clues to the story’s meaning and/or outcome. Be as sparing as possible with directional phrases.

Hokey Pokey

Readers need to imagine what’s happening on your story stage. Writers often begin with specific ideas that we want our readers to experience. But in our zeal to show readers our story, we often give too many stage directions—a kind of story Hokey-Pokey.

As writers look for ways to omit “ly” words, we can fall into the trap of overusing prepositions instead. If I want readers to picture precise expressions, reactions or moods, I could include “ly” words. For instance: “I hid the key where you’ll never find it,” she said smilingly. But I know that unless I’m JK Rowling, I can’t use adverbs that way, so I substitute, “I hid the key where you’ll never find it,” she said with a smile.

While there is nothing wrong with helping readers imagine your characters’ reactions or expressions, if you paste a prepositional phrase onto every line of dialogue, readers will quickly grow tired of the device.

A better idea might be to strengthen your verbs so that each does as much heavy lifting as possible. Work on writing dialogue which reflects character personality. If nonessential details are seen differently than you originally intended, it doesn’t mean you failed as a writer. You’ll be able to manage less and allow readers to discover and interpret your story more freely.

Multiple Actions

A third way that writers get lost in the Preposition Forest is by trying to cram several distinct actions into a single sentence. For instance, some actions involve rapid movements that if seen on a screen would blur into a smooth, uninterrupted action.

Examples of this might be a dancer’s steps, a martial artist’s moves or a criminal’s desperate attempt to get away. The key to the decision to put more than one action into the same sentence is to decide if the actions are simultaneous or sequential.

For instance: He burst through the door, pulled out his gun from his waistband, spun around and then fired. Although we may want readers to see this as a smooth simultaneous motion, the reality is that we can only read one action at a time. First, we see a guy crashing through a door. Then we see a gun. Next, he pirouettes. Finally, he fires the gun.

The point is that whether a writer jams all these actions into one sentence or splits them up, readers can only imagine one at a time. You can infer the blur of action by keeping sentences short and verbs active. And readers can reread to put the train of motions into one.

But rereading any part of the work is risky—it implies confusion or an incomplete reading experience. By eliminating unnecessary prepositions, your readers may be able to see the forest for the trees.

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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