Friday, February 28, 2014

Tightening Your Novel With a Preposition Patrol

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy 

There's nothing wrong with prepositions or prepositional phrases. They're a perfectly good tool in a writer's toolbox. But they're often found hanging around troublesome sentences, or even sentences that aren't bad, yet you know in your heart they can be better--if you could only figure out why they bug you in the first place.

For those who haven't been in English class in a while, a preposition is kind of like a stage director. It shows (directs) the relationship to the other words and phrases, connecting them and showing how they relate to each other. Often it's a physical or spatial distinction, like Bob put the knife on the table. The zombie brains splattered above the door. In the courtyard, three zombies tried to chew through an old Barcolounger.

The most common prepositions are: about, above, across, after, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, beyond, but, by, despite, down, during, except, for, from, in, inside, into, like, near, of, off, on, onto, out, outside, over, past, since, through, throughout, till, to, toward, under, underneath, until, up, upon, with, within, and without.

You're probably looking at that list and thinking, "Holy cow, I use those words all the time. How could I possibly edit them out?" No fear, you don't have to edit them out, but you might consider taking a closer look at where they are and what they're doing for you, because you can probably chop a bunch out and tighter your prose.

For example...
I crept through the door and into the warehouse.
On first glance there's nothing wrong with this sentence. It's active, something's going on, there's a sense of fear if the narrator is creeping. But notice that "through" lurking so close to the "into" there. This sentence could easily be tightened up.
I crept into the warehouse.
This is a teeny change, but notice how much tighter it is now. If you make a lot of these kinds of changes your whole book gets tighter, and you haven't done anything but trim out a word here and there. That's the sneaky thing about prepositions. They flow well, they rarely jump out, but they're usually in spots you can edit for cleaner prose.

(More ways you can tighten your prose here) 

Let's look at two very common ones: up and down. In most cases the direction is implied, so the preposition is redundant.
Jane fell down on the ground.
Unless Jane fell up, readers will assume she fell down, especially when paired with the word ground.
Bob climbed up the stairs to the third floor, the shotgun at the ready. 
Climbing stairs typically means up, so the word isn't needed.

"Of" is another word that often spells trouble.
She went to the back of the building vs. She went around back or She went behind the building.
These are minor tweaks, but they can help pick up the pace and streamline a story, or trim out words if you need to bring down your word count. However, if you like the rhythm of a sentence or feel the line sounds or flows better with the preposition, then leave it in.

Let's look at a fun one..."since." This guy likes to hang around told prose. How many times have you written something like...
The zombie lumbered toward Bob. Since he didn't have his shotgun with him, Bob grabbed the axe and chopped the zombie's head off.
Telling instead of showing just kind of slips in there, doesn't it? It could have been more fun if written like:
The zombie lumbered toward Bob. He reached for the shotgun. Crap! The dang thing was over by the bed. He grabbed the axe and swung it at the zombie's head.
Instead of summarizing the action, readers now see the action and the scene becomes more alive.

(More on words commonly found near told prose here)

Doing a preposition patrol can be time consuming, but doing it allows you to spot places you can tighten to turn good prose into great prose.

Do you ever edit for prepositions? What words do you notice sneaking into your work that don't need to be there? 

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I've never realized that you can tighten your writing by cutting prepositions! Thanks for this post. :)

  2. It may be time consuming but well worth it. Thanks for the simple examples. The changes are easy to see.

  3. Excellent post! And a timely reminder for me as I am on a mission to cut words.


  4. The "boss" I've worked with for the past 20+ years seems to love the prepositional phrase. He seems to try ending every other sentence with one.

    "On a monthly basis" is his favorite.

  5. Oh no! Now I've got to go on patrol for pesky prepositions as well as adverbs and adjectives. ;) I'm at the stage of polishing and deepening the meaning of each sentence and this was a great reminder. Thanks!

  6. I love this post. I think I read it once before, but you are so useful. Great way to tighten the prose.

  7. Thanks for suggesting this. I'm revising and cutting now so I'll be checking for this. As usual, your examples are so helpful.

  8. You could teach a master-class. I have a writer-crush on you! A wri-mance, if you will. Thanks so much for these super-useful posts.

  9. Thanks all! I know when I was reading all the writing books and trying to figure out how to write and revise, I always got frustrated at books that gave general advice but no practical applications. So I try hard to find things readers can take away from the blog and put to immediate use on their manuscripts. And they're good reminders for me, too! I'll be doing this prep hunt next week as I do the final polish before I send S3 to my editor.

  10. ...I actually think this is much of what I'm doing in my rewrite of my traditional fantasy WiP. Er, well, this and making my narrator less cloying.


  11. I thought I was the only one on preposition patrol! So WONDERFUL to meet you. Thanks for sharing this important info.

  12. I've been scratching my head, trying to figure out how to make my current scene snappier. It seems lukewarm despite high level of conflict. I think this is exactly what needs tweaking! A huge thank you!

  13. Most welcome! Glad the post found you when you needed it :)

  14. Do you recommend any other resources for propositions? I'd love a longer list, and maybe a book on this subject!


    1. I don't sorry. You could Google a list. I'm sure someone has one somewhere. maybe part of an English class.

  15. Lots to think about here. Thanks!

  16. Oooh, I need to do a round of just cutting this sort of thing. One of my bad habits. I have a long list of bad habits :)

    1. As long as you have a list you can remember to fix them :) I love lists.

  17. Enjoyed your post. Useful information for writing tight sentences that I can use right now.

    1. Thanks, that was the goal. Always nice to hear when I get it right (grin)

  18. HI Janice
    In response to your CTA, I will now! This is another thing I've just begun to pick up on, and edit as I go along. I do, however, have no doubt that a little exploring will turn up a bunch of the tricky buggers. :)

    1. I find a lot during revisions when I'm actively looking for places to tighten.

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  20. -cheers- I love this, thanks for explaining this so well, now I'm going to make a list of these words and see what ones can be removed.

  21. Do you have all of these tips in a book? If you do, please let me know

    1. It's in the works, actually. No firm release date yet, but it should be early in 2016.