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.
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?
Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook.
A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue 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. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.
Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).
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