What’s wrong with this sentence?
“On an unusually cold summer day for August in Peterborough, Ontario, Helen Anne Duncan dropped her newly washed load of Martha Stewart bath towels to run quickly to her second daughter’s fluffy feline that was lazily padding through her prized red geraniums, growing in a rectangular bed of carefully manicured low-spreading white periwinkle beside the Muskoka brown deck chair given to her for her fortieth birthday as her neighbor’s younger brother Raoul looked on with undisguised interest.”
I’m sure you as a reader see the setting well and what Helen, the cat, and Raoul are doing. But when did you stop taking in the details? When did you get bored or frustrated and put the book down or flip ahead to find something that would be more than a list of description? Probably sooner than later.
The sentence is exaggerated to illustrate a point. It’s overloaded with prepositional phrases. A prepositional phrase is made up of a preposition (at, in, by, about, from, etc.,) and a noun or word that acts as a noun (pronoun, gerund, clause). It can also include a modifier. The prepositional phrase acts either as an adjective (to describe a noun) or as an adverb (to describe a verb). As an adjective, it gives information about “which one” (“Go get me the vase on the top shelf”). As an adverb it supplies information about “when” (Before you leave, go get me the vase on the top shelf); or “where” (We got the vase at a garage sale); or “how” (We got the vase for a steal).
As writers of genre we are warned about adjectives and adverbs. Both “tell” as opposed to “show”. We are supposed to “show” and not “tell”. Since the prepositional phrase acts as an adjective or adverb it “tells”.
Most of us use overloaded sentences in our first drafts. But no one sees our first drafts (mine, certainly). We then fix these sentences when we have a better handle on what we want to say and how we should say them for our desired effect or goal. Then our overloaded sentences evolve into several paragraphs or pages or are written out of existence altogether. But other times we get so frustrated with editing and rewriting and more editing and rewriting that we ignore them. When they are pointed out to us we reply they are for “sentence variety.”
There is no rule about how many prepositional phrases (or for that matter, adjectives or adverbs) to use. But after several in one sentence or many in a paragraph, readers turn their brains off. It’s too much information to digest at one bite. A few choice words to create an image, setting, character, tone, sensation—whatever our goal is—should be sufficient for those of us who write genre, where the action and the plot are the real stars. If we choose our words well, they should also add depth.
So, how can we change that overloaded sentence so it doesn’t just state facts and adds dimension? First and foremost, we need to choose the important details. It’s Helen’s fortieth birthday, and she is hanging the wash outside. That’s significant. I can ignore the reference to summer since most of us don’t hang our clothes outside in the winter. The mention of the town is also irrelevant at this point, including Helen’s middle and last name and the brand names. But the deck chair is important because it shows the sorry state of Helen’s family. I can lose the cat, possibly even the flowers, but I’m going to keep Raoul. He might come in handy as a subplot. If not, I’ll write him out in edits. Here goes…
“It was Helen’s birthday and what was she doing? Hanging clothes outside because it was Saturday. She should be pruning her flowerbeds or sitting and reading a book—a romance with great sex and multiple orgasms and love ever after—on that deck chair her husband and daughters had given her. She cracked a clothespin and then another. Didn’t her family understand the meaning of forty birthdays or the Las Vegas travel brochures left casually by remotes and bananas? She ought to have an affair and with a younger man. Like her neighbor’s brother, Raoul…from Colombia…”
I reduced the prepositional phrases significantly. I also spread them over several sentences. You can still make out the setting, but now you have insight into Helen’s character. I added depth and even introduced conflict.
Take a look at your own overloaded sentences. What can you do to reduce the list of prepositional phrases and add depth?