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COULD 'TO' GET YOU IN TROUBLE? HOW TO USE THIS WORD IN FICTION

The word 'to' could be used thousands of times in your manuscript. But could this pesky little preposition change the meaning of your story?


By Lauren Clarke


‘To’ is a word that indicates purpose or intention. It hints at what we are going to do. It’s a very useful little preposition, and is one that our minds tend to skim over when reading. It doesn’t jump out and slap the reader in the face—it simply helps them transit from one point in the sentence to another.

 

But this post is about how to use 'to' in fiction. So when does ‘to’ becomes trouble?


When we use it to show another character’s intention before the action is complete. Then ‘to’ becomes a point-of-view (POV) intrusion.

 

For example: Prince Charming walked toward Cinderella to hand her the lost slipper.

 

If this story was told in Cinderella’s point of view, how would she know that was his intent until he had completed the action?

 

The answer? She wouldn’t. Unless she was a mind reader (which is possible in a story of a different genre) she cannot know what his intent is. Perhaps it is to hand her the slipper; perhaps it is to stab her with it. We cannot know the ‘to’ here if we are in Cinderella’s headspace.

 

You could argue, however, that we could guess the to. Let’s look at some context. At the stage in the story when Prince Charming is handing out slippers, the book is nearly over. We, as readers, know Prince Charming quite well by now. More importantly, Cinderella knows him now. Couldn’t we argue that, with this in mind, she’d know he’s not about to stab her and that he is instead offering to return her lost property?

 

Yes—but there’s a but. Sure, we can presume that he’s returning the shoe on the basis of your solid earlier characterisation work, and you could probably get away with it too. But what if you went deeper? What if instead of telling the reader that you know his intent, you showed?

 

When we show, we detail the specifics using language that is evocative and that paints a picture. For example, instead of this:

 

Prince Charming walked toward Cinderella to hand her the lost slipper.

 

We could have this:

 

Prince Charming walked toward Cinderella, the slipper cradled in his hand. His midnight eyes travelled from the shoe to her foot, then finally up to her face. Heat bloomed in Cinderella’s cheeks. He remembers. He knows the shoe belongs to me.

 

See how by using a combination of specific action—the movement of the prince’s eyes—poetic language—the shoe was cradled in his hand—physical reaction—heat bloomed in her cheeks—and internalisation—he knows the shoe belongs to me—we can instead help show the reader in detail what Prince Charming’s intent is without resorting to ‘to’?

Cinderella's castle set against an aqua sky, the turrets shining in the sunlight
Photo: Lo Sarno on Unsplash

Let’s change the example now. What if we did want to show that the prince had murderous intent after all?

 

Instead of this:

 

Prince Charming walked toward Cinderella to hand her the lost slipper.

 

We could have this:

 

Prince Charming strode toward her, the heel of the shoe aimed at her jugular. His cold-as-stone eyes narrowed as he raised the slipper. Her heart pounded. He’s going to kill me!

 

Again, by using specific action—the heel aimed at her throat—poetic language—cold-as-stone eyes paint a very clear picture—physical reaction—her heart pounded—and internalisation—he’s going to kill me!—we can show the intent and create a more immersive experience for the reader—all by taking away the word ‘to’.

 

That’s not to say you should never use to. Sometimes to has a place. If you are in the middle of an action scene and you want to skim over details to ensure you don’t get bogged in the words, ‘to’ can work.

 

For example (presuming we are in Prince Charming’s point of view): Cinderella raced to grab the knife to stab him back. Prince Charming stopped the blade an inch from his chest.

 

Perhaps this could be more powerful if showing was used instead of telling, but in the middle of a fast-paced back-and-forth altercation, skimming over the show can enhance pacing and ensure the reader’s focus remains on the most important moment of the battle, which presumably will be shown.

 

Another time we could use ‘to’ to tell instead of show is when we’re trying to distance the reader from a scene or create a sense of disembodiment from a character.

For example (presuming we are in Harriett’s point of view): Harriett floated above her body, still prone in the hospital bed. The nurse left the room to fetch the doctor, her sneakered feet squeaking on the tiled floor.

Using to here makes it seem as if Harriet is looking into the future or as if she's able to read people's minds, which in this disconnected state, perhaps she can.

 

QUICK AND SEXY TIP:

·      To can often be a point-of-view intrusion

·      To can often be telling

·      Sometimes we need to break the rules and use it anyway

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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