The Before & After Prompt or How to Control Your Writing with Prepositions

by Kori Linn, WITS Intern

When something cataclysmic happens, people will often say that there was one moment where everything changed, or at least where it became impossible to go backwards.

Often in the retelling, the story breaks into halves: what led up to the moment and what followed it. In this way, that single moment becomes the stitch that holds the whole piece together. Rather than a point that the whole story rotates around, the moment becomes a point of transition that the story must move through.

The free write happily does not require this moment and asks only for the writer to play with time, moving backwards through all the activities that preceded the current one (that being the free write itself). In this way, the writer is forced to view her actions in a new way, knowing where she winds up and moving instead towards that which allowed that winding up to take place.

After the free write, but before the actual writing, we read a short piece of writing that teeters between prose and poetry. This piece explains how to start a house fire, but what it actually does is use step by step instructions to tell a story.

In the first half, the statements all begin with the word “before,” taking us back, back, back, through not only the steps necessary to starting said fire, but also through the reasons the speaker must do so. We learn that the speaker’s family has lived in this house and worked the attached farm for several generations. We learn that there are oak floors and the house has been foreclosed. We learn that the speaker is very thorough in his application of the accelerant. We learn that the speaker is calm in his pain. However, we learn these things because they are part of the way the speaker gives the instructions. Although the emotion is palpable, it is not directly revealed.

In the second half of this piece, all the statements begin with “after,” letting us know that the moment has passed but the work is not done. Now we cannot go back. Now we must deal with the new situation we have made. The moment where everything changed is like a peak, with the first half leading up to it and the second half reeling back down to reality.

Although the moment where everything changes seems to be the focus in this type of writing, it is the use of prepositions that allows the writer to control the writing. The prepositions show the relationship between the activities and they also reveal which moment is the moment where everything changed because they sort all other moments into the categories of leading up to or resulting from the one moment.

Your turn: try writing your own before & after piece, whether it be poetry or fiction, and see how the controlling factors work for (or against) you. What other prepositions can you utilize to bend your words to your will?




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