Imagine if Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times and the worst of times—and sometimes, something else altogether.
Or if Melville opened Moby-Dick:
Call me Ishmael, or, if you like, Ishy.
Or if Ellison extended his iconic first line:
I am an invisible man, except for when it’s sunny, when you are bound to see something of a shadow.
My versions don’t pack the same punch, do they? Yet while drafting a still-developing story, we writers tend to explore all options. There comes a time, though, when it behooves us to weed out roads not taken and focus our characters’ intentions.
This sounds easier than it is.
Address your uncertainty
Hundreds of thousands of decisions will go into the writing of your novel. As you draft (or is it drift?) through its first iteration, you’ll understandably grapple with uncertainty over plot and characterization choices. It’s best to address these questions sooner rather than later. Wishy-washy intention, once on the page, has a way of persisting right through to the late-stage manuscripts I edit. This is no way to win your reader’s confidence.
A common symptom is sentences that start out as if to declare, but equivocate over their course until they become both this-and-that.
Examples might look something like this:
- He wanted to be her confidant, her friend.
- She longed for one last chance to hold her child to her breast, for one last chance to say she loved him.
- “Don’t get all full of yourself. You were only a meal ticket, a soft place to nap.”
- Building this bridge was the village’s last great hope, their way out of their seclusion.
Once begun, this sentence structure has a way of taking over a manuscript, to the point that I suspect these authors are thinking of the pattern as stylistic. To me, as an editor, it comes across as a bad habit. Uncertain prose has a way of drilling holes in the boat meant to convey your story, leaving you with a leaky mess that refuses to go anywhere.
Let’s analyze the example sentences.
- Friend/confidant: Are these two concepts so different that you need them both? As author, this is your chance to choose the word that targets the sentence most accurately. I like “confidant,” which enhances the generic concept of friendship with a promise of holding secrets—but that’s me. Now you choose.
- Last embrace/last I love you: The set-up will have the reader thinking, if this woman had “one last” opportunity, which would she choose? When prisoners on death row are offered the choice of “one last” meal, they don’t get to sample all the entrees. And any mother will tell you that holding a child to her breast is a gesture that already speaks of love.
- Meal ticket/soft place to nap: By implying that the speaker has not felt nurtured in the relationship, either one of these metaphors could serve as a harsh put-down. Here, they fight one another. In which role was the accused character more important to the plot: as a provider of funds, or respite? Figuring that out while drafting will help send your protagonist toward her next plot point. In the published book, it will help your reader understand the story.
- Bridge of hope/bridge of connection: My guess would be that by the time this sentence is earned, its second clause will be self-evident. Adding the reiteration dilutes the message of hope.
Each of these examples would be stronger if a period ended the sentence at the first comma. Bonus: the sentence would end on a power word that carries more punch.
[In the last paragraph I almost wrote, “In my opinion, each of these examples…” but why equivocate? The first thing I learned as a dance critic, forty years ago, was to own my opinion. It’s better to declare your point and entertain argument than to fail to make a point at all.]
Declarations exude energy
Readers respond to the energy within a declaration. It is “I love you” shouted from the roof of a dented pickup truck instead of “I kinda-sorta like you” hinted at in a note marred with erasures. Real life is so chock full of uncertainty that it’s refreshing to read the voice of a character who knows her own mind—even if she changes it later. A truth declared is delivered straight to the gut, where we readers can feel its effect.
Maybe that’s because declarations also emanate from the gut. In his bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Memorial Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman explains that what we call “intuition” arises from the same vast warehouse of experience that feeds more deliberate choices. It’s just a lot faster, since it bypasses processes that allow us to talk ourselves out of a decision. So when your character blurts a declaration without applying a filter, she is absolutely revealing herself. That can get us into so much trouble in real life, but it can be great fun to witness when reading, don’t you think?
Of course it’s absolutely possible that it may suit your novel’s premise to have a character who is either comically or tragically indecisive. In this case, even indecision requires focus. Be honest in your assessment: is the “this-and-also-that” nature of your prose limited to only the indecisive character’s point of view, or is it a writing quirk that permeates your exposition and dilutes your characterizations?
So all right already—it’s a quirk. Why not simply allow it?
Because on one hand, anything done habitually lacks the specific intention needed to build a story. And on the other hand, it robs you of a tool that could spotlight a situation in which you hope to show an evolution of thought.
Creating an evolution in thought out of the confidant/friend example from #1, above, might look like this:
Ralph had never before heard such an impassioned plea. Twenty minutes after Diane Masterson began speaking, she set aside her spreadsheets, pulled off her reading glasses, and sought eye contact with each member of the Senate committee. “Let me speak to you, human to human,” she said—and it worked. After years of arguing with her from opposite sides of the political divide, Ralph heard what Masterson was saying for the first time. This was not only unexpected, it was downright confusing at first, like a warm spring wind had hit his face while his feet still stood in snow.
But he liked the feeling. In fact, he was shocked to realize that he liked Masterson. Diane—he tried out the name in a whisper. There was more depth to this formidable CEO than he’d realized and he found himself wanting to be her friend. No—her confidant. He wanted access to the many secrets of this woman’s heart.
Instead of listing “friend” and “confidant” and letting them lie, as in the example, this modified passage shows a trajectory in thought that results in a clear emotional turning point.
Paradox holds power of its own
Can’t a feeling be two things at once? Sure. If it suited your plot better, the conclusion to this passage could be paradoxical. The energy of a paradox relies upon oppositional energy, however, not slight shades of meaning.
That could look like this:
Ralph had never before heard such an impassioned plea. Twenty minutes after Diane Masterson began speaking, she set aside her spreadsheets, pulled off her reading glasses, and sought eye contact with each member of the Senate committee. “Let me speak to you, human to human,” she said—and it worked.
Her passion ignited fire within him, even while Ralph remained frozen in the ideology that lent form and meaning to his life’s work.
At that moment, he both loved and hated Diane Masterson.
Whether you’re going for evolution or paradox, neither approach is likely to work if you’ve already inured your reader to shades of thought by presenting things as “both this-and-that.” She won’t recognize that this iteration of your habit was meant to spotlight an important turning point.
Don’t get me wrong: “I kinda-sorta like you,” hinted at in a note marred with erasures, might be a charming inclusion in some stories. Here, I’m referring to habit. Relying upon wishy-washy sentences is like pointing toward story with a broom when only a cross-bow will do. The reader might follow your hand down the broom’s handle just fine, but its bristles all point in slightly different directions. Which should the reader follow?
Spare nouns and verbs, on the other hand, harness energy that creates a clear trajectory your reader can follow. Should every sentence read that way? No. A reader can become inured to any overused technique, including declaration.
Besides, a crossbow isn’t your average, everyday weapon. Wield only when needed to impel a sharpened point so it will stick.
Go to wherever you are in your work-in-progress, page backwards, and share the most recent declarative sentence you wrote. Give us context so we understand its power. If you had to scroll through several pages, did you come across other sentences that might be simplified to better help your reader follow the story?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!