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.