Multiple Choice Prose

When I’m on a tear and the words flow, I sometimes cross that one stubborn line. Incensed with the obstruction I appeal to efficiency with a mark for review then move on. However, when my mind reverses to the skipped line due to the Zeigarnik Effect, all the work from then on is degraded by the split attention. Thus, I’m left with the less optimal, but not least optimal, choice of hammering out that line till I’m content. (I’ll warn here if you’re never happy enough to leave a line alone then that’s a larger sense of self-doubt you need to face.)

I go about this is they way most people do by rewriting the line until it’s acceptable. However, when I’m being pulled about the page it’s difficult to concentrate and I invariably rewrite the same sentence or two asking which sounds better. If only a couple words it’d be simple but the previous line might fall out of my head by the time I write over it. That frustration led each subsequent iteration onto the page for review.

Here’s a recent example from my work. For context, a young prince has asked his colonel to chase an escaping enemy.

“We won’t be doing that Sire. Not unless the General orders us to. He knows that by the time the messenger reaches him and his order is returned it’ll be too late for us to catch the enemy.”

“But he might want us to pursue, might he not?”

The Colonel leaned in close, as close as he could in the saddle.

“We do not do what we want. We do what we must. That’s for the commander to decide.”

“We do not do what we want. We do what we must. The commander will decide.”

“We do not do what we want. We do what we must. The commander decides such things.”

“We do not do what we want. We do what we must. That’s the commander’s decision.”

“We do not do what we want. We do what we must. The commander decides.”

“We don’t do what we want. We do what we must. The commander decides.”

“We do not do what we want. We do what’s needed. The General decides.”

*From here on I’ll spare you the repeats.

“————————————–. We do what is needed. The General will decide.”

“————————————–. —————————-. He decides.”

“————————————–. —————————-. He’ll decide.”

“————————————–. —————————-. The commander orders.”

“————————————–. —————————-. Those are the commander’s orders.”

“————————————–. —————————-. Those are our orders.”

“————————————–. —————————-. That’s our job.”

“————————————–. —————————-. That’s our duty.”

“————————————–. —————————-. That’s our solemn duty.”

This is ridiculous overkill, but I like this exercise. It forces me to scrutinize my writing. With all these lines jotted in a spree, it easier to find what I like, what I repeated, and why.

Here, the Prince wants to chase the enemy at once (for personal reasons, trust me). The Colonel doesn’t want to chase the enemy nor deal with the restless Prince. The Prince’s conception on the chain of command is incomplete (due to a life of ease where he’d disproportional control over others). He lacks knowledge of military practicalities unlike the Colonel.

For this line I wanted something short and to the point. A line from the Colonel that would shut up the Prince within the constraints of communicating between the different social classes. The very first line summed up what I wanted but it just wasn’t the best fit.

The variance “what is needed” read wordy with just the single extra syllable, as did the longer final sentences. Needed could imply a minimal requirement. Needs are fewer than wants; they’re accomplished faster at a basic level. Must gives no alternatives. I also didn’t like contractions. The Colonel carries conciseness. Don’t act on one’s own. Follow the chain of command. Nothing fancy in his talk when he wants to highlight his laconic, martial personality. Also it sounds like he’s babying the Prince. He wouldn’t appeal to his honor (he’s not a real soldier in his eyes). There go the “our duty” and “our job” lines. I didn’t like orders over decides since if orders don’t govern a specific situation it could lead to initiative whereas if an officer decides it removes the soldier’s self-determination. General vs commander was the final choice. Commander won as it applied to both the Colonel’s unit following the General and the Prince following the Colonel.

At last I arrived happily at, “We do not do what we want. We do what we must. The commander decides.”

The line is succinct. Each sentence reads faster with fewer words, narrowing to a fine point. By chance the sentences shrink at the same rate for added effect. First couple words are shaved off the independent clause and the next remove the dependent clause altogether for further structural simplicity. For the sharp tone there’re a lot of hard consonants with long vowels in repetition adding a moroseness when held for emphasis. There’s a prescriptive philosophy here as the commander makes every choice for the soldier’s well-being and what is chosen is by default necessary. In fifteen words only two are longer than one syllable. Those end it and stick out to like CliffsNotes to an already short point as if the Prince needs added help. However, there’s no cursing or shouting from the Colonel, only hinted mockery. He’s not giving a thorny question the Prince can’t answer without acting the fool, just reiterating facts. Any further interpretation is on the Prince’s part affording the Colonel an out.

Don’t expect any reader to scalpel a line with as much effort. This is beyond necessary to enjoy stories. However, when you put this much thought into a line you uncover the root of what you’re conveying. For this story the Colonel’s dialog towards the Prince could continue the social contract bending contempt until the Prince gets the lesson or proves him wrong. Carrying that forward in different ways (dialog and action) would be a boon to their dynamic while offering a small character arc. The reader will pass over this line and lines like it perhaps with an “Oof” but it will leave an impact. Season a story with lines like it every once in a while and you’ll end up in the reader’s head after they’re done.

If you can write ahead of an incomplete line without issue then you’re a blessed individual. If not it might be worth your sanity a few minutes to hammer that quarrelsome line in place. This technique is a small time and headache saver. Try it out. See if you don’t view that tricky line in a new light.

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