Saturday, March 12, 2011

The "repeat" demon

I just realized something.  I'm sitting here working on a crit, and I said that mentioning an effect more than once (like a character feeling a chill) tends to weaken said effect.

It hit me why writers repeat things.  We think it strengthens the effect if readers see it more than once.  That was true for a number of years, but readers' attention spans have changed.  I speak in general, recognizing (and being grateful for) readers who cheerfully read 625-page novels with glee.  According to some writing instructors and some agent blogs, most readers don't want to sit through a lot of descriptions of anything. 

Plus, and maybe more important, most readers assume that something is in the story because it's important.  That means they see it the first time.  There it is - "Fred ambled along the street, hands in his pockets, whistling.  Pathetic how the city wouldn't replace burnt-out streetlights.  A twig snapped somewhere to his left.  That was the third snap in ten minutes.  He felt icy fingers slip down his spine." 

I get the point that Fred's nervous.  It's a darkened street and somebody may be following him.  To use another phrase after that, that also says Fred is nervous, would turn me off. 

But I understand why writers do it.  It goes back to the confidence issue.  We don't have the readership yet that confirms for us "we know how to write".  We get comments from friends and family who will invariably either love or hate our writing.  Crit groups are of great help - definitely - but they often focus on what's wrong and how to improve, not what we're doing right.

When you get a sense that people like what you're writing, you begin to loosen up.  It's like learning how to drive.  Most people need a few weeks or months to change that death grip on the steering wheel.  Once they realize they're 100% in charge of how that vehicle moves, they get profoundly nervous and their fingers lock around the wheel.  That inhibits them from moving smoothly and confidently.  You have to do the same thing in writing. 

Start with a deep love of your project, encourage people to tell you what they enjoy about your writing along with what needs improvement, and believe in yourself.

The other half of that coin is trust in your readers.  Set up each scene right, and you'll only have to mention stuff once for readers to "get it".  Of course, there will be times when something needs to be brought up again, but even that should use different words.

Don't you hate writing advice that says "don't do this, except for sometimes"?  I know, it's frustrating and annoying.  I can swallow it easier with specific examples.  It's straightforward to say "don't repeat yourself, because it tends to weaken rather than strengthen".  Another point bears repeating: writing well is a craft and an art.  It must be practiced before we can be good at it.  For a bunch of us, it takes years of keeping at it before we have something that anybody in the industry can look at and say "That has  promise".

That's why you need an abiding - maybe even obsessive - love of your project.  Me, I've been working steadily on "Street Glass" for half a hair shy of two years.  I've started delving deeper into it using Robert Kernen's book "Building Better Plots".  If your project isn't the thing that keeps your blood rushing, how are you gonna handle those seemingly endless rewrites and tweaks?  And I made that point in another post, so am shutting up about that now.


  1. :^(

    Guilty as charged.

    I have been slicing repetition from my story where I find it, but I am sure I missed some. I am doubly cursed. I'm guilty of all the reasons you give above, but also because part of my "other" job is writing technical training documentation.

    When a new machine arrives at a factory, I write the manuals for it and teach people how to run it. For years, I have used a tell-then-show-then-tell-again approach that is extremely effective for training. Sadly, it is a bit much for fiction writing.


  2. Yeah, having to write training things and other manuals does funny stuff to a fiction writer's head =) Keep at it, though, J. You can't get better without practice. Never give up! Thanks for your comment.

  3. I think we need to be very careful with repeats, just for the very reasons you mention. They can be good occasionally if there is something important we are trying to foreshadow or remind the reader, but they are almost always better as nudges that look at the same information delivered in a different way, like two halves of a circle, completing the picture. I think we're now hardwired that if something is mentioned more than once, it's significant.

    Another way a repeat can be good is if we are trying to misdirect the reader. Because of that expectation that a repeat means something, the reader looks in that direction, and we can slip something else by then as 'not' significant when it really is.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  4. Misdirections, yeah. I've read that those are really for mysteries, but I don't think I agree with that. It can sure be a useful thing in many genres. If you reward the reader with a clever surprise, I think they'll forgive you for putting up a wrong road sign. Thanks for stopping by, Angela.

  5. I so agree that a big reason we overwrite is due to lack of confidence, in our readers or in ourselves. And it IS something you have to get just right. Under-write, and the reader doesn't get it. Over-write, and they just want you to shut up and move on. It takes a lot of writing (and the confidence that comes with practice and success) to find that comfort with yourself and your writing.

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  6. Hi, Becca. It can be hard to gain that confidence. I know when I first heard, "Hey, that piece of yours really hit me" I was surprised I'd been able to touch somebody with simple words. It's funny how you often have to get used to success.

    Thanks for your thoughts here.