Monthly Archives: January 2011

Do Settings Matter?

Writing instructors caution against the “info dump,” long sections of description that deliver too much information for a reader to realistically absorb and retain.

True, the classics are filled with just such description. From Herman Melville and his detailed explanations about whaling to Emily Bronte’s report about angst-filled Heathcliff and the gloomy Wuthering Heights, readers wade throug are immersed in the time and culture of their stories.

Not so, contemporary fiction. Can we conclude, then, that setting no longer matters in the books we write? Hardly. One of the things that made the Harry Potter series so popular was the rich, imaginative setting in Hogwarts, the magical school for witches and wizards.

Today’s writer should conceive of a vivid setting, just as the writers of old did. But our task may be a tad harder. Rather than delivering the setting up front, or as a “time out” in the action, we must give the goods on the run. Action must go forward even while we deliver the necessary tidbits to paint the scene.

Take a look at the opening of By Darkness Hid, the Christy award winning novel by Jill Williamson:

Achan stumbled through the darkness toward the barn. The morning cold sent shivers through his threadbare orange tunic. He clutched a wooden milking pail at his side and held a flickering torch in front to light his way.

He wove between dark cottages in the outer bailey of the castle, mindful to keep his torch clear of the thatched roofs. Most of the residents of Sitna Manor still slept. Only a few of the twenty-some peasants, slaves, and strays serving Lord Nathak and Prince Gidon stirred at this hour.

In these two short paragraphs we have simple action that also delivers important description. The story is just getting started, but we already know quite a bit—basic information about one of the characters, the time of day, and a feel for the place. Later we’ll learn that there’s even more tucked into these few sentences, but I’m not giving any spoilers. 😉

The key to good description today is to dribble bits of information into the action rather than coming to a full stop to deliver a laundry list of facts.

For an excellent article about world building—written for writers of speculative fiction but helpful to any fiction writer, I think—visit Speculative Faith (and if you leave a comment, you’ll be eligible to win a free copy of the author’s book).

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Repetition and Redundancy

At first glance, someone might think the title to this post is redundant, but these two phenomena—repetition and redundancy—are actually different and therefore I am not truly saying the same thing using different words. Indeed, the one can sometimes serve the writing whereas the other is always deadly.

First a look at repetition. One repetition problem occurs when the author repeats an action. The character is about to step into the street, but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from walking in front of an oncoming car. Some chapters later, this same character is about to lean over a porch railing but someone calls to him. As he turns, he is saved from … You get the idea. These incidents may be set in different places, but the plot point is repetitious.

However, repetition primarily occurs at the “word choice” level. Either in dialogue or in narrative, the author relies on the same word over and over, either throughout the manuscript or throughout a scene, a paragraph, or a sentence.

Repetition draws attention to the word—and therefore, the person or object—that is being repeated. If the object isn’t intended to be the focus, the repetition draws attention from what the readers should be thinking about.

One author I edited used the word “door” so often in one scene, it was hard to focus on what was happening that moved the story forward. The character walked to the door, turned the door handle, opened the door, slammed the door, went to the car door, opened the car door, slid through the open door, closed the door. And yes, I may be exaggerating, but not by much. 😉

Even names can be repeated to the point of distraction.

I remember one manuscript I critiqued in which the two characters, who were the only ones in the room, used each other’s names in every line of dialogue throughout a scene.

Repetition’s ability to draw attention, however, can be something an author uses intentionally. Abraham Lincoln’s short Gettysburg Address is a wonderful example of the positive use of repetition. Notice the words I’ve marked.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

There are actually others that I didn’t mark—devotion, dead, consecrate, conceived, rather, It is, for us. The overall effect is a piece that is poetic and nearly musical. The repetition creates a rhythm as well as a focus.

Generally such an extensive use of repetition isn’t appropriate for fiction, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. There may be a highly emotional piece of internal monologue that lends itself to just such a strong use of repetition.

Redundancy is a different animal. Rather than repeating an event or words, an author employing redundancy is rewording what he has already said. I elaborated on its use in fiction (without naming it) in my last post (see point number five).

Sadly, redundancy has no positive use that I’ve discovered. Instead, it slows a story, at best, and at worst, insults the intelligence of readers, though the author may be more in doubt about his own ability to get his ideas across than about his readers’ ability to comprehend what he’s saying.

In short, repetition must be used judiciously and redundancy, not at all.

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For a more complete treatment of redundancy, see “Redundancy And Sleep.”

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