Tag Archives: repetition

Repetition Has Many Faces

statue-many-facesGenerally repetition in writing refers to the author’s use of a word or phrase more than once within a passage such as a sentence or perhaps a paragraph or scene. Unless used intentionally, such repetition can be distracting (See “Repetition And Redundancy” for a closer look at this type of repetition) .

However, repetition has more than one face.

For instance, an author may unintentionally give several characters the same quirk. The main character may “worry her bottom lip” in the first chapter, third chapter, and fourth. That’s her tic. But then in chapter five in waltzes a minor character who begins to “worry her bottom lip.” If the mother-in-law and then the pastor’s wife and the sheriff’s deputy all start “worrying their bottom lip,” we have a serious problem.

But even if the repetition doesn’t spread that far, it’s still problematic. Certainly people share nervous habits and even quirks, but the author has used the same wording, which prevents the readers from seeing the peculiarity of the way these two characters, who share the habit, carry it out.

This same principle applies to dialogue as well. If one character has a pet word or ends sentences with something out of the ordinary such as, “so how about that?” no other character should share that tell.

Sometimes the dialogue repetitions are more subtle—the cadence of a sentence, a questioning inflection, specific vocabulary. Each character should have his or her own voice, but when the unusual pops up in Dorothy’s speech and Jasmine’s speech and Miguel’s speech, there’s a problem. Unless the author intentionally shows the characters mimicking each other or coming from an environment that would reasonably influence them to talk in similar ways.

A third face of repetition is that of scenes. Especially in romance and action adventure, love scenes and fight scenes should have a uniqueness so that readers don’t think they lost their place and are re-reading an earlier scene. There should be something different about each battle, about each romantic encounter. Otherwise, that which should engender emotion becomes a source of boredom.

I hate to admit it, but I’ve experienced this kind of ho-hum attitude in some superhero movies. Another monster tipping over cars and kidnapping the hero’s love interest and smashing buildings. Wake me when it’s over. I suppose for those who love the special effects or who haven’t watched a superhero movie before, all the explosions and near misses can be exciting. But the repetition of them reduces tension since we’ve seen that scene before. And reduced tension kills fiction.

Finally, characters can be repeats. No, not precisely so, not in every facet. But authors would be wise to vary some basic character components, starting with physical features. I’ve read manuscripts, for example, with an inordinate number of blue-eyed characters. Or green-eyed. Or both.

In one of my early drafts, I realized I had created all my characters tall. In the same way, be sure that all your characters aren’t beautiful or muscular.

Character social status should also be varied. Besides making my characters tall, I created all of them single. Not particularly realistic. Of course, not every character should be married, either. In fact, not every character should be rich or middle class. Not every character should come from a sordid past. Not every character should live in the suburbs. Not every character should be brilliant or talented or college-educated. Not every character should attend the same church, nor should they all reject religion. Unless, of course, the storyworld you’ve created requires this kind of uniformity.

Aphid_on_dandelionOne more thing writers should avoid when creating characters—making them all the same age. People your story with old as well as young, those facing death and those about to be born, the newly married and the fifty-something’s celebrating their silver anniversary.

A story with variety is much more interesting than one seeded with repetition. Be aware of repetition’s many faces so you can squeeze the life out of the ones you don’t intentionally plant in your story.



Filed under Prose, Repetition

Band-aids Or Surgery

Over at Speculative Faith, a team blog pertaining to a Christian perspective of speculative fiction, one of our authors is discussing what a writer can learn from bad books. In Part 3 (see also Part 1 and Part 2), his latest article, he focuses first on authors filling dialogue with exposition, but then he moves on to using repetitive actions and verbal responses.

In other words, all the characters are randomly standing up or sitting down or exclaiming just like every other character.

One suggestion to fix this problem is to do a word search and catch all those repetitions. Not a bad start—sort of like first aid. But I suggest the word search might better be considered triage—a method to spot the critical problems that need major action at once.

But what action? Isn’t the problem repetition? I don’t think so. I believe the real problem is that the author doesn’t know her characters well enough.

Real people don’t all stand when they’re restless and stare out the window. Some may, but not all. So if three characters in a novel all react in this way, the “fix” is more than looking for a way to change up so they aren’t all doing the same thing.

The real need is to know which characters are type A and which are passive aggressive, which hold their feelings in their clenched fists and which lash out by kicking furniture.

In other words, an author has to individuate his characters—see each as a real person with distinct ways of looking at life and handling stress. Then taking into consideration the character’s proclivities, he needs to have him act and react accordingly.

Recently I had to do major surgery in one of my chapters. I thought one of my secondary characters needed more internal conflict, so I gave him a prideful attitude in a certain situation and had him make a serious mistake because of it. The problem was, my secondary character didn’t have a prideful attitude. That was the main character’s issue. I’d slipped into a comfortable conflict that I’d been dealing with in other scenes, but it didn’t fit this character and had to go.

Surgery is not pleasant. But band-aides only serve as cosmetic fixes. The best way of tackling repetitive character actions is to do the hard work of getting to know each character inside out. When that happens, it’s unlikely an author would make the mistake of giving a Gandolf and a Miss Marple the same kind of action or reaction.

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Filed under Characters