Tag Archives: words

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

Parallel Structure

apples and orangesHow many times have you heard some variation to the old adage, You can’t add apples and oranges? I dare say, we’ve all heard it repeatedly and may have used the phrase ourselves. It creates a good image and is helpful in understanding a variety of concepts. As it happens, I think it also helps in understanding parallel structure, also called parallel construction or parallelism.

Of course with parallel structure, we’re talking about words and phrases and clauses, not fruit, but the concept is still the same.

The point of parallel structure, like most grammar, is to create clarity and readability:

Parallel structure adds both clout and clarity to your writing. When you use parallel structure, you increase the readability of your writing by creating word patterns readers can follow easily.(“Parallel Structure,” Evergreen Writing Center)

The key, I believe, to utilize parallel construction consistently is the idea of creating word patterns—or putting all the oranges together and all the apples together.

At the word level, parallel structure “adds” nouns with nouns, verbs with verbs, and adverbs with adverbs. Hence, in a list, all the items need to be of like kind:

Catlyn enjoys writing, reading, and sleeping.

Not Parallel:
Jordan likes books, movies, and to take long walks.

However, these words must also be in the same form. Hence, a verb ending in -ing should not be “added” to a verb in the infinitive form, or the to- form.

Oscar gained a reputation for his blocking, catching, and running.

Not Parallel:
DeShawn likes hitting blockers, tackling ball carriers, and to strip the ball from the runner.

At the phrase level, parallel structure “adds” phrases of like kind, constructed in a similar way.

Whether at the ball park or at the skate rink, he was always on the go.

Not Parallel:
Whether at the mall or shopping on line, she’s always looking for a bargain.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
Whether by himself or with a group of other guys, he always found something to do.

The last example is not technically lacking in parallelism—the conjunction and “adds” two prepositional phrases. However the first one has no modifiers and the second one has another prepositional phrase modifying it. If the rhythm in the paragraph requires strict parallelism, this last example doesn’t do it.

Here are a few similar example.

Not As Parallel As It Could Be:
He pulled out a box of toys, a pile of comics, and a couple shoes. [The first two nouns are described by prepositional phrases, the last one is not].

Ary prefers driving fast cars, drinking strong drinks, and lounging in front of the TV. [The first two verb forms have objects, the last one is described by a sequence of prepositional phrases].

Parallel structure also applies to compound clauses, that is, to a group of words with a subject and verb.

Dad often spoke of his older sister who put herself through college but who never did anything with her education.

Not Parallel:
The coach told his players that they should play as a team, that they should share the ball, and not to be selfish.

As with words and phrases, form also matters in the structure of parallel clauses.

Not Parallel:
The shopper expected that she would find a new dress, that a salesman would ring up her purchase, and that the item would be bagged. [The first two verbs are active, the last is passive].

Apples and oranges. Keep them separate. Your readers will thank you, though they probably won’t know what you’ve done to make your writing so clear and so easy to understand.


Filed under Sentence structure