Wednesday, June 06, 2018

5 Ways Repetition Is Hurting Your Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Aside from a great one liner, a declaration of love, or a juicy piece of gossip, most people don’t like to hear the same thing over and over. This is doubly true for readers, and repeating yourself in a novel can make your story feel redundant, stale, or even poorly edited.

When you consider your typical novel runs between 80,000 and 100,000 words, it’s no wonder words get repeated. Some of those words readers don’t notice (such as said) and others stand out even if we only use them twice (like antidisestablishmentarianism). While it’s impossible to go back and check every instance of every word to see how often and where you used it, a little awareness of what you’re saying can not only tighten your novel, but make the story read more smoothly.

Let’s look at some areas at high risk for repetition.

Repeated Information That Gets Past the First Draft

Where you reveal information matters in a story—the right spot heightens tensions and emotions, the wrong spot kills it. Trouble is, it’s not always clear where the best spot to reveal that information is, so it’s common in a first draft to throw it in early on when you feel you need it, then add it later when you really do, then decide it should go somewhere else later on. But if you forget all those bits are there, they wind up giving readers a sense of déjà vu.

In a first draft, these repeats are fine, so put them where you want to. You’re still working out the story and it’s easier to add things and cut later than to stop your momentum and edit. And if you actually want to repeat those details, by all means leave them in. But once that draft is done, pay attention to when information is revealed and make sure you take out the extra information. You might even make a list of key details that need to be in the story and then check to see where else you’ve mentioned them.

(Here’s more on keeping track of your story details with a story bible)

Repeated Phrases We Love to Use

We all have favorite phrases when we write. I’m partial to “eyes widened” and “fell into step beside her” and I always have to check how many times I’ve used those in a draft. Maybe you have favorite reactions, or ways of showing a particular emotion, but odds are you have crutch phrases you fall back on every book.

Some favorite phrases are book specific, such a fantasy that uses made-up swears, or a historical that uses local sayings to add flavor. A little goes a long way here, and using them too often starts to stand out over the story itself.

Then there are the stock descriptions we fall back on, like a similar way of always describing a smell or a sound. If something sounds a little too familiar to you, you might see how often you use that line or something close to it. If you see it shows up a lot, try rewriting a few to avoid that stale prose feel.

(Here’s more on eliminating often used phrases and words from your story)

Repeated Common Words that Don’t Add Much to the Story

Smiled, looked, frowned, shrugged, sighed, scowled, etc. These solid, always-good verbs show emotions, and boy do we use them a lot. There’s nothing inherently wrong with these, but if you notice you have a lot of “He smiled” or “She frowned” instead of more descriptive emotions, it could be a red flag your not fleshing out your scenes enough.

Also be wary of movement words, such as walked, ran, turned, stood, sat, stopped, etc. While these are all good words, if your protagonist always walks and never sneaks or shambles, or tip toes, or scurries, you could be missing out on opportunities to develop the story.

(Here's more on editing weak words into strong ones)

Repeated Words Too Close Together

Sometimes we can’t avoid using a word twice in close proximity, but the same word read right after each other just hits the ear funny. They stand out, and that can jar readers right out of the story. The easiest way to find these is to read large chunks of your manuscript in one sitting and pay attention to the text. You’re not reading for the story, you’re checking the words and how they flow. When you spot repetitions, edit one out.

(Here’s more on trimming unnecessary words from your manuscript)

Repeated Structures That Sound Awkward

Too many sentences in a row with the same structure sounds repetitious. Common offenders here ares always putting the dialogue tags in the same places, starting a sentence with introductory clauses, and talk-move-talk dialogue. How you format the words is just as important as the words used. For example:
Bob ran to the door, stopped, dropped and rolled. His gun fell, sliding toward the couch, vanishing underneath. He swore, cursing his butterfingers, crawling closer. The zombie charged, drooling all over the floor, growling like an animal. Bob grabbed the gun, swung it around, pulled the trigger. You are getting sleepy, very sleepy…
Hear the similar rhythm? It’s almost hypnotic, and not in a good way. Vary your sentences so the rhythm flows more naturally and breaks the sentences up.

(Here’s more on the importance of the rhythm of the words)

The upside of repetitions, is that they’re probably one of the easier things to edit. They tend to stand out so we can find them, and they often give us specific words to search for. It’s time-consuming, yes, but worth it in the end.

Not only will eliminating repetitions tighten up your manuscript, it’ll save words as well—very valuable if you have a too-long manuscript you’re trying to cut down. It’ll also help keep every page fresh and interesting, because readers won’t feel like they’ve just read that.

What are some of your favorite phrases? What words do you see repeated a lot in novels?

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Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. Very right. Repetition can do all kinds of harm; our writer's group calls it a "stutter" when words get reused, and often any word but the most common can be a problem if it even appears twice on the same page.

    Although sometimes a word is inescapable; if two people are wrestling over a gun, "gun" is going to reappear-- but we should still make some effort to keep it fresh. ("The barrel" or "pistol" can help, though we shouldn't be afraid to use the obvious.) The one that drives me nuts is how rarely there's a non-silly alternative for "the building."

    That most stubborn case might be "the he-hes," when too many sentences begin with the same He, or She. Swapping the character's name back in helps a little, but not as much as you'd think-- in this case it's the whole grammar that's repetitive; mixing in sentences with something else as their subject (from the environment? an "If"?) would make the whole narrative more layered than just a stream of What He Did Next. It's certainly better than "Burly Detective Syndrome," where writers try too hard to find alternatives to names and pronouns.

    And, all of this has to do with *unintended* repetition. Any time we repeat a word because we're actually trying to remind readers of its last use and compare them, the effect can be different.

    "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields..."

    1. Great phrase, "stutter." Good clarifications as well for when repetition is just fine, or even intentional.

  2. A great topic to spend time on today -- conscious, deliberate repetition is a wonderful tool for any writer -- which is all the more reason to get rid of the unconscious, accidental repetitions. Thank you again!

  3. The "Repeated Common Words that Don’t Add Much to the Story" are ones I look for as I write my first draft. Sometimes the word used is the best one but I try not to have them in the same paragraph, or, better yet, not on the same page.

    Repeated phrases are something I put in with cliches, which I also avoid during the first draft.

    1. I have a list of words I tend to overuse, and I search for them on the first edit pass.

  4. I have a particular problem with 'smile' and 'laugh.' I have a protagonist who does both a lot, and I have trouble figuring out how to keep it fresh. Suggestions welcome!

    1. So many do, which is why "The Emotional Thesaurus" has done so well for Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi (grin).

      I look for other clues and physical traits of happiness, or go one layer deeper to see what other emotions are at play in the scene. For example, if the character is laughing, is it because something was funny or is she feeling carefree? Is she flirting? What are her reasons for smiling and laughing all the time? If she's the protagonist, her life can't be all THAT good (grin). There must be some bad stuff going on.

      Treat it the same way we treat ideas--don't grab the first thing that comes to mind. If she's smiling, what else is she feeling right then? What other reaction will show something new about her or the situation? Can she think a "smiling" or "happy" thought instead of having a physical reaction?

    2. Thanks! I just got the Emotional Thesaurus, and it looks super helpful.

      I particularly appreciate your question, "What are her reasons for smiling and laughing?" It's actually her main character flaw that she is a bit cruel -- she takes pleasure at the misfortune of others. The arc, then is for her to become more empathetic. So, I think I can do a lot with putting more in about why she is smiling/laughing at a particular moment and how that changes over the course of the novel.

  5. I do this all the time. I hit on a word I like and my mind just throws out repetitions or slight variations as I write. I often miss it in the edit, too. It drives me mad. In the end I coded a tool to address the problem. I finally got round to cleaning it up and making it public a couple of years ago - if it's of any use.

    1. Nice, thanks! I bet that will help a lot of folks.

      It's easy to do. Some words and phrases just sound right to our ears, and we can't help but use them.