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  "Play It Again, Sam" - Redundancy in Writing
By Tina Morgan

On second thought, please don't!

One of the biggest mistakes I see beginning writers make in their longer works is redundancy. Repeat words, phrases, ideas and character traits. The problem doesn't show up as much in shorter works, but it rears its ugly head quite often in novel and novella length works.

Repeat Words:

One of the mistakes I make most often with my writing is repeating words. I use the same adjective, adverb, verb or noun repeatedly in one paragraph. Before I know it, all of my characters are doing the same thing. Think that's not a problem? After all, all of the characters are supposed to be doing the same thing? Consider the following example.

Aydan stood by the fire, his shoulders hunched as if to ward off a blow. Riona walked over to stand beside him. She placed a gentle hand on his arm. Her presence went unnoticed. Danaar glowered at them from where he stood by the door.

Every sentence but one uses a variation of the word 'stand'. Makes for a very boring and terribly redundant description. But what if I did it this way?

Aydan leaned against the fireplace mantle, his shoulders hunched as if to ward off a blow. Riona walked to his side and laid a gentle hand upon his arm. Her presence went unnoticed. Danaar glowered at them from the doorway. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, his armor creaking in the stillness.

Now the reader has a better idea of what is happening in the room from just those few lines. Riona is standing still beside Aydan in order to lay her hand on his arm, but the obvious statement "to stand beside him" does not have to be stated. Danaar is no longer just standing like a tin soldier in the doorway, he's moving restlessly. These examples are pretty cluttered with characters but they serve to point out how a word can become redundant.

Repeat Phrases:

Phrases are similar to repeat words and can cause serious problems in dialogue. Sometimes we fall in love with a phrase we've either heard or invented ourselves and we over-use it. It might be difficult to cut these pet phrases from your work, but think of it this way, How effective would it have been if Arnold Schwartzenegger said, "I'll be back" repeatedly throughout the movie, Terminator. The line has more impact because it's delivered one time and one time only.

The same is also true for the memorable "You can't handle the truth" line from Jack Nicholson in the film A Few Good Men. (Of course the intensity with which it is delivered makes it even more memorable).

Imagine if he's said that line forty times through out the film? The impact would really be wasted.

Repeat Ideas:

Let's face it, one of the most difficult tasks of writing a full length novel can be finding new and interesting ways of getting your protagonist out of trouble. But part of the challenge is forcing our selves and our characters to grow.

Having a handsome man come to the aid of our romance heroine during every crises might be a fantasy for some writers but it can get pretty boring if she never learns to stand up for herself. Or if a wizard says a spell and suddenly our hero overcomes every obstacle in our fantasy novel, there's not going to be much of an incentive to keep reading.

Challenge yourself and your characters. Make them find other ways to solve their problems and then give them brand new problems to overcome.

Repeat Character Traits:

The protagonist in my fantasy novel has a tendency to run his fingers through his hair when he's nervous. As I was re-reading the manuscript, I noticed a lot of my characters ran their fingers through their hair when they were nervous. Oops. Time for them to develop idiosyncrasies of their own and stop copying from Aydan. I have altered it so that now one bites her lower lip and another scowls at everyone.

Traits can be repeated not only from one character to another but also within the same character. A recent critique of another writer's story made me very aware of this particular problem.

After 20 chapters of one character's self-doubt, I was getting a little tired of reading about how insecure she was. Simply telling the reader that the character is insecure over and over again does not create a memorable character - nor does it endear the character to the reader in any way. (This also falls into the realm of 'show don't tell')

Find other ways to demonstrate the character's weaknesses. Perhaps demonstrate them by way of contrasting actions. Show your heroine overcoming her own fears and self-doubt in unexpected ways that frighten her - this highlights the initial weakness more than a description ever could.

Make good use of your character's physical posturing and bodily reactions to reflect their inner state of mind. This avoids you telling the reader what the character is feeling, and shows them by example instead.

When do you fix the 'repeat' problem?

Some writers can keep these problems in mind while they're writing. They find it easier to keep an eye on their trouble spots while they're in the first draft stage. Others prefer to wait until the story is written and then go back over it, correcting their mistakes. It's a highly personal decision. If you need to let your muse run and write the story quickly so you don't forget anything, then by all means do so. Just don't forget to go back over it with your own particular weaknesses in mind.

Throughout this article, I purposely used the same word in each of the headers:
Repeat. By the time the reader has finished the article, they're either ignoring the word or growing very annoyed at its repetitive use.

If you find you are too close to your work to see the redundancies, find a good critique partner who will give you an honest review of your work.

Repetition Used Well

One instance of a repeated theme, using repeat characters and situations, and done extremely well comes from the movie Groundhog Day.

The movie's strength comes from having a situation set up where the audience expects each day to repeat in an endless loop. The fun rests in watching Bill Murray try to make each day different than the last. In other words, he's actively trying to break the repetitive cycle.

Even in a film about repetition, the author made good use of creating new and interesting ways of breaking the monotony (and the predictability), so that even the repeated events always had a twist to the outcome.

Copyright 2002 Tina Morgan


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