Crocodile Tears and Crying Wolf – the negative effect of repetition on your writing

Bird… bird… bird… Personally, I prefer the Skrillex/Trashmen mashup versions 🙂

There are two types of unintentional repetition in writing. I’m not talking about intentional repetition, related to storyline or humour (the only thing you need to be concerned about there, is that your plot makes sense for characters to revisit scenarios more than once, and that your hilarious repetitions in dialogue and description are in fact funny).

Unintentional repetition comes in two forms.

The first is word-blindness, where you have used a key word more than necessary in a passage, making it sound clunky to the new reader. These are usually forgivable, and easy to miss for the novice writer while rushing through a proofread:

She shut her eyes as she heard the door shut behind her. Why was he shutting her out like this? She shut the thought off immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.

This type of repetition is usually cured by checking a thesaurus:

She closed her eyes as she heard the door slam behind her. Why was he excluding her like this? She blocked the thought immediately. She decided to go to the store instead, but then remembered at this time of night it would already be shut.

Not every word you replace has to have the exact meaning. Note that ‘slam’ is more descriptive of action and emotion, while ‘blocked’ is a different internal action, but serves the same purpose in illustrating the protagonist’s attitude. You don’t have to replace every incidence of your ubiquitous word – it’s fine to keep one in where appropriate, and you’ll find it becomes much less of a nuisance when pared down to the minimum of appearances per scene.

Another form of word-blindness is The Room Full of Pillars:

She stepped out from behind the pillar, and faced the pillar. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing the pillars, until eventually she reached the pillar in the middle. The pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her pillar.

The same scene could take place in The Forest Full of Trees or The Auditorium Full of Seats.

If you have a scene which involves more than two of anything – pillars, kittens, cars, nameless children, police officers, protesters, apples, pubs – find some way of describing the scene to your readers so that they can see what you see in your mind’s eye without feeling as though they’ve been left in a stock warehouse of your writing without an inventory.

With children, animals and crowds, it’s easy enough to give them names, or a passing description. Even a car can be described shortly, without sounding clunky or dated – ‘the red car’ or ‘the red muscle/sports/hatchback car’ is sufficient, while ‘the red Audi R10 with super-slick wheels’ will have your readers recalling how it caught fire on Top Gear several seasons ago. So unless that’s your intention, try to limit your taste in consumer product envy regarding briefly transitional objects.

People can be described in all sorts of ways. Depending on the tone and attitude of your protagonist/narrative voice, accompanied by varying levels of political correctness or offensiveness. You would be safe to describe a child in a woolly hat, or a man with a limp in order to identify them. You might cause a few bloodstreams to boil if you referred to the child’s ethnic group in slang terms, or the man’s conveniently obvious mental condition in the same way, when his only purpose in your plot is to fill a gap in the crowd. But with satirical novels, as with the author Tom Sharpe, even that borders on acceptable in context.

Mix it up a bit, though. You don’t want your crowd scene to be depicted as a parade of differently-coloured woolly hats – you’ll run out of colours, for one thing…

The child in the red hat was being chased by a dozen children, the ringleader in the pink hat, closely followed by one in a yellow hat, one in an orange hat, and then three of them were wearing very similar blue hats, but Officer Rainbow could see that one was turquoise, one was Royal blue and one was aquamarine, a child in a magenta hat was egging them all on, especially the one in the peach hat, and the only one who appeared to be in any doubt was the one in the chartreuse hat, which the Officer would later describe in his report as ‘Forest green, possibly Kelly, but not quite Khaki’.

…In the same way, a crowd scene can be crippled (pun) by over-enthusiastic issuing by the author of quirks, disabilities and passing viral infections. Do not hand out warts, boils, speech impediments, age-related conditions and man-flu in a cavalier fashion. For a start, why would any of these people be in a crowd scene, unless they’re keen to catch something new???

The man with the running nose and thinning hair picked up the pool cue and launched himself at the one-legged lady. The boy with the rampant teenage acne snatched the dartboard from the wall, and knocked the girl with the lisp unconscious. Three seconds later, two children in a red woolly hat and an aubergine woolly hat respectively, one of them eating a Dairylea Dunker and the other one with Asperger’s Syndrome, picked up the snooker table, threw it across the bar at the barman who couldn’t speak English (not the one with the Rastafarian toupee, weeping facial bedsores and an aunt with morbid consumption), and all hell broke loose.

N.B. The above scene might work if it takes place in a doctor’s surgery or hospital waiting-room.

Back to the embarrassment of scenery/furniture that has bred beyond all control in your story. Of course, you can’t put woolly hats on pillars, name them Fred, give them chicken pox or an allergy to small coinage. Pillars, coffee mugs, front doors etc. can be any colours you want, made of a wide variety of materials (although again, once you’ve gone from sandstone to bronze, you’ve still got to fit in a story around your vast knowledge of chemical compounds and load-bearing solid matter). The best way to get around a multitude of identical inanimate objects is to think outside the box – what their properties are, their purpose in the story, and their effect on the characters:

She stepped out from behind her shield of stone, and faced her target. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing through the tall shadows, until eventually she reached the featureless tower in the middle. The other pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her hiding place.

‘Other pillars’ is a manageable reference to the first pillar – but you can only get away with using it once.

This leads us neatly into the other form of repetition – the repetition of Actions, that our characters seem to think is what makes them three-dimensional, living, breathing, frequently sighing, eye-rolling and bottom-lip-chewing flesh and blood beings.

From The Room Full of Pillars we dive straight into The Lovers’ Arms:

Her eyes filled with tears as she leaned forward and took his left hand in her right hand. In her right hand she had hold of the horse Shalimar’s reins, and in his left hand was his briefcase and her Harrod’s hat-box. A tear rolled down and landed on their joined hands. “Oh my dearest,” he sighed, leaning forward and cupping her chin with his hand. “You have no need to cry.” Tears sprang to attention in her eyes as he leaned forward towards her, while his eyes shone with tears. He wiped them away with both hands, sighing in frustration. “But you are the only one!” she sighed, leaning forward and seizing his lapels passionately in her fists, weeping profusely. Their fingers still entwined, tears pricking at her eyelashes, he leaned forward, simultaneously brushed back her hair, gave the horse Shalimar a sugar-lump and a friendly pat on the hindquarters, clasped her face between his two hands and leaned forward to kiss her. “My darling,” he sighed, and his tears torrented forth while she bravely held hers in check – he mustn’t see her as weak! “I believe you!”

Unless your characters are the ten-armed aliens of Betelgeuse, remember that your characters are limited to one pair of hands each. Try to remember where they are, and when they were put there.

Also, try to recall the correct sequence in which crying happens.

How often are your character’s sighing, and is it related in any way to a medical condition?

And also – there are only a fixed number of times that a person can lean forward before they have prostrated themselves fully on the floor.

Prostrated

The same goes for characters who frequently ‘turn to look out of the window’ or ‘turn away to gaze at the distant mountains’ either mid-speech, between contemplating their own navel, or to function as a narrative pause in any other events at the time. If your character is directed to look away from the plot and out at the scenery at any point, make sure something is going on out there requiring their attention. (If it’s distant mountains, they had better be massively significant later on).

I know how it works. You are watching the scene unfold in your head, the dialogue is flowing, and you know, at key moments, that your characters will show some form of reaction, illustrating their emotions or mind-set. So you reach for your ‘realism’ toolkit of shorthand reactions. Rolling eyes. Biting lower lip. Scratching head. Wringing hands (as many as they’ve got). Scuffing toecaps. Farting nervously? No – better stick with rolling eyes again. That’s realistic enough… If your character is a rabbit with myxomatosis, go for your life with the optical twitching and chewing on one’s own body parts.

If you find you are fond of a trait you have ‘invented’ for your character, try counting the number of times you show this trait in your prose so far. Whether it’s that she chews on her hair, or he fingers his moustache. Why authors find these sadly-afflicted nervous wrecks attractive as protagonists (and antagonists) is a mystery, but a reader should not be brainwashed by the end of your book into pulling their own hair out by the roots one at a time, or letting their eyes roll around like marbles, particularly while driving. Keep your character’s nail-biting, earlobe-tugging, mouth-chomping, foot-stamping and hair-tossing to a minimum. More than once, as with anything else, and it loses its impact.

That’s the point. You want your story to have impact, and you want your characters to leave an impression.

A love scene is not defined by the number of times the characters say “I love you” – more than once each in exchange, and the power drains out of it. The same goes for sighing, storming out, slamming doors, stamping, bursting into tears, and blatant attempts at attention-seeking.

Someone who suddenly cuts out 6000 calories a day and reduces their portion sizes is on a diet (or possibly a hunger strike). Someone who has only eaten a lettuce leaf a day for the past 20 years just has a small appetite (or is a rabbit, hopefully not with myxomatosis). The difference is change.

If your characters are constantly demonstrating repetitive ways of illustrating their mood, mindset, and characterisation itself, they are static – even predictable. Nothing about them changes, moves on, develops, affects the plot, or in turn, is affected by the plot in your story. Just because your protagonist chews gum while she thinks, or flicks his Zippo on and off when trying to control his temper, doesn’t make them enthralling characters to the reader. Not after the sixth or seventh time it happens, especially.

Does your heroine cry crocodile tears every few paragraphs, and is your hero crying wolf with his adolescent tantrums? How are you going to make the reader care when something really dramatic happens – and if you’ve used up all of their ‘personality’ already, how are you even going to portray it?

How do your characters put up with one another?

The other problem for you as the writer, is that repetitions at this scale mean your book is not ready for an editor to look at, let alone an agent or publisher. It does not yet contain enough of your writing. It merely contains a bit of your writing, replicated a number of times and in various word order. If you ask an editor to fix it at this stage, the result of such major surgery will not be your writing – anything they create to replace your repetitions will be their writing (you will basically be needing a co-writer or ghost-writer to rewrite your book for you, rather than an editor to proofread, correct grammar, and spell-check). These additional, necessary ‘edits’ will be reflected in the huge unsightly gaps that subsequently appear in your bank balance.

In other words, address the problem yourself first, before reaching for your wallet and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook.

Realism is smart. But repetition is not.

L 🙂 xxx

If you’re seeing this post in your email inbox, and wondering how it got here, you can change or turn off email notifications in your WordPress Reader by clicking on EDIT below each blog you follow in the list here – https://wordpress.com/following/edit/

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Crocodile Tears and Crying Wolf – the negative effect of repetition on your writing

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Such a good reminder. I’m definitely at fault for abusing repetition without even thinking about it. You probably are too. An in depth post that’s Worth a read.

  2. I loved the examples in this post, especially the hand placements in “The Lovers’ Arms”. I may try to write something soon and will watch out for repetitions.

  3. Until I started writing a blog, I never realised how easy this is to do unintentionally. I write about dolls and basically, it’s a constant battle not to use the word “doll”. I am usually writing about what I love about the dolls, so it is also a constant battle not to use the word “love” too … This means that problems with plot development, assigning emotion etc do not overly trouble me, but do you know what kind of repetition drives me mad? Unconscious alliteration – “the Debbie Doll’s hair was dry, dusty and dishevelled”. I do it all the time and unfortunately, there are times when I don’t notice it in my proofread. It’s annoying as hell to come across when you’re reviewing an old post.

    Anyhoo, thankyou – this was a very interesting article, and your examples made me smile …

    • Thank you! Yes, that must be the bane of technical authors and reviewers too – imagine writing about cars and constantly having to ‘steer clear’ of the word ‘car’ 🙂 Alliteration has to be handled sparingly, like spicing up a recipe – a little for effect is great, too much and it’s spoilt – that’s a really good observation!

  4. Great post. These are the elements of craft that can really trip up a new writer. I used to stumble over this stuff in my own writing. Now, I’m so sensitive to it that I can’t read anything without noticing how many times “door” appears in a paragraph.

    • I’m still doing it, to my own shame – which is why I created these send-ups as examples. I’m not quite this extreme, but as I also edit for others, I can see the rookie mistakes like these (not even joking, about a few of them!) and they bring back hot blushing reminders of my earliest word-blindness. Even in a recent post, I checked it after publishing and had to go back and delete about 9 occurrences of a word that is apparently completely invisible to to me – still 🙂

      • I have a problem with the word “that” that I’ll never get rid of. That word is one that continues to appear in every sentence that I write. I still have to word search every “that” that appears in my ms and edit them out. That’s a lot of that’s!

  5. Great post! There’s a time and a place for repetition, but it is so jarring when a word’s repeated unintentionally. The only thing I’d add is that sometimes trying to avoid repetition gets writers into even more trouble. I’m reminded of this story from James J Kilpatrick:

    ‘Have no unreasonable fear of repetition. True, the repetition of a particular word several times in the same paragraph can strike a jarring note, but ordinarily the problem arises differently. The story is told of a feature writer who was doing a piece on the United Fruit Company. He spoke of bananas once; he spoke of bananas twice; he spoke of bananas yet a third time, and now he was desperate. “The world’s leading shippers of the elongated yellow fruit,” he wrote.’

    • You have a good point – repetition is less jarring in noun or singular ‘object’ form. Verbs and adjectives which are unintentionally repeated seem to be the main barrier to creating charismatic writing 🙂

  6. “She stepped out from behind her shield of stone, and faced her target. Pressing her back to the pillar at first, eventually she stepped bravely away, passing through the tall shadows, until eventually she reached the featureless tower in the middle. The other pillars stretched out in all directions. She looked back longingly at the safety of her hiding place.”

    Don’t you think this paragraph has too many of the letter ‘l’ in it? Unconscious alliteration could be considered here as repetition in the way it sounds when you read it aloud, the breaks are short. Does it have anything to do with your name, Lisa Scullard? I could be wrong. There’s plenty to think about in this post, I loved reading it.

    • Hahaha 😀 Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for reading!

      Obviously it’s not meant as a serious passage of writing, but if I was using it, I’d definitely rewrite it more than once! Alliteration has been mentioned earlier in the comments as another repetition pet peeve of readers and writers. Some letters in the English language appear more frequently than others, and there’s not much you can do to avoid that. Try writing a 500 word short story without using words with the letter ‘T’ in, for example.

      Never thought about the alliteration in my name. I only ever hear it out loud when I have a doctor’s appointment to attend 🙂

      L 🙂 x

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s