Redundancy in writing and storytelling is a powerful tool. By redundancy, I am talking about repeating statements, thoughts, and descriptions. Within character dialogue it can give sense of neurosis as is the case with Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart. The repetitious statements and rhythm provided by the narrator are maddening, which is perfect because the narrator is a madman. Unfortunately, like all tools, repetition can be used oddly leading to reader confusion and jarring prose.
So in regards to repetition, here are some examples and basic guidelines I’ve come across and employ. None of these are set in stone, but they are something to consider.
Does redundancy enforce or detract from the personality of your character? If your character is a straight shooter throughout the book, would he/she be redundant in how they speak or think? The trap writers fall into is they shape a perfect ‘ah-ha’ line or two that uses redundancy, and because it looks good, they leave it in. They forget about how it impacts the readers view of the character. When introduced earlier in a book, this could create a false sense of who the character is as readers grow to understand them. If it’s done later in the book, it becomes jarring and unbelievable.
It makes sense that characters who are pretentious or neurotic would tend to have more repetition in their dialogue. “As I have explained once, and will explain again, and will continue to explain,” or, “I couldn’t believe I had to take the subway. The subway! The disgusting subway packed with filthy vagrants.”
If this type of repetition fits your character—great. If not, steer clear. At the very least, use in moderation.
Is the redundancy used for emphasis or comparison?
The book Write and Revise for Publication, written by Jack Smith, provides these examples:
“Life’s full of Gordian knots, but this one is especially difficult, ” and, “There are many mansions, but this one is much larger than the mansions most of us have in mind. This ones takes up two city blocks” (p. 273).
The first example shows emphasis. We know a Gordian knot is a beast to untie (unless you have a knife handy). However, by adding, “…this one is especially difficult,” it takes it to the next level. The second example does a great job of showing comparison. The final line, “This one takes up two city blocks,” catches you nicely at the end.
These are examples of utilizing the tool with a purpose, and as long as it’s used in moderation it can leave a powerful impression on the reader.
Are there redundancies in plot? If so, do you really need them? Sometimes in an effort to reinforce an important plot point, or provide foreshadowing, we tend to repeat information when it’s not needed.
I’m not sure they are going to catch it, I better mention one knife was missing from the knife block again— “The kitchen was ransacked. Something was off about the wooden knife block on the counter. Something was missing.” And boom, you’ve opened everyone’s presents and Christmas isn’t until tomorrow. Don’t open the presents for your reader.
Sometimes a particular piece of backstory or description is vital to the forward momentum of your story, and you may feel the need to touch on it more than once. In the moment, do it. Especially if it is going to propel you forward in the creative process of writing. I would recommend making a notation of this repetition to refer to later during revisions. Once you come back through on your second pass (hopefully after you have been away from the work for a while), read it again and see if it was necessary or if you are simply regurgitating what the reader would already know.
Watch for redundancy in interior monologue. The best piece of advice I’ve seen regarding this comes from Renni Browne and David King’s book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. They explain:
“Interior monologue is also prone to needless repetition, possibly because our thoughts tend to run in circles when we’re upset. True, sometimes you can capture a character’s mood by showing his or her thoughts chasing their tails, but more often than not, repetition in interior monologue is like rambling, repetitive dialogue – authentic but tedious” (p. 180).
The best way I have found to sort this out is to read the copy aloud. Sometimes when viewed on screen these interior rants look great, but speak them out loud and suddenly it feels disjointed and awkward. Crisp dialogue should flow and drive the reader forward, not leave them re-reading.
Last tip: Grab the chainsaw and chop out those repeated words. In your second pass, depending on your own writing style, you will probably notice a bunch of repeated words. I know I do. They aren’t there for effect, they were just your minds way to build bridges for the narrative to move forward. As an editor, and a self-editor, I try to weed out those repeated words or sentences. Or for the purposes of this blog, hack them with a chainsaw.
Repeated words or sentences cause my eyes to instinctively jump backward to where I saw the same words before. This halts my forward progress and causes me to focus on writing mechanics instead of enjoying the story. The best stories, in my opinion, cause you to forget you are reading. Every time a reader gets jarred by one of these errant repeats, they are suddenly aware again this is just a story and that they are reading—the imagination station screeches to a halt.
Thanks for reading! I appreciate you all stopping by and checking out my daily rantings. I hope you found a couple nuggets of useful information. Do you actively utilize repetition in your work? Do you know of any authors/examples where it was done well (or badly)? I’d love to expand my own understanding and talk about it! Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!