Redundant Prose: Weighing the Value

Redundant Meme

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.

Arguing Meme.jpg

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.

gordian knot.pngIs 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.

redundant.jpgAre 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.

Mark Twain Read AloudWatch 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.

chainsaw.pngLast 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.

question-markThanks 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!

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Sentence Length: The Samurai Way

samurai sword.jpgJapanese culture and tradition have always appealed to me.  It’s a country with a rich and interesting history.  Naturally, I ended up living there for three years.  One of my favorite things to do was visiting dojos and watching Kendo matches (never was brave enough to participate).  For me, it was like watching modern day samurai.  Between the beautiful architecture of the buildings, and watching men and women armored in tradition clothing cross wooden blades, it truly felt as if you were stepping back in time.

This brings me to what will at first appear to be a completely unrelated matter.  Sentence length, and how to use it.

set of swords.jpgFirst consider the samurai.  They traditionally wielded two blades. A katana (long sword) and a wakizashi (short sword).  Together these swords created daisho (a set).  As writers we wield sentences: long ones and short ones.  Together these create paragraphs, which we stitch together into books.

But also ponder this parallel: to a samurai, his blades were more than just weapons, they were extensions of his soul.  They spent their lives honing both the blade and their use of it in battle.  Their weapons were sacred.  The katana would be given a name, kept close while they slept, and be passed down to their first born son.

As a writer, do you feel this same sort of connection to your words?  Are they not extensions of our soul?  Do we not spend years of our lives learning how to use them?  But are you willing to risk your life on your abilities?  Have you honed it to the point where you are willing to stand face-to-face with the critic?

Samurai_with_tachi.pngWe can learn a lesson from the samurai.

Let’s cut into the meat now.  Many of us focus on the context of our sentences, but we don’t consider how the length of them matters.  We should understand long and short sentences both have different uses, much like a samurai’s long and short sword.  Longer sentences tend to be more flowery, are dotted with commas, and whisk the reader down a meandering path.  Short ones cut.

We can use a longer sentence as a trap.  Pull the reader along with narrative, then stop them hard with a short line full of meaning.  Think of the long sentence as a flame in the darkness.  The moth (reader) has to work to get to it.  Floating up and down with the beat of it’s wings.  But when it finally reaches the flickering light, the delivery is quick and absolute.

Here is an example from Amy Tan’s, The Joy Luck Club.

“That night I sat on Tyan-yu’s bed and waited for him to touch me. But he didn’t. I was relieved” (p. 61).

Also consider the following passage, which has an entire Wikipedia page linked to its origins.  While short, it has a huge emotional impact.

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

kill a mockingbird.jpgAnother consideration for sentence length is demonstrated in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  Lee utilizes short sentences to relay a feeling of childishness.  The book is from the viewpoint of a young girl.  But as time progresses, the sentences become more and more sophisticated.  The effect reflects the idea that the girl is maturing.

I use short sentence fragments in my book Wastelander.  It is used during a prolonged interrogation.  It allows me to relay the idea that Drake is no longer able to formulate full and rational thought.

“Darkness.  Just darkness.  Pain too.  A metallic click.  A flicker of light.  A woosh of air.  A drag of a chair.  Knuckles on glass.”

Now I could have written out each sentence.  “The room was dark and consuming.  My body ached from hunger and dehydration, and the straps restricting me had begun to eat into my flesh.  The metallic click of the door caused my ears to perk and my heart to jump…etc…etc…” However, the effect would be lost (and heck, using less words means more time for other tomfoolery – like talking to all of you).

tired reader.jpgLong sentences have their use too, but far too often, they are not intentional.  When I edit books for people I often recommend longer sentences be broken into smaller pieces (unless they are being used for effect).  It isn’t necessarily bad writing, but enough long sentences leave your reader exhausted.  When you flip a page in a book and see no paragraph breaks and giant blocks of text, it can be intimidating.

That’s it for today.  Adopt the way of the samurai.  Wield those long and short sentences.  Hone them.  And one day you will stand victoriously on the literary battlefield.

Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!

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