Redundancy in Fiction Writing
Redundancy in fiction writing is something all writers do. It comes about via repetition of certain words or phrases, characteristics or narrative. Writers don’t always realise they repeat certain word structures, or phrases, because the mind unconsciously blots out these anomalies while focused on writing. It’s not until the writer looks back at the work that some of these repetitions jump off the page.
That’s when some snippets of what you have written become redundant.
Thankfully, the editing stage will help writers weed out such instances, but sometimes even the most advanced writers can miss them, so it’s important to be self-aware of them.
Repeated Word structures
It’s surprising how easily we repeat the same noun or verb or adjective in one paragraph or scene and thus end up making the sentence structure weak. The reason why writers miss them is because they are subtle and not as overt as repeated words that might stand out more from the narrative.
John stared at the darkness outside, unsure of the shifting shadows peering at him. A strange blackness glared back, distorting his reflection in the window, leaving him with the feeling of being watched.
To the untrained eye, it is not too noticeable, but the sentences in this example use various redundant words which all mean the same thing: ‘Stared’, ‘peering’, ‘glared’ and ‘watched’. The sentence structure is weakened by these, and although this is an extreme example, it shows just how easily we can miss them when we’re busy getting that first draft down.
By replacing or removing the redundant words, it is possible to tighten the sentence structure, as follows:
John stared at the darkness outside, unsure of the shifting shadows in the corner of his eye. A strange blackness pressed against the window pane, distorting his reflection and leaving him with the feeling of being watched.
This example shows that with better editing, redundant word structures can be tidied up or eliminated.
Phrases are something that sometimes unconsciously slips into the narrative, simply because writers are so focused on the writing that they’ve forgotten that they may have used the same phrase earlier in chapter 7, for instance, and now they are repeating it in chapter 25. This especially true if it’s a particularly good phrase.
Sometimes phrases are innocuous, such as ‘the clouds curtained the moon’ and so writers sometimes repeat them in their narrative without realising. Other phrases structures can be a little deeper, the kind that stay in the memory because of their impact, for instance ‘…she drowned beneath a veil of red’.
But of course, editing usually weeds these from the narrative. That way, we don’t end up using the same phrases multiple times throughout the story.
Even if you, the writer, don’t spot these, your reader inevitably will.
Repeated Character Traits
It is surprising how many times writers have multiple characters sharing the same traits, such playing with their hair, rubbing the chin, fiddling with their spectacles etc. It’s easy to project these characteristics onto all of our characters, again, without realising.
But the truth is, each character should be individual, so that not only are they three dimensional and believable, but the reader can identify them easily, just by their habits and idiosyncrasies. Character traits should be a personal thing rather than shared characteristic.
Make sure at the editing stage that your characters are individual in the sense that they have their own personal foibles, habits and qualities. Make them distinguishable. If you find they share similar traits, then change them.
Editing is a wonderful thing. It allows writers to correct mistakes, tighten the narrative and tidy up necessary threads.
The idea is to be aware of these things while you write, to minimise the editing you have to do. If you don’t learn to pick up these kinds of errors, the narrative will end up littered with repeated usage of word structures, phrases, character traits, even specific words…and the reader will quickly grow tired of them.
Think carefully about your sentence structures and the words you use. Think about the phrases you have used and try not to repeat them. And think about the little things that make your characters – make them individual.
But don’t writers use repetition all the time?
Repetition can be very effective, if used correctly, for the right reason.
Deliberate word repetition is sometimes used by writers. They are known ‘trigger’ words, because they trigger certain feelings and responses with the reader.
Think about nursery rhymes. Many have a repetitive strand. That’s how we remember them. As writers, we can manipulate the reader in the same manner, by repeating certain trigger or key words.
Certain phrases are also repeated deliberately, but they must be engineered carefully and must be in context.
In one of my stories I used the phrase ‘red snow’ as a vivid metaphor. I did this a couple of times in order to generate an auto-response in the reader. That’s because they had read and understood what that phrase meant from when it was first mentioned, and so when it was repeated, it immediately generated an emotional response.
Repetition for effect is fine, but most repetition is a natural occurrence during writing, and thus it becomes redundant. Always try to be aware of your writing – it’s the difference between meaningful fiction and redundant narrative.
Next week: How to use imagery effectively