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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30 responses

    • Thanks for stopping by and leaving the great feedback – as always. Just like you pointed out, doing it during the rewrites (after the first draft) is the best way to tackle it – right on. Good luck!

      Liked by 1 person

      • You’re very welcome! I always try to stop by and leave comments 🙂 I’m hoping to do a rewrite for Clash of Tides soon, and I know I have a lot of redundant prose and thoughts in there. Thanks again for the advice!

        Liked by 1 person

    • I’m humbled. Most of the information is pulled from the books and sources I cited and linked (pro sources) and the rest is just my opinion (semi-pro source). I’m happy you found some use in it all though. Thanks for stopping by and posting. (Kudos to you for helping usher in the future of creative writing with the writing club you are involved with.)

      Liked by 1 person

  1. You brought up an interesting point. I wasn’t thinking about redundancy for my novel, Deity’s Soulmate, because I told myself that in my case it makes sense. My main character had to repeat herself to each of her teachers about days of creation. Though after she repeated herself, the teacher would be something else to emphasize that particular day so though it got repeated 4 times, it was still worth it so it wasn’t too bad. Will keep in mind for other stories though.

    Liked by 3 people

    • You made a creative judgement, wrote it out, liked it, and went forward – that’s all we can do. I don’t believe in “hard and fast” rules so to speak. I try (I’m not sure how successfully) to provide tools in my blog to get people thinking – not so much to steer them one way or the other. After all, who am I to tell anyone else how to write their story? Thanks for reading and posting about your work though. It’s always fun to see how people use the various techniques I’m talking about. Keep writing!

      Liked by 2 people

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  3. I’m always torn about redundancies and how to use them–especially concerning plot points or stuff about a character the readers should notice.

    As an example, in my current WIP, one character (Shocha) has blood-red irises. It’s a big deal that marks him as ‘Tainted’ to the foreigners who surround him. One of those foreigners, Aric, interacts with Shoch the most. He gets used to those eyes. (Sort of.)

    Aric narrates most of the story, so he has a lot to say about Shoch’s eyes in the beginning–when they’re still weird and shocking to him–and then he forgets about them for a while. But sooner or later someone new comes in, or Aric’s people learn more about what those red eyes mean, and then they seem relevant again.

    Do I think my readers need to be reminded that Shoch has red eyes every five minutes? Of course not. And yet it feels like something that should crop up again here and there. So . . . yeah. Sigh.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I know just what you mean. It’s hard to figure out what the best blend is. I like that your character notices the eyes, then over time gets used to seeing them. It is always jarring when a character is suddenly surprised by a physical/emotional characteristic when they are intimately familiar with them. Personally, a unique trait such as that is not something I would be too concerned about, especially since you are cognizant of it.

      Drake’s missing an eyeball and that pops up in the story a bit. When he dreams, he has both eyes. There are some points where his mental state is lapsing and he determines if he is sleeping or not by grasping for his eye-patch. I was also worried about redundancy in this, but I’ll try to iron it out in rewrites and with my betas.

      On that note, the two best ways I can think of pinpointing issues is when you do the first read-through all at once (after you’ve been away from the book for a while), and by seeing what your betas say. It is really surprising how many issues you notice when you sit down and read the book front to back on paper. Sometimes writers never actually do this until the book has been printed and shipped, and by then, it’s often too late. The glow of the computer screen, through some kind of weird cyber hoodoo, masks errors from my eyes sometimes.

      Thanks for taking the time to swing by today and for reading, Jenn. Hope all is well with you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m a big fan of redundancy in both dialogue and character monologue. I feel that it can really help to shape the character.
    On the other hand, I have come across a few pieces before where it’s been more of a ‘That knife is sharp. I couldn’t believe the knife was so sharp. How on earth could such a sharp knife exist?’ and it just verges on the point of ridiculous.
    A great post Corey. Keep them coming!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m with you on everything you wrote. Like you, I feel redundancy, if done correctly and with care, is a powerful tool to build a more believable character.

      The example you offered is perfect because I have seen this sort of thing play out in both published and unpublished works. (To be honest, I’ve had to weed it out of my writing before as well.) It seems our brains get on bizarre kicks and convince our eyes this style of writing works. Only when our eyes are fresh do we see the blunders.

      Thanks for stopping in today and for leaving some thoughts 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • I couldn’t agree with you more. It’s very hard to see it in our own work. This is one reason I always encourage people to step away from the first draft for a month or so, and then come back to it with fresh eyes.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my ramblings! Best of luck to you with your writing, reading, and latte drinking.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. This is a hot issue among authors. One man’s repetition is another man’s foreshadowing, and the only real way to tell the difference is the readers. When it comes to foreshadowing, Sanderson, during one of his signings I attended, said something to the effect of “three times.” He also said if one feels he’s being heavy handed, he’s probably about right. There are three plot points in Caught that I felt very heavy handed with, yet Betas were still caught (I swear that pun wasn’t intended) off guard. These would be the way the conflict ends, the way that’s made possible and two relationships. There I was thinking every chapter was a flashing neon light and beta readers be like, “I TOTALLY didn’t see that coming.”

    Meanwhile, I overuse this tool. I overuse it a lot. (See what I did there? That makes me funny.) I try to keep myself to a place where I know what I’m repeating and why.

    In Bob, I REALLY thought I was sending up fliers regarding the relationship between Transport Points and Souls. I don’t just repeat it three times, I actually have three chapters JUST about that relationship. I don’t know how obvious or surprising those plot points were, but no one called me out.

    You’d think this motivates me to be even more, more repetitions (there I go again), and it did. BUT, it also made me that much more cautious. In the first draft or two, I say be as repetitive as you like. Let your betas be a litmus test for it. I think of it like a formula.

    If 4 of 5 betas say you’re too repetitive, subtract one reference. If three say you’re too repetitive, don’t change a thing. This only holds true in the sense of foreshadowing though. For any other use, I’d only mention a thing once. I’m yelled at a lot by my editor:

    “Describe the room!”
    “Why? It’s the same room they were in last chapter!”
    “That was last chapter, maybe they put it down.”
    “Okay, but if they put it down and forgot what ROOM they were in, how can I expect them to remember that vague reference to that ceramic falcon in chapter 2?”

    See..it creates a HUGE point of contention that honestly the writer just has to figure out with the help of editors and beta readers. There IS a line. ESPECIALLY with description. Where that is, I have no clue.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I see what your saying in this comment, Matt. I really do. (Two can play this game…)

      In retrospect, I wish I would have omitted the foreshadowing portion of this post, and focused purely on syntax (which was my intention, but my mind was obviously wandering).

      Regardless, you are offering some great insights and I really do see some merit in what Sanderson is saying. You see, I have this thing with recommending to do something X number of times.

      Here’s the skinny of it. If a book is 100k words in length and from the perspective of eight characters, the number of breadcrumbs the author may need to leave changes. If the book is 80k and in first person, again, the formula changes.

      I think what you said is more accurate; there’s a line, but it’s fuzzy as an apple Jolly Rancher stuck to a cat’s back. You need to have a solid editor and intuitive beta readers to help shave the cat.

      Awesome discussion, Matt. Thanks for weighing in on the topic!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. My favorite characters to read are those pretentious types who find that each word they say bears repeating. But outside of those and crazy characters, there aren’t that many other places to fit redundancy in. Sure, maybe a shy character, but that would over do it in my opinion. I guess it’s one of those rare tactics that work In only VERY specific scenarios.

    Another good one!

    Liked by 2 people

    • If my one friend every finishes his book, I’ll have to send it your way. Every single bloody character is a pretentious, big word using, know-it-all. It’s fun sometimes, but when the sentence is sixty words long and full of ten syllable words…it becomes a bit much.

      Regardless, thanks for weighing in and reading.

      Liked by 1 person

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