Thursday, January 4, 2018

Repeated Phrases Are The Bane of Good Stories

Have you ever told a really good joke? The kind that left everyone at the table in stitches, or that made a dinner guest snort wine halfway across the room? That kind of cutting wit is a skill, and it takes practice to deliver it just so. However, if you try to tell that joke to the same group of people, chances are good the reaction won't be as over-the-top as the first time you delivered it. And if you tell it a third time? Well, a third time might not even get a polite titter. A fourth time, and you'll actively start to strain your audience's patience as all the good will you established drains away.

One more time, and we start throwing things.
Writing a book is like this, but even worse. Because when you use a great turn of phrase, or come up with the perfect way to describe a character, or an action, you only get one. Check the box, and strip it from your mental record, because it better not show up again in the story if you want to keep your audience rolling.

Cool-Down Time

To be clear, this particular problem is not something that happens all that often in dialogue. Because, as anyone who's had a real-world conversation knows, people from a given area or culture tend to use the same turns of phrase or local colloquialisms. However, if you get repetitive in your prose, your reader is going to notice it. And once they notice, it's going to start eating into their goodwill regarding your book.

It was unnameable... and... ugh... indescribable?
As a quick example, take a fight scene. You've got two guys in a fist fight. It's supposed to be pulse-pounding, brutal, and harsh. But how many times can you say they slammed their fists into each other before it gets boring? How often can someone spit blood, and grin through a predator's smile before the reader starts rolling their eyes? Or, phrased another way, how many times can the bottom fall out of your protagonist's stomach before we begin to wonder if the trap door in their guts has a lock on it at all?

The difficulty with writing stories, and particularly with writing books, is that you don't write it all at once. Nor do you edit it all at once. So you might have used a particularly cool metaphor in chapter one, then you clicked save, and went to bed. Problem is that, a few months later, you used the same description while you were wrist-deep in the re-write for chapter seven. Then you put it in chapter twelve without thinking.

So, at a minimum, you've told the same joke three times now, and you're hoping your audience has forgotten it since the last time you threw it out there.

Sometimes this isn't that big of a deal. You can use similar (or even the same) description if they're on opposite ends of your book. Because your reader will probably have forgotten they read it by the time a few hundred pages have passed. But your prose is kind of like special powers in an online RPG. You fired the power once, and it was really impressive, but now you need to hold off on using it again until enough time (or in this case, word count) has passed. Otherwise you're in danger of actually distracting your reader from the story by the way you're telling it. Sort of like how you stop paying attention to the tale of an epic shootout between drug dealers and the vice squad because the guy telling you the story keeps getting his mustache caught in his mouth, and it makes him slur.

Make Notes When You Check Back

When the editing process starts, make sure you keep an eye out for favored phrases or descriptions. Ask your beta readers to do the same. And, most importantly, try not to carry your tics from one project to another. Because that is exactly the wrong kind of thing for readers to remember you by.

That's all for this week's Craft of Writing update. Hopefully folks out there found it helpful, and some are going back to check over their manuscripts one more time. To stay up-to-date on all my latest releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you want to help me keep this blog going, then why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to drop a little love in my jar? As little as $1 a month can make a big difference, and it gets you a free book as a thank you!

No comments:

Post a Comment