1.) Repetition Of A Single Word
I commonly see words repeated within the same sentence, or in several sentences back to back. For example:
The boy picked up the bag by the handle, threw the bag over his shoulder and struggled to carry the bag home.
The boy picked up the heavy bag by the handle, threw it over his shoulder and started the long walk home. The bag was heavier than any other bags he had ever carried.
Man, he thought. Will I ever stop carrying this bag?
The bag got heavier and heavier.
Eventually, the reader either starts to gloss over repeated words, or worse – stops reading completely because they wonder, “How many more times are they going to say ‘bag?!’” (Or “heavy!”)
2.) Repetition Of A Scene
Occasionally, key details need to be repeated in order to flag their importance for the reader. Other times, the narrator needs to remind the reader of a plot point that may have happened earlier in the manuscript.
However, this reminder should never be a play-by-play or full flashback of what the reader has already seen. A quick jog, like, “’Oh yeah,’ said Max. ’I forgot Mrs. Sands said we also had to build a time capsule!’” should be sufficient. Unless there is new information, a full recap of a previous scene pulls the reader out and makes them think, “But we read this already!”
3.) Similar Descriptions of Multiple Scenes
Sometimes the reader is pulled out because it feels like the character has been in the same setting before, even if they haven’t. For example, if a character is traveling to different beaches up and down the West Coast, but each beach is described in the same manner, we begin to feel like the protagonist isn’t really moving at all.
Likewise, a novel that happens mostly at school needs to see action happen in various places within the school. Travel the whole building – don’t trap your protagonist (and reader!) in the classroom.
4.) Scenes with Repetitive Action
Repetition of an action happens in real life. We get up, we shower, we go to work, we come home. Repeat with some different, fun things in the evening.
But when plot points repeat in a novel, we start to lose tension. For example, let’s say we have an aspiring cheerleader that’s trying to make the team and an arch-enemy that’s trying to thwart her.
The first day of try-outs, the enemy steals our protagonist’s undershorts, so that her underwear shows during every lift and toss. Super embarrassing. Mortifying for our teenage protagonist. But she comes back for day two.
The second day of try-outs, our cheerleader has a spare pair of shorts hidden away. But the arch-enemy manages to steal the spare and the uniform pair. “Well,” says our protagonist. “It’s not like everybody hasn’t already seen my underwear before.” Protagonist is less concerned, and reader starts to think that the antagonist isn’t really all that much of a problem. More of an annoyance, than an enemy.
The third day of try-outs, our cheerleader wears bicycle shorts under her jeans. Her arch-enemy steals the skirt, but nobody cares and the coach has figured out that someone is messing with our protagonist. Protagonist is vindicated. She has outsmarted the antagonist. Reader thinks, “Not much of a nemesis. Who cares about shorts?”
Always make sure the action is escalating! If the shorts are stolen the first day and it doesn’t stop our protagonist from trying out, then our antagonist needs to think bigger!
The same is true of action that happens to multiple characters. The first time somebody has their foot run over by a car, we care. The second time, we think, “That’s really unlikely that two people would have the same accident within days of each other.” The third time we think, “Seriously? I don’t know anybody that accidently put their foot behind a tire – let alone three people.”
If in doubt about a piece of potentially repetitive action in your book, think about it as if you were a comedian. The first time you tell your friend a joke, it’s funny. The second time, it’s less so. And by the third, they’re finishing the joke for you.
This post was originally published in my newsletter.