Lather, Rinse, Explain, Repeat: Redundancy in Writing

Redundancy DeptYour main character has fled from the office she shares with a close co-worker and friend, and has run to the boss’s office. There, in a key scene, she has emoted all over herself, revealing a deep, dark personal secret thereby. (Yes, she still has a job at the end of the scene.) Now she’s back in her own office. Her friend gets in her face and says, “For the love of Pete, would you please tell me what this is all about?”

Your main character is hesitant, but then mutters to herself, “What the heck. The whole world will know by tomorrow.”

Choose what happens next:

  1. Your main character rehashes, practically word for word, the conversation she just had with the boss.
  2. Your main character gives her friend a severely truncated version of the conversation with the boss – the Reader’s Digest version, if you will.
  3. You, as the author, sum up the conversation in a sentence similar to this one: “She told her friend the whole story.”

Got your choice? Cool. Now put yourself in the position of someone reading your book, and answer the question again. Did your choice change?

You will run into this dilemma numerous times in a fictional work of any length. Often, the two scenes are farther apart than the example I just gave you. But the situation remains the same: The reader already knows what’s going on. To what extent should you, the author, repeat yourself?

I have read a number of books by relative newbies to this writing thing who pick choice 1 as a matter of course. But 99 times out of 100, that’s the wrong thing to do. Just because Charla hasn’t heard Trudy’s sordid divorce story yet, it doesn’t mean your reader needs to hear it all again if you’ve already had Trudy tell her therapist the whole sordid tale.

Choice 3 is probably the best choice in, oh, say, 75 of those 100 times. It’s certainly the best option for keeping the narrative moving, and it definitely won’t make your reader want to skip ahead – or worse yet, put your book down and get themselves a nice, stiff drink.

But I can make a case for choice 2. Your main character might want to put a different spin on the information for the new audience, or leave out a telling detail. It might be crucial to your plot that Charla not know every rotten thing Trudy’s scumbag of a husband did to her. Or your reader may gain a deeper understanding of your character by seeing how her explanations change. What does Trudy tell her six-year-old son when he asks why Daddy left? What does she tell her teenage daughter? And what does that say about what kind of a parent Trudy is?

I didn’t just make up the example at the top of this post. Well, I didn’t make it up for this post, anyway; it’s a scene from my WIP. When Tracie got in Tess’s face and practically demanded to know what was going on, I dithered about what to do next. My gut said to go with choice 2, so that’s what I did. But I’m not sure it will stick on the rewrite. I need to figure out whether we’re learning anything about Tess from the Reader’s Digest version, or whether she ought to just “tell her the whole story” and move on.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

36 thoughts on “Lather, Rinse, Explain, Repeat: Redundancy in Writing”

  1. Love it. I almost always go for #3. But if it’s been eighty-five chapters since the story, I might include a few more details. And if someone else is telling it, I’m definitely changing it up. Thanks, Lynne!

  2. Love this post, Lynne. When I read your three choices I threw out #1 as the correct choice immediately. But I waffled on #2, thinking that while I preferred #3, there might be a case to be made for #2. I just wasn’t sure what it was. I think, after reading your explanation, I can see that and, as you said, sometimes it makes sense, if there is a reason.

    I think there might also be a choice 2.5. Maybe the first sentence or two (possibly spun a different way which might be indicative of something) followed by the equivalent of “she told the rest of the story.” I think how much is repetitive, how far apart the repetition happens, and how critical it is to the story figures into the decision, too. A short and subtle reminder of something that would have seemed minor near the first of the book which turns into something major at the climax is going to be much more forgivable than the situation you describe with back to back scenes.

    The wrong choice (#1 and usually #2) is one of the things that can quickly put me off of a book as a reader and which I’ve mentioned many times in reviews (never in a good light). My interpretation when I see this is one of two things. The first is a bad job of editing/rewrting (maybe the explanation was to the friend in the first draft, then the author decided to explain to the boss in more detail and didn’t bother removing the original). The second is that they don’t think their readers are smart enough to remember. I don’t like to read authors who assume I’m stupid. 🙂

    1. Al: You and Lynn are so right. Early on I had an editor insist I trust the reader. She said if I wrote a scene with the impression I hoped it would have, the reader would not need to be reminded. I slip up often though! One of the new and neat things I’ve learned to do as an indie author is send my finished ms to my Kindle–before it even gets to my editor because it is then easy to catch those flubs before the editor shakes her head in despair or reader does worse–pegs the book with a one star review.
      Jackie Weger

  3. Lynne, I agree with your assessment; most times we don’t need to rehash. I’ve found that when the two conversations are separated by much more time, the slant of the MC’s perception may have changed, and at that point s/he may explain it differently. But the bottom line must be how the rehash affects the story–or if it does. If not, leave it out. Great reminder.

  4. You make a good point here. Less can definitely be more explicit. Let the readers do some work and use their imagination. Readers who need spoon feeding probably can’t follow a decent story anyway.

  5. Very good advice, Lynne. I think your best point there was highlighting the opportunity to increase character depth by showing how the character might twist things in the re-telling. Unless there’s a real reason for the repetition, such as to show the reader what an evil little liar/schemer the character is, or how he/she is controlling the interplay between other characters, the only correct answer is #3, imo.

  6. Totally trying to put a different spin on it if there’s a story reason to do so. In draft one, I’ll usually go for option 2 – and then maybe revise to the mc telling her story once, but it’s to the friend and I’ll summarize to the boss.

    1. In this particular case, the boss needed to have more info than the friend did (which is kind of backward from real life, but hey, it’s fiction!). Thanks, P.A.

  7. An excellent tip. I can’t remember the last time I chose anything other than #3. Although I will sometimes have the listener ask a few clarifying questions that shed new light on events or tie other pieces of the story together.

  8. Excellent post, Lynne, and you are right on the money: mostly 3 unless there is a constructive reason for 2 but almost definitely never 1.

  9. Great post, Lynne. I’d probably go for choice 2.5 where the reader gets a short, but slightly different perspective on the whole thing. Or my favourite solution – give someone else’s perspective, but again in a very Reader’s Digest sort of way. There are times when a new perspective on something the reader already thinks they know can add to the tension and move things along nicely.

  10. Good [post. I generally go for #3 and occasionally #2 but perhaps from a different point of view. There is
    nothing that slows a story down more than having to read the same information over again.

  11. Why should everything be explained? What’s wrong with having a little mystery and leaving something for the readers’ imagination to work on?

    The world these days seems to be set on instant gratification with superficial and generally simplistic paradigms, when reality is anything but like that. It’s OK to explain all if you only want lazy readers, who probably can’t make sense of a decent story anyway, but that is shutting off those with minds who can appreciate quality writing.

    So what do you aspire to: being the supplier of mass market pap or being a quality writer, whose work is valued, although you may not sell as many copies?

  12. Yes, Lynne. I’m sure that everyone in this group is striving for quality, but we also need to think outside our little box, for it is the masses with whom we are contesting the market. It would be unwise to ignore that.

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