For the past week or so, I have been talking about ways to self-edit your work in order to pick up the pace. In pursuit of that estimable goal, I went on a tear yesterday about redundancy, particularly word and phrase repetition. Today, I shall shift gears a little, to focus on concept repetition.
I dealt with this obliquely a few days ago, in my posts on eliciting telling little details. Again and again in manuscripts, I see good narratives sidetracked by a compulsion to explain what has just occurred, as though the author did not believe that the specifics of an incident, exchange, or character revelation could possibly have conveyed his intention for the scene.
Or, less common but still worth mentioning, summarizing what is about to happen BEFORE the scene occurs, as in, “I had no way of knowing that the events of the next day would shatter my childish innocence forever.” Personally, as a reader, I like to be surprised when childish innocence is shattered — don’t warn me in advance.
At base, both of these kinds of summary are based in an authorial lack of trust in the reader, I think: to a professional reader’s eye, they demonstrate that the writer is having a hard time believing that his target reader can follow the prevailing logic.
Thus, he explains what is going on, just to be sure. As in:
Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. It offended her sensibilities as a civilized person. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.
I may be leaping to unwarranted conclusions here, but I would assume that the number of potential readers whose sensibilities would NOT be offended by the sight of a human sacrifice is small enough that a contemporary writer might safely regard their critique as negligible. Personally, I am apt to assume that my readers are not given to sacrificing human, goat, or anything else that wiggles, so I would trim this passage accordingly:
Shuddering, Hermione turned her back upon the human sacrifice. Where she came from, people seeking celestial intervention merely scolded God in private for not helping them more swiftly.
Has the passage genuinely lost meaning through this edit? I think not — but it has lost a line of text, and believe me, when your agent calls you up and tells you, “The editor says she’ll take the book if you can make it 5,000 words shorter!” you’ll be grateful for every single expendable line.
Sometimes, the author’s mistrust of the reader’s level of comprehension is so severe that he go so far as to recap a particular set of facts’ importance as if the paragraph in question were in the synopsis, rather than in the text. For example:
“I canb he-ah you vewy wew,” Doris said, wiping her nose for the tenth time. She was prone to allergies that stuffed up her nose and rendered her vision blurry; moving here with her husband, Tad, her two adorable children, Newt (6) and Stephanie (8), and their pet ocelot Rex into a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers, then, had probably been a poor idea.
Such a paragraph might work very well in a synopsis, serving as an agent or editor’s first introduction to Doris and her family, but in a manuscript, it reads awkwardly. (Try reading it out loud.) Since so much information is crammed into so few lines, it does not flow very well, so this passage would be a poor choice for the opening of a novel, or even the beginning lines of a chapter.
Yet if it appeared later in the text, wouldn’t the reader already know that Doris was married, had two children and an ocelot, and had moved recently? Wouldn’t this information be redundant, in fact? Besides, as any comedian can tell you, nothing kills a good joke so quickly as too much explanation.
Such global statements pop up in mid-text more often than you might think in submissions, though. There’s a reason you wouldn’t think it, if you read a fair amount: editors at publishing houses tend to leap upon this particular species of redundancy with all the vim of Rex pouncing upon a nice piece of red meat; as a result, one doesn’t see it much in published books. All the more reason to excise similar passages from your submissions.
Look how much snappier poor Doris’ plight is with the background trimmed:
“I canb he-ah you vewy wew.” Doris wiped her nose for the tenth time, ruing the day she had bought a house in the middle of a field of mustard flowers. It doesn’t matter if the scenery is magnificent when your eyes are too blurry to discern either distant mountains or your own driveway.
Partially, I think, reiterative over-explanation turns up in manuscripts because our ears have been trained by movies and TV to EXPECT redundancy. Almost any important clue in a screenplay will be repeated at least once, and often more, just in case some poor slob in the audience missed it the first time.
There is a long theatrical tradition of this stripe of redundancy, I’m told: in ancient Greek drama, a chorus provided frequent recaps of what had happened so far in the play. My college classics professor opined that this handy service, a sort of 5th century BC Cliff Notes, made it easier for spectators to nip out to have compact affairs with temple dancers and their neighbors’ wives; they could always catch up on the plot when they returned.
It’s amazing what one retains from long-ago lectures, isn’t it? You should have heard what he thought those figures cavorting on the sides of vases were doing.
But readers have an important advantages over the audience of a play — or at least they did before TiVo and rewind-able videotapes: books are cleverly designed so you may turn pages forward OR backward. Thus, if a reader has forgotten a major fact already mentioned in the text, she can flip back and look for it, right?
The moral: trusting in your reader’s intelligence — or at any rate her ability to figure out where to find information revealed earlier, even if she cannot recall it in detail — is an important key to keeping your pacing tight. If your plot requires additional explanation here or there because you’ve moved too swiftly, believe me, an agent or editor will will be happy point it out to you.
More tips on weeding out insidious pace-slowers to come next week. In the meantime, try not to stress out too much about your income taxes, US-based readers; at least this year, they are not due on the anniversary President Lincoln’s assassination, as they usually are. Now THAT’s a decision that cries out for further explanation, isn’t it?
Keep up the good work!