Repeat Offenders: Why Repetition is Bad Bad Bad
by John Robert Marlow
PETE & REPETE
There’s an old joke that goes like this:
“Pete and Repete sat on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left?”
“Pete and Repete sat on a fence. Pete fell off. Who was left…?”
The joke continues until the guy answering the question wises up. Too many budding authors never do. I see this again and again and again. And again. The basic issue comes down to this: writers are expected—by agents, managers, editors, readers; everyone who matters, really—to have large vocabularies. Repetition indicates that the writer in question either: a) doesn’t know any better, or; b) can’t be bothered getting it right. The first screams “amateur;” the second, “lazy.” Neither is a word you want applied to you. Repetition can be deadly in any one of several, all-too-common forms:
As a general rule, avoid using the same word (or similar words) multiple times in quick succession, as this makes for a poor read. Word repetition creeps up on the best of writers, who often don’t notice while lost in the throes of creative passion. Professional writers do, however, notice on their next pass—and correct the problem before anyone else sees the manuscript. Amateurs don’t notice, or correct.
Often, a word will repeat twice in the same sentence, or in adjacent sentences. Occasionally—as with the sentence you just read—this is okay. But writers who are unaware of repetition tend to do it a lot, and most instances are not okay.
A few simple examples: “She was whisked off in an unmarked car, which took her to the airport. Twenty minutes later, they were off to Belize.” “He pulled his gun, stuck Harry’s gun in his belt, and crept down the hall.” “Joan cried and ran to him and threw her arms around him.” In each of these sentences, one word repeats too often—off, gun, and and—and must be changed, even if that means restructuring the sentence. (Notice my artful use of the word and, three times in a row.)
A slightly more complex example: “Joan’s father thanked the police department and the public on his and his family’s behalf.” Here, his is the more obvious problem, but and is also a repeat—if lesser—offender. A simpler phrasing would be: “Joan’s father thanked the police and the public on the family’s behalf.” Because Joan’s father is a member of the family, the same meaning is conveyed.
This sentence has three repeaters: “Tears welled up in Bixby’s eyes and he averted his eyes to avoid O’Shea’s sympathetic gaze. O’Shea gazed out the window.”
Other instances are (or should be) more obvious: “The trail of blood suddenly stopped in a pool of blood at the edge of the road.” A quick fix: “The blood-trail stopped at the roadside, where it formed a small pool.” Another example: “Joan called Madge and said she was back and safe and sorry she’d missed their appointment.” (Note the non-artful employment of the word and in this sentence.)
As an editor, it’s common to see the same word used two or three times in quick succession. Every now and then, I’ll see one word used five, six, even seven times in the space of three, perhaps four sentences. More often than not, that word is he, him, his, she, her, or hers. Keep a sharp eye on him, her, and the rest of the gang.
Names are among the most common repeat offenders. Frequently, this occurs when a character’s name is used in dialogue, and then in narration—or vice versa. For example: ““Linda, wake up.” Linda heard the voice, as if in a dream.”
Occasionally, it happens when the writer is trying to sort out the choreography of a scene—as in the following sequence (the Sailors and the Skippers are rival gangs):
“Then one of the Sailors pointed toward Brother Sam. Two Skippers walked toward Brother Sam, the other one joined several other Sailors, who immediately circled him. Uncle Nathan and Peter quickly flanked Brother Sam.
Nick and Gordon were making their way to Brother Sam from the other side of the room, as the two Skippers reached Brother Sam and said something. Brother Sam waved off Nick and Gordon. Everyone, including several Skippers at the dance, breathed a sigh of relief.
Brother Sam said something to Peter and Uncle Nathan. They nodded. Then Brother Sam quickly followed the two Skippers out of the auditorium.”
All told, that’s two Uncle Nathans, two Peters, two Nick and Gordons, three Sailors, four Skippers, and eight Brother Sams. Instead of clarifying events, such repetition tends to confuse matters.
At other times, an author will simply repeat the character’s name, every time that character is referred to (even if he’s the only guy in the scene)–so instead of mixing things up a bit and saying John, he, him, and his, the writer will say John, John, John, and John’s. For the reader–to say nothing of the editor–that way lay madness.
THE DREADED DOUBLE
The worst repeating-word offender is the “double,” in which the same word appears twice in a row. That makes it screamingly obvious–which, in the eyes of editors and agents, makes the writer that much less attentive for missing it. Often, doubles happen where sentences join, like this:
Bill handed the crocodile to Bob. Bob screamed when it bit his arm off at the shoulder. Shouldering his backpack, Bill bent down and picked Bob’s arm up off the street. The street was slippery, and Bill fell on his ass. His ass was sore where he hit the sidewalk. The sidewalk was slick because it had been raining. Rainwater rushed like a raging river along the street beside Bob and the crocodile. The crocodile bit Bob’s other arm off at the elbow, and fell into the water. The water swept the beast down the street and into the sewer, along with Bob’s arm.
Okay, I made that up—but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen the double in action, albeit in slightly less absurd scenes.
“Doubles” can also occur in the middle of a sentence: “He told me that that was the only way I’d ever see my children again.” Grammatically correct, but awkward. The same precise meaning is conveyed by the following sentence: “He told me that was the only way I’d ever see my children again.” (Come to think of it, the word “ever” could also be cut from this sentence, though its inclusion arguably makes the moment stronger.) As long as the set-up for this line adequately explains just what “the only way” is, all should be well.
Sometimes a character name will lead you into (or close to) a double. I found the following two sentences in the same manuscript: “She turned to Turner.” And “Turner turned toward the sound of the explosion.” Now, if the guy’s name had been Finnegan—no problemo. Something to think about when you use search-and-replace to change a character name throughout the manuscript.
Overall, the “double” is the easiest type of repetition to spot and correct. Writers who fail to catch these most likely sent the manuscript out the moment they typed “The End,” without bothering to read and “proof” it from start to finish.
Exceptions: Few and far between. “Doubles” are sometimes employed for comedic effect. Occasionally, when used in dialogue, they’ll indicate a character who habitually stutters (Ken in A Fish Called Wanda), or who is now stuttering under extreme stress (most often fear or grief). Very occasionally, a passage will be unclear or read awkwardly if repetition is completely eliminated. Rarely, “doubles” will result from an unavoidable sentence structure—one that cannot be changed without becoming awkward. Be aware, though, that this almost never happens, and should not be used as an excuse to leave a double in place. Always, always try to eliminate doubles.
Repetition can also be a problem when a word repeats pages, even chapters after its last occurrence. The more unusual the word, the less frequently it should occur. No one’s going to notice that you used the word “man” or “woman” two pages ago—but throw in “hermaphrodite” on page 26, and you can be sure that readers who see “hermaphrodite” on page 347 will remember having seen it before. The same is true of repeating phrases.
Pretty much the same logic applies here. Sometimes, our own favorite phrases—ones we use in daily conversation—will creep into the writing. Which is fine, so long as they’re appropriate and well-placed. But what often happens is this: we’ll use the same phrase two, three, or more times without realizing that we’re repeating ourselves. Or we’ll think up a cool phrase and put it in, not realizing that we’ve already used it.
To the reader, this looks—at best—like lazy writing. At worst, it comes off like the ramblings of an old-timer who can’t remember what he told you two minutes ago—and so proceeds to tell you the same thing all over again.
Exceptions must have a purpose, and usually appear in dialogue. Perhaps the character repeating himself really is an addled old codger, and you’re illustrating this point by having him repeat himself. Or maybe he’s an ass who repeats instructions because he’s treating a subordinate like an idiot. Or he’s talking to someone who has trouble remembering things. Or (and I hope you’ve noticed that I’ve now begun three consecutive sentences with the same word)—my favorite—a character repeats a phrase he’s used before, tipping off the reader (or another character, or both) that he’s the same guy who used this phrase earlier.
This last technique was employed to good effect in the 2003 film The Italian Job—with a twist: here (spoiler coming), Stella’s conning Steve, who doesn’t know her but did know (and murdered) her father. Without even thinking about it, Stella uses a turn of phrase often employed by her father. Steve picks up on this, immediately realizing that she’s somehow connected to the man he murdered—and that Stella means him no good.
Phrases can be repeated for comedic, ironic, or dramatic effect. The film A Perfect Murder makes wonderful use of the ironic turnaround: lines like “What if there were no tomorrow?” and “That’s not happiness to see me” are each voiced by Steven and Emily (to each other, at different times) in emotionally charged scenes dripping with tension. The movie 300 has a magnificent turnaround line (three, actually) involving Queen Gorgo and Theron.
In Strange Days, Mace calls Lenny paranoid for thinking he’s being followed. Later, when their car is burning rubber to escape a hail of machine gun fire, Lenny says: “Oh no we’re not being followed, Lenny. Don’t be so paranoid, Lenny.”
Each of these exceptions has one thing in common: in every case, the repetition is intentional.
PARROTED DIALOGUE: THE “WILLIAM SHATNER MOMENT”
Dialogue is “parroted” when one character says something, and another immediately and unnecessarily repeats all or part of what was just said. The effect is, at best, comedic. Which is fine if: a) you’re writing comedy, and; b) the repetition is both intentional and funny. Probably ninety nine percent of the time, that’s not the case.
When Star Trek’s Captain Kirk (played by William Shatner) did this in the television series, it was intended to be dramatic. Today, it seems unintentionally comedic—a sort of so-bad-it’s-funny moment. Still, we groan rather than laugh.
Too many writers insert this kind of thing into their work without a second thought. Unfortunately, the technique is so overused it’s become a joke—literally: in the film The Long Kiss Goodnight, we see the following exchange:
Henessey: We found a note that’s in her handwriting.
Nathan: She saw a note?
Henessey: Who are you, William Shatner?
Here, it’s funny—and intended to be so. More often—almost always, in fact—it marks the writer as a novice, and swiftly becomes annoying.
Exception: When done—and done well—for comedic effect.
HE SAID, SHE SAID
One of the most common repeat offenders is the “He Said, She Said Syndrome,” in which every (or nearly every) line of dialogue is followed by “he said,” “she said,” or “[character name] said.” I once counted 34 of these in a row. Take it from an editor: few things get old faster than this.
Which does not mean that you should start substituting words like chortled, snorted, barked, and spat for said—but that’s a topic for another day.
Intentional repetition—whether of words, phrases, or whole passages—rarely works. I recall one writer who repeated entire paragraphs and conversations, with two different characters, in different places. His intention was to demonstrate an uncanny similarity in the lives of two strangers destined to meet. The effect was a distracting read during which I wondered why he’d take up so much space (in the first of an unpublished trilogy of phone book-sized manuscripts) with such obvious repetition–while at the same time marveling at what an unbelievable coincidence it was that the same exact events and conversations were taking place in the lives of two perfect strangers.
Any time you’re thinking of repeating something intentionally, ask yourself why. Then ask yourself whether the repetition has the intended effect. Then show it to someone else and ask them (without explaining your intended effect beforehand), because you’re biased.
For exceptions, see those listed under Repeating Phrases, above.
Repetition is, well, repetitive. As an author, you’re expected to have a lot to say. You’re also expected to have an unusually large vocabulary with which to say it. Repetition flies in the face of both expectations. It’s like having two noses, when you should have only one: it makes you look bad bad bad.
So give your writing a facelift, and dump those doubles—along with your other repeats.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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