Reminders or Repetition


Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

When I was finally able to travel after my vaccinations earlier this month, I visited my mom. She’s 95 and has cognitive issues. (And vision issues, and hearing issues, but she’s 95 and has survived COVID.) Carrying on a conversation with her is a challenge. She’ll ask a question, you’ll answer, and a minute later, she’ll ask the same question. It doesn’t take long before you feel like you could record your answer and set it to play back while you go do something else. Of course, she has no idea she’s repeating herself.

Repetition is something to watch out for in our writing as well. One lesson learned early on was, “Don’t tell readers something they already know.” But, as writers, we often want to make sure our readers understand a point we’re making, and we repeat it. But when is it too much? What’s the best way to handle it?

repetition or reminderAn extreme example: A long time ago, in one of my first critique groups, one author’s character was an activist, giving speeches all over the country. The author had done a good job of writing the speech and the readers ‘heard’ it all on the page (or several pages, as I recall). But then, when the character made the next stop, the author repeated the entire speech verbatim. You can imagine that by the third or fourth delivery of the speech, the reader was tuning out. Now, the author was also adding some new material to the speech, but would the reader stick with it to get to the end of the already way-too-familiar territory to see what was added? Probably not. The group suggested that the only thing the author needed to show was the new stuff.

I’ve been seeing the same issues in a series of mystery novels I’ve been reading. Cop Bob interviews a suspect, Jim. Then, when he reports to his partner—let’s call her Mary—he repeats all the information he’s gleaned. Skim time.

If you’re writing multiple points of view, any time your POV characters are separated, only one of them knows what’s going on. If you’re in a Bob POV scene, it’s easy enough to handle. But what if you’re Mary’s POV when Bob tells her what Jim said? You don’t want to repeat the conversation. AND, you don’t want to repeat the same plot points from the previous scene. No matter what the “rules” say, there’s nothing wrong with telling in order to get information to the reader—it’s when the telling becomes back story dumping that you’ll run into problems.

You need to move things forward. You can recap in narrative in a few words. “Mary listened as Bob told her Jim had admitted to being in the shop when the robbery took place. She cut him off before he went into every detail about who else had been there, and who bought what.”

Start your showing from there, dealing with the critical plot points for this particular scene.

An example from In Hot Water, one of my Triple-D Ranch romantic suspense books. In the genre, it’s expected to have alternating POVs. Here, the heroine, Sabrina, isn’t always with Derek, the hero. When the hero’s scene has him learning about a possible attack on his ranch, he and his team go over the possible ramifications, discuss plans of action. Now, when Sabrina gets her POV scene, the reader already knows all of this. But in her POV, she’s learning all new stuff. She needs to be brought up to speed. There will have to be some repetition, but it’s also important to have her add something to the mix. Does she bring up a point the guys didn’t think of? (One hopes so!) Is this attack going to affect her differently than it does the men? Show that.

Another aspect of repetition is to remind readers of things they might have forgotten, especially if they’re going to be important later. Did you foreshadow it? How long has it been since this information was relayed to the reader? Do they need a reminder? After all, much as an author hates to admit it, readers don’t always sit down with a book and read from page one to the end in a single sitting.

In a mystery, the cops/detectives are going to be reviewing the case, recapping old information along with introducing new facts. This can help the readers remember. It also lets the author sneak in red herrings and hide the “real” clues in plain sight.

Bottom line: Give the information in a new way. Add something new beyond straight repetition. Keep moving the story forward.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Deadly Options

Are Gordon’s Days in Mapleton Numbered?

Deadly Options, a Mapleton Mystery/Pine Hills Police crossover.

32 thoughts on “Reminders or Repetition

  1. Terry, thanks for sharing your personal experiences with your mom. Bless you for your patience. I’ve had my own experiences with a family member and they were similar to yours. Somewhere in there your mom appreciates you.

    Your post today on repetition is timely for me. A friend sent me a recording of a song that a relative of theirs had written and performed. She kept using the word “elated” in different ways throughout it, but not as part of a chorus or hook. She was using it to describe that she was happy or excited or whatever. It bogged the whole thing down. My reaction was that she was going for Stevie Nicks but ending up as Honey Halfwitch.

    Another example…there was a very well-known thriller author who required a lot of editing. One of his novels involved some contraband that the protagonist knew was hidden on one of three cargo ships. One ship was searched in painstaking detail, to no avail. A second ship was searched, with similar descriptions and results. It was a foregone conclusion that the McGuffin would be found on the third ship. It was, eventually. The repetition killed any suspense that might have been generated, however.

    Thanks again for a terrific post and some great lessons, Terry.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Joe. Watching family members age from afar, helpless to do anything … sucks. We bless her compassionate caregivers.

      Yes, repeating the ‘excitement’ of a search for contraband deflates the tension. And you know what they say. You always find what you’re looking for in the last place you look for it.

      • “You always find what you’re looking for in the last place you look for it.” For real, I once had someone ask, “So, why don’t you look there first?” Words don’t often escape me but what could one say?

  2. Great post, Terry. Thanks for the “reminders.” The reminders and narrative summary (vs repeating) are areas I need to work on.

    Another place where this is an issue is series books. We all like to think that our readers will remember everything they read in book #1. They don’t. And each new book in the series needs to stand alone. So, we need to do some repeating vs. reminding. The most common comment I get from beta readers is, “Who’s so and so. What’s a … Where did that come from?”

    I spent three days a week visiting my father in a dementia unit, about six years ago. It was one of the most depressing periods of my life. The frustration of the lack of communication can drive you crazy. I finally learned to smile, nod my head, and realize the time spent was more important. I also learned to “pacify” myself (while getting nothing done) by planning a thriller set in a dementia unit. Haven’t written it yet, but I will. And I’ll dedicate it to my dad.

    • I hear you about series, Steve. I have 4 of them going, and I can’t keep track of the details. No matter what notes I keep, it’s always some other detail I need. I try to make each one stand alone, but with smiles for returning readers. I think as long as the reminders are short and don’t dump backstory, your readers can get caught up without feeling bogged down.

    • Series books, even a three parter, have this trap. I like each book to stand alone, or at least allow me to enter in the middle and then jump back if I want. On the other hand, every book does not need to hear how Monica and Drew met at that wild beach party.

  3. Terry, glad you were finally able to visit your mom. The decline is hard to watch.

    During the last year of my adopted mother’s life (she died at 91), in every phone conversation, she repeated the same story–a possum had gotten into her garage and died. She nudged it with a broom. Didn’t move. She left to find a box to dispose of him. When she returned, he’d disappeared. Every time, I responded, “He was playing possum.” Every time she giggled. Same punchline over and over. Yet to her the joke was as fresh as the first time.

    Good point about repetition vs. reminder, esp. with names. When minor character “Joanne” reappears after being absent for 75 pages, it helps to have a quick hint that she’s a neighbor, or ex sister-in-law, or pastry chef at the bakery. Otherwise, I’m searching back trying to recall who the heck Joanne is.

    Not that I’m getting forgetful…sigh.

    • Yes, Debbie. For those with cognitive issues, every story is new. It’s the questions that are hard to handle. A phone call with my elderly aunt was always the same. Yes, I still live in Colorado. Yes, I still like it. Yes, the kids are ok. No, I don’t know how much money they’re making, but since they’re not asking for handouts, I assume it’s enough.
      With returning characters in a series, it’s easy to tuck in a descriptor. “Jinx, Blackthorne’s top Intel officer, …” Or, “Fozzie, who could spot the fleas on a squirrel’s balls from five hundred feet in the air”… But doing it gracefully when it’s a minor character who’s first appeared in the book chapters and chapters ago gets a little trickier. But nobody said this gig was easy!

  4. I think copy/paste may be part of the culprit. I have read more than a few books were it looks like Det. Jim’s description has been pasted into every chapter when he walks into the room. Even worse that Det. Jim seems to have stolen Colombo’s closet.

    • I’ve been guilty of copy/paste when it comes to new characters driving up to the hotel that I described in a previous book in the series, although I do try to modify after I’ve pasted. 😉

      For characters, since I write in Deep POV, I generally let another character describe them.

      John Sandford says he gives a one or two sentence description of Lucas Davenport near the beginning of his books– tall, dark hair, scar, and that’s about it.

  5. It’s so difficult to watch those we love start to fade. {{{hugs}}} I’m sure your mom loved every minute of your visit.

    Yes, I agree. Sometimes, especially in series, we need to remind the reader of important details as long it’s done in a new and fresh way, as you mentioned in your post. Happy book birthday!

  6. Thanks, Sue. I had all sorts of challenges when I wrote Deadly Options, which was a crossover into my Pine Hills Police series. I have no idea how many (if any) of my readers have read both series, since one’s mystery and the other is romantic suspense, so I was constantly dealing with “is this needed?” for the chapters where my Mapleton peeps were in Pine Hills.

  7. Terry, I’m so glad you were finally able to visit your mother, thanks to vaccination. It’s been a long year for all of us, but I think especially those with family members suffering from cognitive issues and memory loss.

    Both my parents died before they might have faced this, but I saw it with my grand father and my wife’s grandparents. My grandfather had been a minister who loved to sing, and had been in a barber shop quartet. He was also very well read and and inspiration for me growing up. It was so hard to see the man who had schooled my teenaged self at chess struggle to recognize us or remember even basic things.

    Your tips on avoiding needless repetition are great–this is something I’ve struggled with. In my case, my beta reading “crew” is great at spotting when I’ve repeated myself, as well as when I need to emphasize something again, perhaps in a slightly different way. Thanks again for a very helpful post.

    • My dad, who was never big into music, did seem to enjoy the singalongs at the senior center, and one of his substitute caregivers brought his guitar and printed out lyrics to familiar songs. None of us in the family can sing worth a damn, but it was a joy to hear Dad belting out Puff the Magic Dragon.
      And glad my repetition hints proved helpful. It seems my own memory lapses when I’m writing, and I repeat things I’ve written just a couple of paragraphs prior. Or, I totally forget I’ve introduced a thread that has to be addressed. Thank goodness for critique partners.

  8. Just yesterday I wrote a scene between my series hero, Mike Romeo, and his lawyer-friend-employer, Ira Rosen. Just before that was a long, emotional scene involving Mike and the mother of their client, who is in great distress. Mike then goes to Ira’s:

    “Tell me how it went with Sasha Taylor,” Ira said.
    I told him.

    That said, I usually have one or two scenes where Mike and Ira do go over the facts as they’ve been gathered to that point. It helps remind the reader (and me!) what’s gone on…and gives these two a chance to lay out plans. This is usually where I’ll add legal/procedural bits, because readers love inside info.

    • Yep – if you’ve just given the information to the readers, no need to go over it verbatim again. One of the ‘cool’ things about writing cop/detective type stories is that the cops will rehash information as they get more clues, and you have a perfect opportunity to remind readers.

    • Jim, I have a similar line toward the end of one of my WIPs: Susan looked at him. “What’s this all about, Bill?”

      “Yeah, Dad. What gives?”

      Bill glanced at Tom and smirked. “You want to tell them?”

      “Nope. It’s your plan, soldier. You tell ’em.”

      He told them.

    • This reminds me of the oft-told tale about Jacqueline Susann writing a very long and dutifully researched chapter about a political convention going on. Her editor Michael Korda told her it was too long and repetitious. She fought him to the mat but when the book came out, the chapter was trimmed down to:

      The convention was held.

  9. Good tips, Terry! Needless repetition is one of my bugaboos that my editor constantly red-pens.

    But on the flip side, I once was reading an espionage/thriller series of 3, and was surprised that this author (very well-known) chose to start the next story in the series with no less than 3-4 chapters taken verbatim from the end of the previous novel. At the time, I thought it was pretty lazy of him. But, as a novice novelist, I just took it in stride and skipped those chapters.

    I took care of my mom for 4 years prior to her death, in my home, then in two different facilities. She had dementia and it was the hardest thing I ever had to do. Now, I supervise my 88-year-old dad’s care at his facility. He doesn’t have dementia, but he has other issues. However, he still has his wicked sense of humor, for which I am glad.

    It’s hard when we find ourselves between parents and grandchildren, but it’s the way of our world, I guess. I’m just glad I can give back to those who put up with me for so many years… 🙂

    • I might have put the replay book aside, thinking I’d already read it. A recap is one thing; verbatim chapters is something else.
      My kids keep telling me to make notes of everything Mom does that frustrates me so I can refer to them and save my kids from having to go through everything, too. It’s hard enough, but living so far apart, and during a pandemic, makes it even harder.

      • Those notes your kids want you to take regarding your Mom may not accomplish what they hope for, Terry.

        One major fact of the world of dementia/Alzheimer’s is this: if you have 50 dementia patients, you have 50 dementia patients. I had to learn that, and it was a hard lesson.

  10. Another great post, Terri. My grandmother had memory issues and I felt frustration and sorrow at the same time when I talked to her. But you’ve turned this into a useful life lesson.

    • Thanks, Elaine – I don’t usually post much about my personal/family issues, but it did seem to be a lead-in to the writing topic of the day.

  11. So glad you were able to visit with your mother, I’ve had similar experiences with elderly relatives and friends repeating things. It must be comforting for them to travel the same road over and over again.

    I get what you’re saying about the tendency to repeat ourselves in our work. It’s hard for me to look at my writing from the reader’s point of view and remember they don’t want to be hit over the head with the obvious.

    Since I’m writing a series where each book is intended to stand alone, I have to search out that fine line between re-telling everything from the first story or leaving the reader in the dark by not repeating anything. This is hard work. 🙂

    • If it was easy, anyone could do it, right, Kay? 🙂 My rule of thumb for any kind of back story is “Does the reader need to know this? Does the reader need to know this NOW?”
      Finding that “something new” to include when reminding readers of what’s gone before, and then leaving out most of the old stuff to show the new is a challenge.

  12. Being treated like an idiot is a fast way to make a reader mad, but I’m seeing it a lot from successful and skillful writers who should know better. I blame the poor editing as much the author. If I were a bestselling author whose publisher couldn’t be bothered to add more editors instead of overworking the few they have, I’d pay for my own editor so I wouldn’t look like such an incompetent writer.

    Most readers are SMART. I’ve had more than a few pick up on an uncommon word I deliberately used twice in a 100,000 word book and realize the bomb I’d laid early on that they hadn’t picked up on. A real “oh, sh*t” moment. Their fan letter called me evil but they loved it.

    Hugs, Terry, on your mom. Having your mom yet not having your mom is a horrible struggle I’ve seen so many friends deal with. I was lucky. Both my parents were whip sharp until the end. The last conversation I had with my mom before her voice failed was about her taxes. Her topic of choice.

    • Thanks, Marilynn. I agree that the quality of editing seems to have gone downhill. Either that, or I notice a lot more now that my own internal editor demands to take over everything I read.

  13. And I sympathize with your mom’s health issues and the communication problems. My beloved mom in law had Alzheimers and it was at times a struggle to stay sane and calm with the constant repetition. I often had the sense she understood, at some level, her decline and it distressed and frustrated her more than it did anyone around her. Best to you and her.

    • Thanks, Kris – Mom’s mental outlook seems pretty good. If I point out that yes, I did in fact send the picture of me and my grandson playing backgammon (her absolute favorite pastime, and I don’t know what life will be like for her if she loses that skill), she’ll say, “When you’re 95, you forget things.”

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