Reminder or Repetition?

By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Photo credit: wwnorm on visual hunt

 

 

When you read a novel, do you like occasional reminders?

 

 

 

 

 

Or…do you find reminders tedious and repetitious?

 

 

 

 

Recently, I discussed these questions with author/editor Karen Albright Lin. Karen is currently reading my WIP, Until Proven Guilty, book #7 in my Tawny Lindholm Thriller series.

Speaking as an older reader with termites eating holes in my memory, I need reminders. Most of the time, I read a novel in bed and fall asleep after a few pages. Days may pass before I pick up the book again.

In stories with many characters, POVs, and plot lines, I get lost and need to scroll backward to review. Who are these people? How are they connected? When and where is the story taking place? What just happened?

My readers are generally older and probably have similar memory lapses. Because of that, as a writer, I make a conscious effort to include small reminders to ground the reader at the beginning of each new scene and chapter.

Authors often leave a character hanging on the edge of a cliff, particularly in thrillers. In the next scene, they jump-cut to a different character in a different place and time. Three or four scenes later, they return to the poor hanging character. At that point, I appreciate a brief reminder of how and why the character wound up in that situation.

Reminders are also helpful for secondary characters who are offstage much of the time. When they reappear, in addition to their names, I usually mention their role or function.

A minor character, Mavis Dockerty, appears only three times in Until Proven Guilty—in chapters 1, 18, and 32.

She’s first introduced during a preliminary hearing on page 2, questioning a rape victim in what should be a slam-dunk prosecution:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty said, “Take your time.” She picked up a box of tissues from the prosecution table and handed it to Amelia.

A few pages later, Mavis’s airtight case against the rapist is destroyed by defense attorney Tillman Rosenbaum, the male lead.

Mavis doesn’t appear again for 150+ pages and could be forgotten by some readers. So, I reintroduce her on page 166:

Flathead County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was sitting by herself in the last row of Courtroom #2 when Tillman tracked her down.

She appears for a final time on page 287:

County Attorney Mavis Dockerty was doggedly determined not to lose twice against the rapist Claude Ledbetter. Her evidence at his second preliminary hearing was flawless and overwhelming, every possible loophole sewed up tight.

Quick reminders like that are easy.

But when do reminders turn into repetition?

Back to my discussion with Karen. In my manuscript, she made many notes where she thought I was being repetitive. She advised: “Trust the reader to get it the first time.” 

My initial reaction was Really? Nah, I don’t repeat myself.

Writers can’t see their own flaws. That’s why we depend on critique groups, beta readers, and editors to point out problematic trees amid the dense forest of our novels. I trust Karen’s sharp eye and savvy skills as an editor so I took a closer look.

What I found was shocking. Here are a few examples:

One hint the writer is being repetitive is when the reminder appears three times in two paragraphs.

In the following passage, protagonist Tawny is experiencing empty-nest syndrome. She loves her husband’s three children from his previous marriage but they’re away at school or traveling. Her own son Neal is in his mid-thirties, in the military, and is home for a rare visit.

She’d already had one disappointment, when Neal declined to stay in the beautiful, sprawling, ranch-style house that Tillman had bought when they married because it had enough bedrooms for all their kids. Instead, Neal opted to sleep at Tawny’s creaky old bungalow in the historic district—the home where he’d grown up and still felt comfortable.

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy. Occasionally Tillman’s two daughters and his son came for weekend visits but otherwise the rooms stayed empty. But that was the way with grown children.

Did you get the picture of the vacant bedrooms?

Again and again and again.

Based on Karen’s suggestions, the first paragraph stayed the same but the second now reads:

The hollow bedrooms of the new house sometimes made Tawny melancholy, wishing Tillman’s two daughters and his son visited more often. But that was the way with grown children.

In another example, Karen noted that the location of a coffee kiosk had been repeated. In that instance, since there were only a couple of mentions, with many pages in between, I did not take her suggestion because it seemed like a reasonable reminder that wouldn’t bug readers.

The bigger problem is how to express themes without being repetitive. That’s where Karen busted me big time.

Until Proven Guilty weaves together three plots, each showcasing a different perspective in the tug of war between the law and justice. The first involves a clearly guilty character who walks free; the second addresses an innocent character who’s wrongly imprisoned; the third shows the perils of presuming guilt without proof.

The two protagonists, Tawny and Tillman, are married, work together, and clash over their different beliefs. Tawny is an idealist who wants justice for crime victims. Tillman is sometimes a righteous crusader but he’s also a cynical, pragmatic attorney whose job is to vigorously defend his clients whether they’re guilty or not.

At the start of the story, Tillman destroys County Attorney Mavis Dockerty’s case against an accused rapist because of faulty evidence. Tawny didn’t know Tillman’s plan before the hearing and is shocked and dismayed that the accused rapist is set free.

As they walk from the courthouse back to the law office, she confronts Tillman:

Tawny looked up at him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

His deep, rumbling baritone rose above traffic noise. “So you could distract me with a lecture about right and wrong, good and evil?”

“You know he’s guilty,” she said. “The judge practically said so.”

His dark gaze, half sexy, half scary, pinned her. “The cops botched the evidence collection. The crime lab mishandled the DNA samples. It’s not my responsibility to help the county attorney prove her case. It’s full of holes bigger than the Berkeley mine pit.”

“But he’s guilty,” Tawny repeated. “He assaulted that poor woman. That doesn’t bother you?” She dearly loved her new husband but sometimes she didn’t like him very much.

Tillman stopped in the shade of a maple tree overhanging the alley behind the office. “I did my job, Tawny. That’s how the system is set up. Presumed innocent until proven guilty. Mavis didn’t prove Ledbetter guilty. And the fee Ledbetter paid me allows me to take on more pro bono cases.”

He didn’t say “like yours” but the unspoken words hung heavy in the late summer air.

A scene follows at the law office where Tawny expresses her indignation to a coworker:

A new headache settled behind Tawny’s eyes, the pressure making them feel like they were bulging. “When the judge threw the case out, that poor woman was crushed. Her husband looked ready to peel off Ledbetter’s skin and dunk him in alcohol. I wouldn’t blame him if he had.”

Then she thinks even more about it:

Tawny knew the system. Yet, in cases like Ledbetter’s, her conscience chafed. What about the victim’s right to justice?  

A few pages later, on their way home:

Tillman said, “If you wanted a lawyer who represents only innocent people, you should have married Perry Mason. This is how the system works. What can be proved versus what can’t be, what evidence is admissible versus what isn’t. I use the law as it’s written to defend my clients.”

“But it’s wrong,” Tawny said.  

“It’s the law.”

Tillman was hard to argue with. That’s why he was so good.

Tawny couldn’t think of a rebuttal.

A heavy silence hung over the rest of the drive home.

Then, at home, they talk more about the case:

“You’re such a Pollyanna,” he murmured but without his usual sardonic tone.

“I know you have to do what you have to do. I just feel bad for that poor victim.”

“It’s not a justice system, Tawny. It’s a legal system. Right and wrong, good and evil. None of that comes into play.”

In the first 15 pages of the book, I repeat the theme five different times.

Didja get it? Sure you got it? Are you positive? Just in case, let me smack you over the head with a two-by-four.

The author’s personal beliefs are bleeding all over the story.

That refrain echoed through the rest of the manuscript as Karen observed over and over that I was beating the same drum. By page 188, her understandable frustration was showing: “This drum has been beat until there’s a hole in it.”

Therein lies my dilemma. Three different plots share the same theme but are seen through contrasting lenses by various POV characters. How does a writer show multiple perspectives yet avoid being repetitive? How do I keep my obvious bias in check?

Through the book, the running argument between Tawny and Tillman escalates. It ultimately leads to a crisis in their marriage.

Photo credit: matthijs smit – Unsplash

How the heck do I show that important plot arc without beating a hole in the drum?

Right now, I’m going through page by page with Karen’s cautions in mind. I have to decide when reminders become repetitious and cut those parts.

Sometimes I can combine several references into a single one that makes the point.

I’m trying to reserve dialogue about theme for the most important pivotal scenes.

Karen says, “Trust the reader to get it the first time.”

She’s right but, oh, it’s a struggle to restrain my drumstick.

~~~

TKZers: As a reader, how do you feel about reminders?

Do you sometimes want to tell the author enough is enough already?

As a writer, how do you incorporate reminders?

Do you catch yourself making a point until it becomes repetitious?

~~~

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This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writetip, editing, theme, theme in fiction, thriller, thrillers, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, Flight to Forever, and Until Proven Guilty. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

45 thoughts on “Reminder or Repetition?

  1. Thanks, Debbie. Speaking only for this older reader, I need reminders as to characters. The one mentioned briefly on page five is a ghost by page fifty-five. That is why I love my Kindle. I can highlight that name, do a search, and every mention appears. I can figure out who it is by context. Usually.

    Don’t forget to remind us about UNTIL PROVEN GUILTY!

    • Joe, thanks for the good suggestion about highlighting names in Kindle. My senior moments are extending into senior hours.

      What am I supposed to remind you about???

  2. I’m with Joe. I need reminders when it comes to characters who appear sparsely in a book. Themes that are drummed on repeatedly become preachy and irritating. But finding the right balance is, oh, so difficult.

    • Good point about preaching, Nana. An author should feel passionate about the story but stay off the soapbox. Thank goodness for sharp editors.

      • One cozy writer I recall beat the drum from her soapbox, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, for a particular philosophical belief. It certainly differentiated her MC from most others, but it got old on the second mention. I didn’t stay to see if it were somehow plot-relevant.

  3. Fantastic post, Debbie. Like Joe and Nana mentioned above, the amateur reader may need more reminders about characters than does the professional reader. And, remember, like you described in your intro, most readers don’t sit down all day and read through a book, they read a few chapters at a time.

    This is where beta readers (amateurs) can be helpful. We’ve all been lectured about not repeating, but I get more complaints from my betas about “Now who is so and so?” With characters, I’m almost never told that there are too many reminders.

    Now with themes and preaching, I plead the fifth.

    I look forward to reading Until Proven Guilty. I’m currently reading Dead Man’s Bluff and it’s great!

    Have a great day!

  4. Very helpful post. Honestly, the number of times I’ve consciously noted too much repetition while reading is very tiny compared to the number of books read. As you said, having another pair of eyes on your manuscript can help catch what we don’t see.

    Beating themes to death is a problem I see much more often AND have to watch for when I write. But it’s very difficult in practice to tell the message of your story without it sounding preachy and making the reader roll their eyes.

    But I have to also laugh while reading about this topic this morning. Fiction writers, don’t think it’s just you. This post reminded me of how much I sit and agonize over any email communications that I send out company wide–reading and re-reading to make sure it’s worded just so and without flaw (or repetition!). LOL!!!!!

  5. Thanks for the reminder,Debbit! 😉
    Since many of my books are written in alternating POV characters, it’s a challenge to bring them up to speed with each other after they’ve been apart without boring the reader. Depending on whose POV I’m in at the time, it can be “Mary told Joe what she’d learned about XXX” without Mary having to repeat what the reader already knows. (I touched on this in a post from about a year ago.)
    If it’s repeated information, I try to add something new to the mix so.
    As for themes? Do my books even have themes? Sometimes my readers tell me, and I’m always surprised.

    • Terry, quick summaries to bring the characters (and readers) up to speed work well, esp. when you add a new tidbit of information. Anything to keep that plot moving forward.

      Your comment about themes made me smile. At book clubs, readers often remark about themes I didn’t know I was writing about. Are they projecting their own beliefs or did my subconscious sneak a message in w/o me realizing it? That’s always a fun surprise when talking with readers.

      • It’s the subconscious. Often, when I was going back over my first rough draft, I’d see images and metaphors had appeared that were related to a theme I was unaware of. Part of my early drafts process was to improve the thematic elements so they’d make the novel stronger.

      • I vote for your subconscious*, Debbie! She is faster than your intellect and can, as does the Shadow, cast a cloud over things she wishes to conceal, whispering, “These are not the droids you’re looking for,” directly into your frontal cortex.**

        * AKA The Guardienne
        ** This applies to more than writing. Denial is autonomic.

  6. Valued topic, Debbie, and something I try to be conscious of – to get a balance in. I got a piece of advice once that said “Resist the Urge to Explain”. It hit home so hard that I wrote the acronym RUE on a little yellow sticky note in red ink and have it posted on my monitor. It’s there with another reminder to use the five senses in every scene. Sight. Sound. Smell. Taste. Feel. SSSTF. These are as close to writing rules as there is. Enjoy your day!

    • Garry, one of my mentors, Dennis Foley, introduced me to RUE. Great guideline–notice I didn’t say “rule.” 😉

      As my editor Karen said, “Trust the reader to get it.”

  7. Very interesting. I often find them tedious. But it also depends on the novel length. I’m sure I’m not alone, but I skip ahead in short novels when there are too many reminders. Not interested in re-reading parts in books when I don’t need them.

    • Ben, you’re right about being tedious. That’s an unforgivable sin for writers.

      I mentioned Dennis Foley above who also taught, “The only rule in writing is don’t bore the reader.”

      If only my memory still worked as well as yours…sigh.

  8. Great topic, Debbie! Getting it just right can be challenging, and, like description, will depend to a certain extent on the reader. It’s definitely harder with multiple POVs. Of the seven novels I have published so far, only one does multiple POVs (the others are in 1st person) and keeping track of information mentioned even for two storylines took some doing.

    As others have mentioned, sharp eyed beta readers and editors are super-helpful here.

    Some things, like theme, of course, can be shown as well as discussed, but that can also end up being more subtle. As a reader, I don’t mind some repetition, especially with multiple storylines. What annoys me far more is when the narrative is slow and I’m struggling to stay focused on it and that’s the point that a character says or does something in a single line which isn’t referenced again later. I’m not talking a mystery clue here, but rather a plot or character point. This is where I’d prefer the writer err on the side of emphasis and / or repetition so that we don’t miss it.

    I notice in my own writing that my subconscious wants a character to take a particular action or reaction and, even when I’m writing a new version of a scene, I slip that in. This also causes me to repeat myself, so I look out for those.

    Good luck with your WIP! Have a great day!

    • Dale, excellent point about the difference in writing a single POV vs. multiple POVs. As Terry mentioned, characters need to bring each other up to speed from time to time.

      Emphasis is yet another factor to take into consideration.

      There are lotsof plates to keep spinning in this writing biz. That’s what keeps it interesting.

      Have a productive writing day!

    • You bring up a vital point, Dale. Clues, especially a wee item whose relevance is supposed to be revealed only in the detective’s summation. Two mentions may tell your cannier readers it’s really a clew, showing too much, too soon. One mention many not suffice for the average reader to remember it. I lean towards giving the few clever clogs a reason to pat themselves on the back for figuring it out early, keeping everyone else on board with the second beat of the drum.

  9. Great topic, Debbie. You’re smart to know who your readers are when you decide on how much review / repetition to put in. I suspect what’s tedious repetition to one is welcome review to another. Personally, I appreciate a little review now and then on a character who hasn’t appeared for a few chapters.

    My most valuable critique partner is my husband, who has a straightforward way of giving feedback. While he was reading the manuscript for my first novel, he noticed that I had explained something four or five different ways. He observed, “Why don’t you just hit the reader over the head and be done with it?” It’s like having my own live-in post-it note.

    • Kay, keeping characters straight has been a big problem for me ever since college when I took a Russian Lit class. Every character had at least three names (formal, familiar, and nickname). Dostoevsky and Tolstoy featured casts of thousands. Aargh! I never want to inflict that on readers.

      Lucky you to have an in-house critiquer you trust.

  10. I like little reminders like you mentioned…what I don’t like is usually in romance or romantic suspense where the reader is constantly being reminded why the couple can’t be together. It’s like after the fourth or fifth time–I get it.
    Yes, be sure to let us know when Until Proven Guilty comes out.

    • Patricia, you echo my feeling about many romances. If the reason a couple can’t get together is flimsy, repetition doesn’t make it stronger.

      Thanks for your interest in Until Proven Guilty. TKZ friends will be the first to know!

  11. I love reminders! (Like you mentioned, we often read when sleepy.) They never feel tedious or repetitious if the wording, pov, or whatever is different each time.

  12. Readers despise being treated like they are stupid. One of my readers remembered my one use of a word, and, when I repeated it, almost 60,000 words later, she went “oh, shit” because she knew what was going to happen. She was not an English major. The story didn’t need the word to make sense, but it was a nice Easter egg for those who pay attention. Most pay attention.

    I will use slight reminders for characters who show up for a bit then disappear for chapters. One character was the overprotective housekeeper for the heroine. Lots of anger issues, too. In all her scenes, she was mauling something with her hands–tomatoes, paper, fabric. The reader got the reminder as well as the realization she’d prefer to be mauling the heroine’s love interest.

    I am very subtle, too, about plot reminders. If it’s a series of stories, I’ll try to be as vague as possible about past events so old readers will remember the info more fully while the new reader won’t be spoiled if they read the earlier book.

  13. Good blog, Debbie. I need reminders, especially if Mrs. Ellis appears on page 56 and then doesn’t turn up again until 125. While your editor made some excellent edits, I don’t go along with “trust you reader.” At least not this one.

  14. We all use unique character names, and that helps. People may remember Hippolyte Matičevski as the murder witness in the village from Chapter Two, whereas they might forget a Robert Collins. (IRL, Hippolyte was my father’s college roomie in 1920.)

    • J, distinctive names definitely make a character memorable. Hippolyte made an impression that’s lasted 100+ years. Your father told you, you told us today, and his name lives on.

  15. Sorry I’m late, Debbie! My 5-week course ended last night, and I spent the day piling on as much information as possible for my students.

    Anyway, this is such an important topic. I appreciate little reminders like the brief introduction of the County Attorney character, but soapbox reminders (get it?) yank me out of the story. You’re in a tough spot. What if you gently reminded the reader every 75-100 pages? Then it wouldn’t feel like overkill. I agree with your beta reader. Trust the reader to figure it out. The story’s more immersive that way, IMHO.

    • Your students are lucky, Sue! Sounds like a great class from a great teacher.

      I’m dismantling the soapbox as we speak! It’s a big improvement. Thanks!

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