|Show me once, hooray for you! Tell me twice, shame on you!|
When critiquing, I've noticed a recurring theme (no pun intended).
(Most often) The main character reminisces at random intervals the elements of their internal conflict.
(Close second) The author uses dialogue or the POV narrative to reiterate whatever was just shown to the reader in the same scene, sometimes even the previous paragraph.
At heart, it’s a trust issue. As a reader, it’s like the author taking the book from my hands, looking me right in the eye, and saying “Now, Nancy, you do understand that Vivica is terrified of a new relationship because of that horrible incident in second grade with the boy she gave the Valentine card too, right? I'm worried you didn't understand so every time the hero initiates interaction, I'm going to mention the incident, because it's key to understanding this whole novel."
Now I know most writers don’t think their target readers are that simple—especially the ones I’m privileged to know. Every last one of them. What I think is much more likely, is that as newer writers we have a tendency not to trust our own writing. Often after making such a comment in critique, anything from:
1 + 1 = ½, Trust the Reader, This slows the pacing, and is not new information, This is good information, but might need relocating to a more relevant place in the scene, I’m then blown away at how brilliantly I’m shown what I was just told. Occasionally it happens in reverse. Here’s a very simple illustration.
Joe was exhausted from the long day on the job. He’d known hiring his wife’s brother would be a mistake. The man’s unreliability was the only reliable thing about him. He turned the key in the lock, thinking back to the days when Sheila would meet him at the door with a kiss—sometimes wearing just her wedding band and a smile. How he missed those days.
“Sheila, I’m home.” Joe kicked his boots off in the entryway and trudged to his recliner. Collapsing into the old chairs embrace soothed his weary body, as much as the sight of his wife appearing with a cold glass of root beer.
“Did Peter show up for work today?”
“No. Third time this week, Sheila. I’m worried the foreman holds me responsible, too, since I recommended him for the job, even though you and I both know he hasn’t been on the straight and narrow long enough to give me any confidence.” Because I’d still do anything to make you happy.
“I’m sorry. I’ll talk to him. Do you want dinner in here or in the kitchen? I’ve got that book club meeting tonight I told you about yesterday, so I’ll be heading out soon.”
“Kitchen is okay. Thanks.”
“Sure thing. I’ll try not to wake you when I come to bed.”
Joe sighed and forced a smile. He wanted her to wake him. To want him like before, but the one time he’d tried to bring it up all that came out was ‘Have a good time.’
“Joe, are you okay?”
Before he could answer, she glanced at the clock, giving herself away.
“Yeah, honey, I’m okay. Have a good time.”
Later while Joe sat alone at their table, forking Sheila’s pot roast into his mouth over and over, all he could do was think. How had he let her talk him into recommending her brother for a job? The man had one consistency, and it was letting people down. If Joe weren’t so desperate to save this marriage he knew was disintegrating around him, he would have said no. Should have said no, but Sheila was his world, and he wanted her happy. Even if that meant he was miserable.
If I cut, and I should, both the first and last paragraph, because an editor would, the scene stands on its own without the narrative. The first paragraph tells the reader what I show them in the scene, then the final paragraph tells them not only what I just showed them, but what I told them I was going to show them.
Now, I’m debating very strongly here whether or not this is a style issue. I don’t really think so, because the 1 + 1 = ½ rule comes from Stephen King’s ‘On Writing: Memoirs of the Craft’ though I don’t remember who he attributes it to. And I know how frustrated I get when watching a movie with someone who feels the need to narrate for me so I don’t miss anything.
In early drafts of CHASING THE LION, I did this too. At least once in every chapter, sometimes once in each scene, I reminded the reader of Jonathan’s deep seated need for revenge and how it affected his every decision in the middle portions of the novel. I also usually reminded them this came from his brother’s betraying him into slavery. When I did my own read through cover to cover, I caught this and fixed it. This week and last week it was such a prevalent theme among the work I critiqued, I knew I wanted to blog about it.
(Now here, I’m okay with repeating myself because so much has happened in between when I first introduced that information. Sometimes the reader needs to be reminded, if chapters have passed or the plot presents a natural tie in where a light reference can be included. Just be sure it's relevant, warranted, and woven well through a brief nod the reader will understand.)
For those of you who follow CHASING THE LION, I do this with the scar on Jonathan's cheek from Caius's ring. Readers remember the powerful scene in which Jonathan received it, and why, and any time I need to remind the reader I can reference only the scar and I trust my readers to make the connection, without telling them again in a brief recap of that scene.
My theory on why writers slip into this repetitiveness evolved from this. When we write, even when we self-edit, we concentrate so much on a particular scene or chapter we don’t remember what specifically happened the chapter before, or after. Our subconscious demands we reference that important element that drives the plot or characterization because we know as writers that without it, the scene and the story don’t make sense. So it weaves itself in again, and again, and again, and again, until the reader is left wondering if they’re being called stupid behind the bookstore shelves. Something to consider, and if it’s been a while since you’ve read your own work from start to finish, it might be time.
In author news: I stopped a wildfire today, by being in the right place at the right time (though for a bad situation) and was reminded again that, like in CHASING THE LION, God always has a plan and purpose and can make the worst situations bring Him glory and draw us closer to Him. Even kicking and screaming like Jonathan. ;-)