redundant: 1 a: exceeding what is necessary or normal : superfluous b : characterized by or containing an excess; specif : using more words than necessary.
Redundancy is not only a sign of lazy writing; it can also pull us out of the story by interrupting the narrative flow. There are many types of redundancies in writing, from rehashing story information, to repeating themes unnecessarily, to using the same word or phrase within close proximity. Some words are like suntan lotion: a little goes a long way. If you’re going to use the word eidolon, fine, but only use it once.
When we read our work out loud we can catch most of the redundancies at the level of words, and find ways to remove them. Let’s try an exercise.
Read the following short paragraph.
“Bob drove to work early. He worked six blocks from home, and when he got tired of working in his office, he did his work from the donut shop next door.”
Can you convey all the information and only use the word work once?
“Bob drove six blocks to his office. When he got tired of staring at the same four walls, he worked from the donut shop next door.”
Now let’s look at a common problem: how to prevent exposition from becoming redundant. For example, sometimes a character must repeat information to another character. How can we avoid redundancy if the reader already knows the information?
Perhaps we could just show the other character’s response. Or maybe it could be dramatized and the second character could demand to know the story, and we could see the story told again, but from a new perspective, thus revealing new information about the characters’ relationships.
It is common for novice writers to repeat information ad nauseum. It’s the author’s job to find creative ways to keep the narrative moving forward.
A close cousin of this redundancy is beginning the story long before anything actually happens. Unless you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald, we probably don’t want to read twenty pages of backstory in order to get up to speed on the characters. Try to find ways to begin the action immediately, and creative ways to convey necessary information as the story proceeds.
This leads us to structural redundancy. Sometimes a beat can be played out repeatedly through varying situations, and the redundancy isn’t at the level of words or situations, but rather, of tension. The story is not building through rising stakes. This may be a structural problem, and it can be solved by first recognizing the redundancy.
It’s a dark day for the writer when the structure isn’t working, but as Ernest Hemingway said, “Every writer needs a good bullshit detector.”
Here are a couple of ideas if the story feels like it’s moving sideways without building in tension: consider tearing out scenes that feel emotionally similar but add little new information – and/or be curious as to how the stakes might be raised by exploring the dilemma at the heart of the scene.
Fiction is different than real life. Real life is mundane. We eat, we work, we laugh, we cry, we sleep, we do it again. The purpose of fiction is to imbue these events with meaning. We’re not interested in the appearance of eating and sleeping; we’re interested in the underlying meaning that is being expressed through these incidents.
It is through inquiring into why a particular passage has been written that we begin to understand precisely what we were attempting to express, and the scene springs to life, thus raising the stakes.