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Monday, November 30, 2009

Eliminate Repetitive Scenes

This article I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.

Eliminate Repetive Scenes

Rehashing Information May Cause a Sagging Middle in Your Novel

Utilize a scene index to look at your novel’s story structure and identify possible repetitious scenes to beef up the pacing.

Many times, writers will be able to see that their middle “sags,” or the pacing slows in the middle portion of the novel.

There are several ways to avoid the sagging middle, but often the problem can be some repetition of information. Identifying it, however, can be difficult when faced with searching a 100,000 word manuscript.

Utilize a Scene Index

For each scene, skim the scene and jot down key elements:

Pertinent information to the plot that is revealed
Key character emotions that are uncovered or hinted at
Changes to the character that results in different decisions
New developments or plot twists
New characters introduced
Character backstory that is confessed or discovered

Many times, writing these elements on index cards, Post-It notes, or small pieces of paper are best. Another option is using cells in a spreadsheet program like Excel. Use one card/paper/cell for each scene.

Number the cards so you know the order of the scenes. Also, you might want to list a phrase or title at the top of each card that summarizes the scene.

Lay all the cards out on a table, the floor, or posted on a wall or board. That way, all the scenes are visually in front of you. This is your Scene Index.

Make Any Repetition Count

Even as you are creating the cards, you might start to notice repetition. For example, Joan expresses unexplained anger at Edward in scene 12, and then she does it again in scene 24.

Sometimes repetition is necessary, but ideally, if something is repeated, there should also be some new development to accompany it so that it’s not the same. For example, Joan again expresses anger at Edward in scene 24 but she also hints that he’s to blame for her mother’s death.

Make Each Scene Build Off the One Before

Some repetition occurs because the scenes have become episodic, not moving the story question forward or pursuing the story purpose.

As you look at your Scene Index, make sure that each scene is a result of a scene before, building off of the new information or the change that has occurred in a previous scene. You do not want your Scene Index to show several scenes that are too alike.

For example, the character does a specific action in scene B because of new information he discovered in scene A. Or the character makes a decision in scene D because of an argument in scene C. Or the character has a discussion with a certain suspect in scene F because of a clue discovered in scene E.

Eliminate Repetition With Change

Insert something different into every scene, and that will help to eliminate unnecessary repetition.

If your story is constantly changing because of new information, new developments, new characters, new discoveries, then you naturally keep repetition to a minimum.

Trust Your Reader

Some writers want to make sure the reader gets a certain point or understands something about the character, but repetition is not the way to do it.

Instead, show the character in various situations as the story goes along. Or reveal information in small bits and pieces so that the reader has to uncover the mystery. Or to show routine, give clues from what other characters say or do.

Be creative in how you can reveal information through different ways that also forward the plot, rather than falling back on repeating yourself.

Your reader will pick up on things the first time—trust your reader.

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