Much of what we talk about here at Magical Words is about stories and characters in a big picture sort of way, all of which it is absolutely necessary to master. But today I’d like to talk about some of the little things that can influence how your writing flows. A few years ago I heard a writer say that he thought the 20th Century would be remembered for “the best writing about absolutely nothing,” and I have to say I’m inclined to agree with him. Much of what is defined as “literary writing” in the last hundred years has heavily emphasized style and voice and ignored the need to actually tell a story. However, while I believe it is a HUGE mistake to ignore story, it is equally wrong to ignore the little things that can make your prose flow like water in a clear mountain stream instead of like glops of concrete poured out of a cement-mixer.
One mistake I see made in many submissions to InterGalactic Medicine Show is the repetition of a single kind of sentence, and it’s usually the simple sentence (ala Hemingway). It will look something like this:
Mike picked up his gun. He looked at Jim angrily. Jim had killed his mother. And his wife. And his baby sister. And his infant daughter. Jim would pay with his life.
I could go on, but I’m already painfully bored. However, the exact same information, while primitive, could at least be structured so as to flow better.
Mike picked up his gun, eying Jim angrily. Jim had killed his mother, his wife, his baby sister. His infant daughter. He would pay. With his life.
No one is going to nominate those lines for any awards—heck, it’s still pretty darn clunky– but I think you see my point. Mixing up your sentence structures adds variety and therefore life and interest to the prose. The original paragraph was a victim of the worst kind of repetition.
Another example of bad repetition is the overuse of a single word, particularly if it is an unusual word that draws attention to itself.
Jim smiled sardonically. He had acquired the trait/habit from his father, and his father’s father, who were both renowned for their sardonic smiles. Sardonic Jim they called him.
Yes, we get it alrerady: he’s sardonic.
But repetition isn’t automatically the enemy; it can be used to good effect as easily as bad.
Let’s look at another example, this from my WIP, An Eye of Heartston. (The first two paragraphs are here to provide set-up/ context, the third paragraph will be the one I discuss further on):
That was it. Three days since Mother had walked out on them without saying so much as goodbye, and not once in all that time had Father said a word about it. Not one word. No explanations, no expressions of comfort; nothing.
It was more than Mary Katherine could stand. Venting all her anger in a single word, she snapped the reins and drove her heels into her horse’s side, shouting “Hyeah!” at the top of her lungs. Her horse bolted, careening down the narrow trail.
No; Mary Katherine thought, she would not camp with her father tonight. She would not spend one more minute with him. She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there. She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley. Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.
Here the repetition is used intentionally, for emphasis and for flow:
No; Mary Katherine thought, she would NOT camp with her father tonight. She would NOT spend one more minute with him.
This repetition of ‘NOT’ both echoes the original “NO” and emphasizes the emphatic nature of the emotions Mary Katherine is feeling at the time. It is the verbal equivalent of banging your fist in your hand while you’re speaking. It says ‘I’m serious about this!’
It is then followed by something subtler. Note that the first two sentences tell us what she would not do, followed by two sentences of what she would do:
She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there. She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley. Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.
Now that you’re studying this paragraph line-by-line, word-by-word, the repetition is obvious. But I suspect that when you read it the first time (as part of the larger three-paragraph block) the heavy repetition of the word ‘would’ didn’t jump out at you nearly as much. But by repeating the word ‘would’ in every single sentence in the paragraph EXCEPT for the last one, it subtly makes that last line stand out. It feels different. It flows different. This helps create a rhythm that slows the reader so the impact and importance of that last sentence hits home; even lingers a little.
Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.
Partly it works because the repeated words in the first four sentences–‘not’ and ‘would’– are semi-invisible common little words. They impact the flow and rhythm more than anything else, which is what makes them prime candidates for judicious repetition.
No; Mary Katherine thought, she would not camp with her father tonight.
She would not spend one more minute with him.
She would ride like St. Lucienne all the way to Grandfather’s house and beg him to let her stay there.
She would beg him to let her live with him until she was old enough to get married and leave the valley.
Anything, so long as she never had to talk to Father again.
The devil is in the details, because, in the simplest possible terms, writing that flows well is much easier to get lost in. And for better or for worse, I believe a lot of the success or failure of most works of fiction depends on subtle things, including, but certainly not limited to, effectively using repetition well, and avoiding using it badly. It’s really not any more complicated than that, and frankly it’s the kind of thing that primarily comes with practice (which is just another way of saying “intentional repetition for a positive effect”). But being aware of it puts you in a better position to master it. I don’t know that I would say I’ve ‘mastered’ it myself–in fact, I know I haven’t–but my awareness grows daily, and hopefully now yours will, too.