March 16, 2020 / 4 Comments

Again and Again and Again and Again and

So, hey… things are a little crazy and intense in this world of ours right now. Hopefully you’re somewhere safe and hunkering down a bit. Also hopefully you’re not someone going “Ha ha ha look at me” as you wander around potentially endangering other people.

Be a hero. Don’t willfully endanger anyone else right now. Okay?

Anyway… bonus post. Figured everybody could use a little extra stuff to read while they’re stuck at home.

I’d like to share a random writing-type thought that’s bounced back and forth through my head a few times recently. I think it’s something a lot of you may automatically get, but this might help solidify it a bit in your own heads. And for some of you, this may be an all new concept.

I’ve mentioned the idea of repetition in writing here a few times, coming at it from a few different angles. It’s one of those elements that can be very powerful if used the right way… and completely brutal if I use it the wrong way. Or overuse it. It’s like one of those vitamins or minerals that we absolutely need to live, but just a little too much and now it’s a deadly poison.

Anyway, it recently struck me why repetition can turn on us like that and—oddly enough—it ties back to another idea I’ve mentioned here once or thrice. And that’s a concept Damon Knight talked about in one of his short story books. The idea of information vs. noise.

To sum up quickly, it goes like this. When we come across a fact we don’t know, it’s information. When we come across a fact we already know, it’s noise. We pay attention to information, but we tune out noise because… well, it’s noise. It’s just a distraction, keeping us away from the stuff we’re actually here for.

Now, Knight was talking about this mostly in the sense of exposition, and this makes perfect sense. We don’t want to read two pages about why Nazis were bad because, well, we all know that already (okay, most of us know that…). But we’re up for two pages about how true artificial intelligence came into existence, because this is something we don’t know and (hopefully) find interesting and relevant within the context of the story.

Getting hit with the same facts we already know is… well, boring. Sometimes flat-out aggravating. It feels like the author is padding and wasting time rather than giving us what we want.

But here’s the thing. This is true of pretty much all repetition. As I’m putting words down on the page, repeating anything the reader knows (or can figure out) is going to quickly become noise.

Think of names in dialogue. We roll our eyes when characters constantly use names while talking to each other. Or if the author constantly uses dialogue descriptors with names rather than pronouns (or just assuming we can follow who’s talking). After hearing Wakko said… a dozen times on one page, we start grinding our teeth. We can’t help it. It’s noise to our ears.

The same thing holds for descriptions. Yes, I know Phoebe is over six feet tall. You’ve mentioned it seven times in the past ten pages. Or that the blood is bright red. Or that Phoebe is six feet tall. Or that Yakko is a cyborg. Or that one of my over-six-foot characters is Phoebe. See what I mean? I’m clearly doing it as a humorous way to make a point, but it’s kinda getting on your nerves, isn’t it?

And I’ve talked before about doing this with reveals. The first time I reveal something to my readers is an amazing, jaw-dropping thing. Because it’s facts they don’t know. It’s information. But the second time I show it off it’s… well, it’s not as interesting. And the third time, if there’s no point to this, it’s kinda boring. By the fourth time okay seriously can we just get on with this? What? A fifth time? Seriously?

Repetition can turn anything I have to say into noise fast. So I want to be very careful if I’m going to repeat any information for a third or fourth time. And like I just joked, if I hit a fifth time…

Wow, I should probably rethink some things.

Next time we’re going to jump back to the A2Q and talk about theme. Yeah, I know. You just had this gut, high school reaction to that word. I’m going to try to help you get past that.

Until then, go write.

September 26, 2019 / 1 Comment

Getting It

Is it just the view on my screen, or has the tag cloud over there in the right margin kind of… collapsed? Shattered? It doesn’t look right, that’s for sure. Apologies if you’ve gone looking for something and it’s especially hard to find.

I stumbled across an issue recently in two very different books, and then in a movie, and it’s semi-related to some things I’ve talked about before. So I figured it might be worth a little refresher. And, not to sound silly but.. some of you are going to get this immediately and some of you aren’t.

There’s an idea I’ve mentioned here a  few times, which I first heard (read, really) from Damon Knight.  If we’re presented with a fact we don’t know, it’s information. If it’s a fact we doknow, it’s just noise. I don’t bother to explain what the ranty blog is about every week, because if you’ve found yourself here odds are you already know. But I will discuss Phoebe’s height a lot this week (she’s over six feet tall) because it’s kind of germane to the discussion, as one might say.

It’s very important that Phoebe is tall in my story. In fact, it’s semi-critical that my readers know she’s just over six feet. It’s a key point for her, and I can’t have them picturing her shorter—let alone drastically shorter—because it’ll make things very confusing at a later point in the story.

So… how do I do this? How do I make sure that when readers picture Phoebe, they picture her as just-over-six-feet in height? That it’s one of her defining details, something they absolutely picture about her?
Well, yeah, I have to put it in her description, sure. Writing it out is kind of a given. But I’ve talked before about how descriptions don’t always stick. We get mental images of characters that don’t always match up with their written descriptions. And, as I’ve mentioned, it’s really important that people remember Phoebe’s pretty tall (she is, as I may have mentioned, just over six feet).

Which brings us to another idea I’ve talked about—repetition. I’ve talked before about repeating words, phrases, and structures to get a certain effect. What I’d like to talk about today is using repetition on a slightly more visible level to try to cement important details (like Phoebe’s just over-six foot height) in my reader’s mind.

And I’d like to do that with the obvious example—A Christmas Story.

For those of you who are somehow unfamiliar with the movie, A Christmas Story is about a boy named Ralphie who wants… well, we can probably say is obsessed with getting a Red Ryder BB gun. It’s pretty much all he talks about. In fact, in a  ninety-three minute movie, he mentions it by name almost thirty times. He’s basically saying it every three minutes. If we go off standard script timing the Red Ryder BB gun comes up every three and a half pages. Is this a good rate to mention something important? I mean, A Christmas Story’s a legendary film, so it’s gotta be doing something right, yeah?

Let’s keep a few things in mind, though. Ralphie’s an obsessed little kid. He’s basically the nice version of Eric Cartman ranting about what color MegaMan he wants for his birthday. He’s single-focused in a way most mature adults grow out of pretty quick. And while it’s funny in small doses, I think we can all be honest and admit that Ralphie’s… kind of annoying. It’s in a cute way, but there’s no way he’d get away with this if he wasn’t a chubby-cheeked little kid with glasses.

(who later grew up to hate Iron Man and run tech support for Mysterio–seriously!)

But if I’m not writing from the point of view of an adorkable pre-teen, this level of repetition can get annoying real fast and start dragging my story down. Take Phoebe and her just over six-foot height for example. I only mentioned her five times (six counting this one), but the mentions of her and her height were starting to get on your nerves, weren’t they? There’s just so many times I can repeat this information before you’re grinding your teeth and saying “Yes, I get it, can we move on now please…”  In this case, repetition is more of a necessary evil, because there’s no way for us to get things across without putting it on the page somehow.

So… how many times?

As a good rule of thumb, I think I’d like to fall back on, well, another rule of thumb I’ve mentioned here once or thrice before. The rule of three. Really, really quick and dirty, the rule of three basically says by the third time I mention something—who Dot got the necklace from, needing to be worthy to lift the hammer Mjolnir, or how tall Phoebe is—my audience almost always gets it.

I’d like to add a small proviso to that, just for when we’re talking about this specific instance. Whatever my super-important detail is, I should mention or give an example of it twice very early on. If it’s Dot’s necklace, maybe she can muse about it once and someone can ask her about it. If it’s about that hammer, maybe Odin can whisper about it once and Thor can demonstrate it fifteen or twenty minutes later. Maybe Phoebe can address some part of her morning ritual she needs to adjust for her height (crouching in the shower) and then someone else can actually flat our comment on it.  These are all early, act one sort of things. Formative things. A one-two punch to land the information and drive it home before it has a chance to become noise.

And then forget about it. If a moment comes up in the story that absolutely calls for this detail to be mentioned again, but if not… don’t. Trust that your audience has it in mind.

The third time should be very close to the payoff, even if it’s hundreds of pages later. This is my last chance to nudge that idea into the reader’s mind before the reveal slams it into their eyes. Or ears. Okay, also into their minds. Look, this isn’t an exact science, okay?

And again, this is only if that fact or detail is really important. Like, deathly important.  Story collapses without it important. If it’s just me wanting Phoebe to be a blonde or, hey, the hammer has a woven leather grip… well, these are just regular bits of description. They’re the things I don’t worry about because my readers are probably going to have their own mental images for them. And that’s fine.. Seriously. If you want to picture Phoebe having auburn-brown hair, that’s cool  And because it’s not important, I don’t want to be driving that point of description home.

Actually, y’know what? I just thought about a better analogy (thus rendering most of this post irrelevant). We’ve talked about names here a bunch of times. How it’s okay not to name some characters? I can just let them sort of be in the background? 

That’s what details are like. There will be a lot of details in my writing that can be beautifully done, but ultimately they’re just sort of there and that’s okay. My reader can enjoy them in the moment but doesn’t need to keep them firmly in mind for things to work in my story. The ones I want to repeat, the ones that need to be specific, are the ones that are going to have an effect on how things unfold.

Y’see, Timmy, much like with names, I don’t want to bog down or annoy my readers with a bunch of details that aren’t going to matter. And I still don’t want to overuse the ones that are going to matter, because that’ll annoy them, too. I need to find that sweet spot where the facts register and get remembered, but don’t become noise.

Next time, I’d like to talk real quick about going with the default settings on this thing.

Until then, go write.
November 15, 2018 / 1 Comment

The Telephone Game

            Hey, here we are.  Exactly halfway through NaNoWriMo.  How are things going?  Hopefully you’re about halfway through your goals.  Don’t freak out if you’re not.  There’s still plenty of time to get caught up.  You’re going to nail this.
            Anyway, I had an interesting back-and-forth with my editor last month, and I thought it would be worth sharing with you.

            I’ve talked a bit in the past about dialogue descriptors.  They’re one of those things that can be a bit tricky at first.  I don’t want to use too many different descriptors, to the point that I’m distracting from what’s actually being said.  I also don’t want to fall into a habit of using too many proper names, but… I don’t want to overuse pronouns to the point of being confusing.  And really, if I can trim away excess descriptors altogether, that can really pick up the pace.  Unless they’re there deliberately for pacing reasons.

            Not confusing at all so far, right?
            So here’s a wild theory of mine I’d like you to consider.
            And it’s a bit rambly.  Sorry.
            I think, on an instinctive level, we tend to view—or hear, I guess—dialogue as a binary thing.  A back and forth between two people.  Wakko speaks to Dot, Dot replies to Wakko, Wakko replies to Dot, and so on. 
            Because this is such a normal and natural thing for us, it’s how we interpret most conversations.  If I show you a page of nothing but dialogue, the automatic assumption is going to be that it’s between two people.  A to B to A to B.  It’s just how things tend to line up in our minds.
            This gives us a lot of stuff to play with as writers.  If Wakko speaks to Dot, the inherent understanding is that Dot’s reply is going to be to Wakko.  Which means we don’t need to point out she’s talking to him.  Sure, I might need something  if there are five people in the conversation, but when it’s just one on one dialogue, constantly pointing out who’s talking and who they’re talking to this can be… excessive.  I mean, who else could Dot be talking to?  Does she think out loud a lot?
            Likewise, I don’t need to explain that Wakko’s responding to Dot.  I probably don’t even need to say who’s responding.  Again, my reader’s already thinking in a binary mode, so they’ll figure it out on their own.  They’ll probably be glad I’m not spoon-feeding it to them, to be honest.  Again, A-B-A-B-A-B… this isn’t tough for a reader to understand.  I don’t need to label each element of it.
            Now here’s something to keep in mind.

            Have you ever had to do something that’s very repetitive?  Maybe something at work, maybe something for fun.  Stapling forms, ping-pong, folding laundry, even just one of those toys where you hit the rubber ball with a paddle?  Anything where it’s just one-two -done, one-two -done, one-two-done, and so on?
            Personally, I’ve found that the real killer in these situations is stopping to think about what I’m doing.  The moment I consider howI’m whacking that rubber ball again and again and again is the moment I lose my rhythm.  It’s when I stumble and mess up and have to go back to square one.

            I think the same holds for dialogue.  I can keep that back and forth and back and forth going for pages if my rhythm’s good.  It’ll be fast and smooth and just amazing.
            The moment I give the reader a reason to think about that back and forth of dialogue—any reason—is the moment they’re going to stumble.  And when they stumble, they’re going to stop and have to backtrack.  I’ve knocked them out of the story, and now they’ve gone from reading and enjoying it to… examining and measuring it.
            So during these long stretches of back and forth dialogue, it’s not a bad thing to remind the reader who’s speaking at points.  Especially if there might be something going on with my actionor my structure that might make them question who’s speaking.  Again, I don’t want to risk a stumble.
            Now, going off something I brushed up against above…
            I think things get chaotic in dialogue when there are multiple speakers and the writer isn’t clear about it.  If I suddenly introduce Phoebe into the conversation between Wakko and Dot, this isn’t A-B-A-B anymore.  There’s a random C in there somewhere.  And if I don’t make it clear where it is, it’s going to make my reader stumble and break the flow.  Again, I want people reading my story, not analyzing it.
            So introducing that third element into the conversation is a great place for dialogue descriptors. In fact… I might go so far as to say it’s almost a necessary place for them.  I want to be very clear if it’s A, B, or C talking.

            Y’see, Timmy, we’re always going to keep defaulting back to that instinctive. binary, back-and-forth view of dialogue,.  A-B-A-B.  Unless I’m told otherwise, I’m going to assume the person speaking afterPhoebe is the person who spoke before Phoebe.  So once I’ve got three or four people in the mix, I need to be a lot more careful with where I do (and don’t!) use dialogue descriptors.  I don’t want my writing to get bogged down with them, but I need to be sure it’s always clear who’s speaking.

            Because I don’t want my dialogue to be C-A-C-A.
            Get it?  Poop joke.
            Hey, next week is Thanksgiving.  Which means no post on Thursday and, well… if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know what I’m going to talk about on Black Friday.
            But maybe I’ll do something unrelated and semi-interesting on Monday or Tuesday.
            Until then… go write.
October 2, 2015

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

            Just a quick post this week.
            I wanted to talk about repetition.  Repetition can be a powerful tool.   It is amazing when used correctly.
            But sometimes it indicates a problem.  A tool being used incorrectly.  Perhaps always repeating the same words.   Or always using the same phrasing.  Or very similar sentence structure. And this is when repetition fails.  Because now it weakens the story.  Or the post, in this case.
            Do you see what I mean?
            All these sentences have six words.  No more or less in each.  The words are all different lengths. The structure of each sentence varies.  But you still feel the rhythm. Six words repeating over and over.  The pacing feels a bit unnatural.  And then I start watching it.  I stop reading the story normally.  I end up auditing each line. I count up the repeating words
            This is when repetition means boring.
            And my readers hate boring.
            Okay, that’s enough of that.  Did the last sentence seem to slam the point home a bit in your mind?  Especially at the end?  Look again—the last sentence only has five words.  It’s different.  It stands out.
            I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same structure for every sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same opening and structure for each sentence.  I’ve also seen people who repeat the same trick again and again and expect it to have the same impact.
            But it’s not just the blatant stuff. Repetition can creep into my writing a bunch of ways.  I may be using the same word a lot.  We all have a phrase or a term we latch onto and have to go rooting out of our manuscripts.  Or maybe someone’s name.  It might even be the way I present information. 
            I spend a lot of time trying to weed out of much of that as I can. Even something as simple as dialogue descriptors—I hate looking at a page and seeing a chorus of Wakko said, Dot said, Yakko said, Wakko said, Phoebe said.  Not that there’s anything wrong with said—it’s a borderline-invisible word.  But this structure of name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said-dialogue, name-said dialogue… it’s just boring as hell.
            D’you notice that one? The fourth repetition is just too much, isn’t it.  You get the point, I don’t need to keep pounding you with it.
            And it’s so easy to break up that sort of thing. Name-said-dialogue.  Dialogue-name-said.  Dialogue-said-name.  Really, if everything’s working right, I probably don’t even need descriptors past a certain point.
            Y’see, Timmy, that’s the thing about repetition.  It can be a powerful form of writing.  It’s writing at level eight or nine.  But we’ve talked about this before—what happens when everything’s set up at nine or ten?
            It’s dull.  It’s monotone.  It’s true for my story, but it’s also true for my writing itself.  If I try to make every page, every paragraph, every single six-word sentence a piece of dialed-up-to–ten Pulitzer-winning literature, my writing is going to get boring really fast.
            D’you catch that?  Repetition for emphasis.  At the end. Where I want to score the big points.
            I don’t need to be scared of repetition.  I just shouldn’t be wasting it when I don’t really need it.
            Next time…
            Well, I’ll be honest.  This time next week I’ll be moderating a couple panels at New York Comic Con and doing a couple of signings.  So next week will probably be a few photo tips.  But hopefully you all know that sort of thing’s the exception, not the rule.
            And if you’re attending NYCC and you have some time, please stop by and say “hello.”
            Until then… go write.

            And don’t repeat yourself.