One way for an author to slow a story is to employ “countersinking,” a term coined by science fiction writer Lewis Shiner. Countersinking involves making explicit the very actions that the story implies. An example is: “We need to hide,” she said, asking him to seek cover.
Countersinking is also known as “expositional redundancy” and for good reason; in the above example, the character’s dialogue already directly states that she thinks they should hide. So why repeat it?
Besides slowing the story’s dramatic momentum, countersinking suggests the author lacks confidence in his or her storytelling ability.
The solution is simple: Cut the redundant wording to tighten your writing. The above example could be rewritten as: “We need to hide,” she said.
Yes! This always bothered me in writing (including mine), but I didn’t know there was a name for it. I agree with Shiner – it’s due to the writer lacking confidence, but the result is worse than simply slowing the read. It can insult the reader. It makes them feel like the writer is ‘talking down to them’. Like you think they’re too dumb to get it the first time.
Wait, you say, repetition is obvious, and though irritating, but it’s easily edited. I Beg to differ. Because it’s a lot more to it than simple repetition. It’s sneaky; it comes in ways that are easy to miss. The brilliant Margie Lawson taught me that the best way to explain is with examples, so here goes. And a huge thank you for a brave writer who gave me permission to use her words.
“Miss Fairchild?” A man called out my name. The first shows – the tag tells.
I had no idea what to say to that. “Um…thank you?” The dialogue line shows, the beginning is redundant.
Ethan didn’t look after her. He was still looking at me. We need one or the other, but not both. The second tells us more than the first.
I walk on, dragging the clattering contraption behind. This one was mine. If you’re walking, you have to be moving on, right? ‘On’ is redundant. See how small, but irritating this can be?
And I hurt. My whole body felt like a giant living bruise. The right side of my face throbbed. Both my hips and my left shoulder were bone-deep aches. You told, then did a great job of showing. You don’t need the tell.
Info we don’t need: This is subtler. I call this, ‘trust your reader to get it’
I knocked a couple of times to get their attention. That’s what a knock is for.
I shook my head. Get a grip, Summer.
“Everything okay?” Ethan had noticed the head-shake. His dialogue line makes it obvious that he noticed.
“I don’t know any other Ethans.” My attempt at a joke. Telling the reader it’s a joke, ruins the joke!
I looked down at my hands and picked at my chipped nail polish. Where else would nail polish be? Okay, I’ll give you that it could be on her toes – but picking at your toenails when you’re talking to someone in public? My brain doesn’t jump there (and that’s just, ewwwwww).
Sentence is out of order: Maybe not exactly repetition, but it’s close. This is another lesson I learned from Margie. We read linearly; so you can’t give us a reaction before the reason for it.
I jumped. One of the waiters had come up beside us without me noticing. The jump can’t come first.
I tore the plastic seal free and swung the bottle in a wide arc.
I got lucky. Clear, toxic, paint stripper caught Kai full in the face and Tak in one eye. You can’t say, ‘lucky’ until we know how. You could put it at the end, but I’d make the case that you don’t need it at all. The sentence ‘shows’ us she was lucky.
Name repetition: A pronoun should be your go-to.The only reason you need to type the person’s name is at the beginning of the scene, and if there are more than one of that gender in the scene, and the pronoun won’t tell us whom is speaking. How often do you say someone’s name in a conversation with them? Not often, I’ll bet. Dialogue in fiction is real world, without the boring stuff. It’s even more painful if the person has an odd, or difficult name–it gets obvious/irritating, fast.
“Thank you, Lara.” Lieutenant Spadinski’s lips parted in a polite smile. Something about the hard set of his chin and the harder set of his eyes made me think of a dog baring his teeth, but he sank into the seat.
I guessed Lieutenant Spadinski wasn’t thrilled to be summoned to the Kane mansion, first thing on a Sunday morning. Outside his jurisdiction. Over a piece of graffiti. Besides, doesn’t just typing that name get irritating?
“Do you want a coffee?” Eve asked. “You’re looking a little pale.”
Even Ethan’s hand, warm on the small of my back, wasn’t enough to distract me from the doubt churning in my gut. “Coffee sounds great, Eve. Thanks.”
Repetition is a sneaky little error, easily overlooked in editing. But if you do this a lot, the reader may never recognize it’s bothering them–they’ll just put your book down (and may never pick it back up). Once you get used to watching out for it, I promise, the repetition will jump off the page at you.
Is this something you’re guilty of? (Hint: we all are). Will you share some of your repetitions with us in the comments?