Friday, January 30, 2015

Transparent Words

You’ve probably been told not to be repetitive in your writing. You were probably told this back in middle school, when they gave you an assignment to write a brief story, or perhaps when they were explaining how to write a book report. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t be repetitive. Don’t be repetitive…

It reaches the point where you want to tell them to stop being repetitive.

It’s good advice, in general, but not all repetition is bad. In fact, there are some words that are repeated over and over again and we don’t even notice, not even if they are in close proximity to each other.

For example: there are three words that I used five times thus far in this blog post. You may have guessed that one of them is 'repetitive.' You are correct.  But the second and third words might not stick out to you as much.  I can sort of imagine you hunting for the other words. (If you aren’t, allow me a moment of delusion.) There are quite a few words that I use more than once, but not five times.

The other two words are ‘to’ and ‘in.’ ‘Be’ comes in at four times.

You’ll almost always notice larger words – nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs – but some will elude your attention altogether. These are what I call “transparent words.” We are so accustomed to seeing them that our brains practically skip over them, much in the way that they skip over punctuation. Now, we’ll notice if they need to be there and aren’t, but we don’t really notice them when they are there.

You know, except for when you are reading a post like this, and then you’ll probably be hyper-aware. Exhausting, isn’t it? Noticing every tiny little word?  It’s probably similar to when you’re learning a foreign language, like Spanish, and you notice that they use la/el way more often than we use ‘the.’ You notice that they use ‘de’ close to every other word in some sentences. Guess what? Native speakers don’t really notice how often they use ‘de.’ It’s as transparent to them as ‘to’ usually is to us. They would probably think it’s ridiculous how often we use ‘to,’ since their infinitives are one word and ours are two words – one of which is ‘to.’

So, the point is that repetition is unavoidable when it comes to these words.  It’s precisely because they are repeated so much that they are transparent. When writing fiction, there are a couple more things that need to be transparent: character names and dialogue tags.

Wait a second…character names?

Yes. This means that even – especially – if you need to identify the same character five times in one paragraph, you need to use only one name for the character. Every time.

Isn’t that super-repetitive? Yes. It is. But what makes the other words transparent? They are repeated so often that your brain notes their meaning, but you’re not really consciously aware of them.

With very few exceptions, character names should also be transparent.  Because you have to name the character so frequently, especially in multi-character dialogue or action scenes, you want that to be as transparent as possible.  Suppose you have a character named Carissa. Carissa is blonde, slender, always wears pink, and is a cashier at a local store. Changing the character’s identification (Carissa, the woman in pink, the cashier, the blonde, the slender woman) actually creates repetitiveness where the same word over and over does not. 

This is because changing how you refer to the character makes it painfully apparent how often you are referring to her. Furthermore, it forces your reader to stop and decipher what he or she is reading. It takes a concept that is best left transparent and makes it opaque, in the same way that my opening paragraph’s use of the word ‘repetitive’ was opaque.

As the writer, you will notice the fact that you’re using the same name constantly; your reader will probably not.  Remember that reading and writing are very different processes. Repetition should be avoided to some degree. Varying your word choice is good, varying your sentence structure and paragraph length is good, but varying things that should be transparent makes them opaque. 

Transparent things should not be opaque. You don’t really want your reader to be aware that he or she is reading. You want them to be so absorbed in the story that they forget they are reading it.

Dialogue tags should also be, for the most part, transparent. ‘Said’ is the best choice in most cases, as it almost functions more as punctuation than as an actual word. Try to use as few tags as necessary; when you have a lot of them characters speaking in sequence, avoid using the same thing over and over again. For example:

“Ready to do this, ladies?” Leigh said.

Rachel grinned. “I was born ready.”

“Yeah, girlfriend!” Michelle cheered.

“I guess I’m in, too.” Shrugging, Danielle followed them.

Be careful of constantly varying things in dialogue; in very intense sequences, repetition can be helpful because your reader will be trying to read things as quickly as possible (he or she will be excited) and the repetition aids in this. In slower parts of the story, however, dialogue tags may be a little more varied.

Now, there are some who think that using anything but ‘said’ for a speech tag is bad. A lot of people in the publishing industry favor this style. So, my use of ‘cheered’ for Michelle instead of ‘said’ would be frowned upon. (But it’s better than “said with excitement.”)

I kind of disagree with that. (Well, obviously.) I think there are other speech verbs that our minds sort of glance over, but only once or twice. For example, if you use ‘cheered’ a lot, your readers will notice that in a way that they won’t notice ‘said.’  Even some of the never-use-anything-but-said camp will admit that ‘asked’ is acceptable when used occasionally.

Remember my post about ways to improve your writing without writing? I recommended reading books on writing, but cautioned against setting too much store by them.  Don’t ignore the suggestions, but don’t swallow them whole. You are your own person. But…you do need to be aware of how often you are using alternate speech tag verbs – because while the occasional switch-up is fine, too much switching is painfully opaque. And I mean painfully.

(As an additional caution: don’t use words that aren’t actually speech words for speech tags. You can’t ‘smile’ a sentence, or ‘laugh’ it. You might be able to ‘sigh’ one word like ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but using it for a whole phrase might be stretching it. If your character is laughing or smiling, feel free to make note of it, but don’t use it as the tag. While we’re on the topic, I would like to caution you against using ‘spoke’ for a speech tag. ‘Spoke’ is the same thing as ‘talked,’ not the same thing as ‘said.’)

But yeah. If you’re getting tired of using ‘said’ repeatedly, don’t use speech tags at all. Just use beats, or leave the tags out if you can. For more on dialogue, check out the post I did on it a while back. I don’t really touch on the transparency issue there, since it focuses on the mechanics of dialogue.

I hope that this post has made sense. It also ties in with my current Word-Craft Wednesday series on narrative POV, since the identifier you use for a character depends on the POV character. (More on this will be discussed next Wednesday.)

And as a reminder: I am not the end-all-be-all of writing advice. I really don’t think anyone is. But in my experience, this advice is pretty sound. Just be aware that writers and editors amongst themselves over this type of stuff ad nauseum, and don’t set too much store by any one person’s opinion.

[Addendum: When I say that you need to identify a character, I mean that you are in a situation where you can't use a personal pronoun without confusing people. I posted this and then realized I forgot to say that.]

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