One of the most challenging aspects of writing a novel is telling a 50,000 word story (for middle grade fiction, longer for older audiences) without repeating yourself. I’m not talking about the plot or action, which ought to move along without any repetition if you have plenty of conflict. The real struggle is not repeating the same word, emotion, character trait, or setting description over and over again.
If your scene takes place underwater, how many times can you say gurgle before it becomes redundant? If your main character is evil, how many times can she cackle before that action loses its impact? And if your main character is sad, how many times can she cry before the reader labels her a big baby and stops reading?
My wise agent would say: never use the same word more than once per page, and never have tears in your story more than once. Try it some time, it’s a lot harder than you think – especially the emotions. I’m an emotional cliché. When I’m happy, I smile. When I’m sad, I cry. When I’m embarrassed, I blush. When I’m angry, I yell. When I’m scared, I shriek. And I’m convinced there are a finite number of believable ways real people act out those same emotions. So how can an author keep their character’s emotions fresh?
I want to give a shout out to The Bookshelf Muse for helping writers do just that. They use their blog to brainstorm descriptions for settings, emotions, character traits, colors and textures, weather, and symbolism, then compile the ideas into a thesaurus to help other writers.
Now the red shirt I describe can bleed like raw meat. Tree branches can whip in the wind of my storm, in addition to the rain that’s obviously falling. My shy character can be the villain instead of the protagonist. My cave can smell like animal feces instead of just being dark. My character’s fall from grace can be symbolized by a fallen bird’s nest she encounters while hiding in the woods. And most importantly, my crying heroine can dry her eyes and instead show her sadness by picking at her food, isolating herself from others, and slumping her shoulders.
Thanks ladies for all the great ideas!