It’s entirely possible for two differently worded sentences to say exactly the same thing. Such repetition is a form of overwriting through redundancy, and it represents possibly the most frequent form of overwriting in any manuscript. As we’ve discussed over the last few months, the best way to avoid redundancy and catch such writing issues is vigilance, and they’re not difficult to spot once you know to look.
However, sometimes the similarity is not between two sentences, or even two paragraphs, but rather two moments. These moments, or “beats,” in your narrative may be entirely different on the surface. They may take place in two entirely different settings. They may feature entirely different actions. And yet, somehow, they still repeat one another.
How? Let’s find out as we dive into the fourth and final installment of our series on overwriting and learn the best trick to avoid redundancy. (Missed the previous articles in this series? Start here.)
Plot Beats Make Up a Narrative
Any work of narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, is based upon plot beats. Plot beats, simply put, are events in your story. What allows a story to advance is the way each plot beat in some respect causes the next. Ultimately this process of cause and effect comprises rising action, which describes a novel from its inciting incident through to its climax.
And what enables rising action to rise is the fact of each plot beat, in being caused by previous plot beats, functioning at least to some extent as an escalation of what came before. In this respect, every single plot beat has a distinct and individual function. Each moves the reader to a new place in the narrative.
But what happens when it doesn’t?
Recently I edited a novel in which the protagonist, stuck in something of a dream state, is pulled away from his real world by an idyllic imaginary world. After meeting the perfect woman in this fantasy, the protagonist experiences a series of important moments: a first kiss, a pronouncement of love, a marriage proposal, and a honeymoon. In the real world, of course, all of these moments are distinct and major life events.
Yet in the novel, they didn’t feel distinct. They felt repetitive.
Why? Because they were repeated plot beats.
Repeated Plot Beats are Overwriting
If you’ve ever read a novel—or, for that matter, written one—in which, despite the presence of a great many events, you never felt the story developing, there’s a pretty good chance the problem was repeated plot beats. And the trick to identifying repeated plot beats is determining the purpose of any given moment in a narrative.
In the project I described above, the sequence wasn’t really about our protagonist’s relationship with the girl of his dreams. The sequence was about the protagonist becoming trapped in an idyllic world. And the actual purpose of each of those major life events was to show that—to describe a perfect situation from which the protagonist would never want to wake up.
The problem, then—the narrative redundancy—was the presence of multiple chapters that, despite describing multiple different moments, served the same function. That made this part of the novel overwritten.
Falling into the trap of repeated plot beats is very easy for exactly that reason: The differences are a lot more apparent than the similarities. I edited another novel recently in which, relatively early, the protagonist went to the dorm room of a new friend, and then around 150 pages later was basically forced into lunch with an antagonist. Everything about these plot beats was different—except that both featured the protagonist ready to talk about his problems for the first time with someone else. The existence of the first such moment with his friend made the second with his antagonist (and several other hypothetically important moments in-between) basically meaningless.
How to Avoid Redundancy and Cut Back on Overwriting
So what does this have to do with overwriting?
It’s pretty simple: If you have two different scenes serving the same function, then you clearly have more than you need. It’s overwriting through redundancy. And the solution, much of the time, is to delete one of them.
That’s the plan we put together for that first novel. The honeymoon was deleted, and the first kiss and pronouncement of love are likely to be combined. When the revision is completed the marriage proposal may be gone as well, much like other chapters in the novel that repeated other plot beats. And while the length was not really the problem, the resulting manuscript will be tighter and more effective for it—with room to spare for developing character arcs, subplots, and other issues that may require more writing.
Deletion is not always the way to resolve these problems. The second novel I described will likely benefit a lot more not from deleting the scene with the protagonist and his friend, but rather changing it in such a way that the protagonist is not yet ready to reveal what he eventually will later on. Through revision, the redundant plot beats will become distinct plot beats.
Of course, to avoid redundancy and resolve issues with repeated plot beats, you need to find them first. If you’re struggling to do that, these tips may help:
- Focus on character arc. Look at each plot point and ask how this moment affects the development of your character. If questioning two plot beats yields the same answer, you might have a problem.
- Consider conflict. Part of what causes rising action to rise is an increase in conflict and tension. If a plot beat doesn’t make life any more difficult for your protagonist, or if there’s no change in the stakes, then you may not need it at all.
- Use your beta readers. Other readers may not be able to point out a repeated plot beat, but they can tell you if portions of your story feel dull or tedious. Repeated plot beats is not the only explanation for such feelings, but it’s certainly one to keep in mind.
Learning the symptoms—and this is true when it comes to any writing issue—is one of the best ways to diagnose and resolve the problem.
This concludes our series on overwriting, but I’m looking forward to launching my next series of blog posts in just a couple months! What’s the subject? I haven’t decided yet—but if there’s an area of writing you’d like to learn more about, just let me know in the comments below.
Harrison Demchick came up in the world of small press publishing, working along the way on more than two dozen published novels and memoirs, several of which have been optioned for film. He is an award-winning, twice-optioned screenwriter, and the author of literary horror novel The Listeners. He’s part of The Writer’s Ally team as a developmental editor of fiction and memoir, for which he’s currently accepting new clients.