Endgame, by Susan Kelly (4:40)

IOD-Endgame.jpgToday we see a writing tic that will convince your readers you think they’re morons.

What I gleaned about the story: Ben has a new headset gadget and is looking for investors. The President is giving a speech in Butte. It might be the end of days.

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WTF #1: Distracting repetition

Analysis: Not all echos happen at the beginning of sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes an echo can happen when a word is repeated in the middle of a sentence. It all depends on the word itself, the frequency of its occurrence, and the style of the prose. Consider this excerpt, from the first half page:

He leaned over in his chair, opened his briefcase, and pulled out a headset.

More elaborate than a standard earpiece-and-microphone setup, it sprouted flexible extensions studded with gold electrodes. It had a spiky, arresting elegance. “Here’s the latest: the E*. The brothers just built this one yesterday.” Ben reached across the big mahogany desk, pushed aside a couple of plates, and laid the headset in front of Manny. “We optimized the Hadrian Gate mod for the improvements we’ve made in this headset. We had to burn some midnight electrons to do it, but it’s done. We sent it over to your guys this morning, and now here’s your headset. Try it out. See what you think. And then call the VCs.”

Manny wiped his hands on a napkin and picked up the headset.

I actually tripped over the second appearance of “headset,” but kept going, only to find it again a few lines later. By this occurrence, however, it had become almost funny. In my head, the narrator was now an autistic man, fixated on the concept of “headsets” and unable to think of any other more sophisticated way to talk about them. With the fourth occurrence, the funny was gone and now it was feeling a bit insulting, and by the fifth I was downright irritated.

But why?

The problem is that the very first line in the quoted excerpt established that the headset was the subject of narration. Then, throughout the next several sentences, that subject remained front and center, the entire focus of the narration. So after a few repetitions I was thinking: Really? You don’t trust me to remember that we’re talking headsets here? You think I’m some kind of idiot? And that feeling just got worse with each occurrence.

Clearly, calling my intelligence into question was not the author’s intention. That’s just how it felt as I was reading it. It’s another case of what I have sometimes called “conspicuous patterns.” When we read and detect a pattern in the prose, we subconsciously assume it was intentional and so we search for the meaning of the pattern. Why did the author put that structure here in their story? For what purpose? And when we find a plausible explanation, we conclude that this is what the author must have meant.

Well, there are only two cases I can think of when somebody I’m talking to repeats the same phrase over and over in a conversation. Either he’s a moron, or he thinks I am.

But beyond simply running the risk of alienating the reader, these kinds of repetitions are also lost opportunities to flesh out the story. When the subject of the discussion has already been firmly established, then you can use subsequent references to it to do other things. Instead of having Ben tell Manny, “and now here’s your headset,” why not say, “and now here’s what your investment has bought you.” By doing that, you automatically explain to the reader that Manny is an investor. No need to explain it later.

Or maybe tell us, “and now here’s a telekinesis hat of your very own.” With that, you can save yourself a pile of exposition later about what the headset does. You just said it. And what’s even better is that you did so through implication. The reader’s subconscious still has to unpack that the subject of discussion has not changed. It may seem trivial, but the subconscious has to spend a bit of energy to work out that Ben is referring to the headset, only he used the phrase “telekinesis hat” so that must be another description of the same object, therefore the headset must be a telekinesis hat. It’s an easy inference to draw, but the important point is that the reader did this work for themselves.

Because you know what we call it when the author makes a reader use their powers of inference to connect dots and draw their own conclusions about the story world?

We call that “immersion.”

WTF #2: Distracting repetition

Analysis: We get another example three or four paragraphs further down:

“Yes. And you won’t be able to hire them away from me. It’s in our contract.”

Manny flapped a hand, meaning no hard feelings, and I’m gonna have my lawyers look into it. It wouldn’t work, though. Ben had been fully lawyered up for that contract.

Here the topic of discourse has been firmly established, but by naming it again so quickly, using the same phrase both times, the author insults the reader’s intelligence, implying that the reminder was necessary and that the reader is a moron.

But wait a minute, you’re thinking. Didn’t you just tell me all that in the last WTF? Yes I did. And weren’t you feeling just the littlest bit insulted that I felt I had to tell you again so soon? See? Our subconscious really does look for explanations to the patterns it finds.

Consequently, one job of the writer is to eliminate all the patterns except the intentional ones. That way, the reader won’t go searching for meanings that weren’t intended and then getting themselves all bent out of joint about being called idiots when no such slight was intended. This explains why authors often switch up the labels they use for the things they’re talking about. In this case, that second reference to “contract” could have been replaced by another term. Wouldn’t it have been more engaging to have read, “Ben had been fully lawyered up when he’d hammered out that piece of entrepreneurial battle armor.”

For the same reason, it’s handy to have one or two tag-phrases that can be used in place of your protagonist’s name. Then, in addition to “Ben”, you can vary up the narration with other phrases like, “the bleary-eyed entrepreneur”, “the MIT whiz-kid”, or “the twitchy geek”, depending on what seems appropriate to the situation. Just don’t overdo it. A single pronoun phrase goes a long, long way, but it can really help to break up a dense section of Ben, Ben, Ben.

WTF #3: Distracting repetition

Analysis: As I’ve reported in the past, once a writing quirk catches my eye, it can be hard for me to ignore subsequent occurrences.

Ben had passed through Butte a couple of times, and good mountain air hadn’t been a feature of the place. Butte gathered dirty air the same way Los Angeles did.

Manny pushed the mute button on the remote control. “If he stays in Butte, that is when we know we are screwed.”

There it is again. The second usage feels entirely redundant. Condescending, like the narrator thinks I can’t keep the subject in my head for longer than eight words. Then it comes again in the dialogue. If the second reference had been replaced with “that place” instead of “Butte,” then the third instance would not have felt like an abrupt slap in the face. Hey! Wake up! Did you forget we were talking about Butte?

And for the record, once a pattern like this emerges, it can take a long time for that sensitivity to die down. Even several pages later, I was still twitching over references to “headset”, “contract”, and “Butte.”

Take the Pepsi Challenge: Want to know if my own writing measures up? Try the free sample on one of my books or short stories and decide for yourself.

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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is uniquely unqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.