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So, I was writing a test story to see if my tools can work together in the way intended. Few paragraphs into the first chapter and there is a problem:

Character A is a scaredy-cat, and I based the locations off of Slender: The Arrival's prologue chapter. So A decides not to use any light sources and goes through the prologue section moving from cover to cover, peeking out and moving.

This is understandable, F.E.A.R fans know why. ("Careful with your flashlight, it will give you away.")

Though this is highly repetitive, which is a reason why readers drop a book.

So, how can I write a section of repeated actions, without the writing being too repetitive?

  • Your character is sneaking, but nothing else is happening, right? You have to either make each move a unique challenge (and imho this is the right thing for the first chapter), or compress moving through several spots in one or two sentences. – Alexander Dec 19 '17 at 17:44
  • @Alexander Important locations? – Mephistopheles Dec 19 '17 at 17:45
  • that's up to you to decide. Locations' importance will judged from your character's eyes. – Alexander Dec 19 '17 at 17:51
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Describe them once, as that character's standard approach, or usual caution, or something similar to that, a specific word or few words that identifies this whole thing that will be repeated often. So the reader knows, when you use those few words, what you are talking about.

Perhaps on the second use you can summarize what "usual caution" means:

Alice proceeded with her usual caution: slow movement, no flashlight, peeking from cover before making any move.

Then for the third and subsequent usages, just say "usual caution."

Alice proceeded with her usual caution.

1) Long description when it will be new to the reader, with a label.

2) Summary description of the label, when reader has seen it once.

3) Just the label, thereafter.

  • 1
    If you don't use the same repetition for several chapters in a long book, you might want to do a (brief) refresher as to what your chosen term means, but only if you think you haven't used it enough for the reader to remember it from previous uses. As a reader, I dislike when the writer references something from 500 pages ago as if they said it 2 pages ago, but if they repeated it 20 times and I should know it, it's slightly annoying to get another "reminder", even at 700 pages later. – computercarguy Dec 19 '17 at 20:42
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this is a slight variation on one aspect of Erk's answer.

Place yourself in the situation of your character. You're forced by fear to go cautiously from cover to cover, perhaps moving slowly, careful not to make any noise. On one hand the tension is immense. On the other hand the repetitive nature of the action is also nerve-breaking. One can easily imagine the growing compulsion to just scream and run, and the struggle with the gripping fear.

That. Repeat it. Word by word. Make the reader feel the nerve-breaking tension, and remind them that if the character is not running through, it is because of the paramount fear that looms over them.

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You have this problem a few paragraphs into the first chapter.

Don't stop and think now!

Accept that you'll get into the rhythm after a few more paragraphs and that you may even produce a couple of scenes/chapters that aren't much for the world.

The thing is, you will write your first draft badly. Perhaps you'll find a few sentences in a whole page that will do the job of describing this character's actions.

It's OK. You don't need to worry about that now. Chances are, your favorite author does that too!

Once you've written the scene/chapter and let it simmer for a day or two, you might know exactly what to do when you read it again.

However. If you've done all that and you're still lost, then maybe this section should be summarized?

"Show, don't tell" might be causing problems for you.

What is the scene really about? Perhaps you don't need to describe the character's every step and glance? Maybe a single sentence would suffice to get to the core of the scene?

Stick to the true and tested adage of scene writing: start the scene as late as possible and stop it as soon as possible.

If the next step in the character's journey is a bank robbery, perhaps a breakfast scene is of little to no consequence... You could simply do:

Bob pulled the mask down over his face and tightened the grip on the revolver. His stomach shivered in a way that made him regret the double serving of boiled eggs he'd had for breakfast.

(Of course, if you decide to talk about breakfast eggs, they should reappear--pun intended--later in the scene, perhaps as a DNA-source for the crime scene investigators...)

If you do decide to keep the details, here are a few tips on how to make it work.

Use tension.

If you can crank up the reader's anticipation they will accept a slower pace. You can do this by hinting at a danger. My favorite is the "Bear on the Beach."

A couple is kissing on a beach. Perhaps a bit sexy and exciting, but nothing much happens. We start getting bored. Cut to a wild bear on the beach. Then back to the couple. Anticipation skyrockets. Will they see the bear? What will happen when it sees them? And the couple just keeps kissing and cuddling. The more we dive into the kissing, the more the reader will think of the bear and the more they will bite their nails. Especially if you cut back to the bear. (Yes, this is an example from the movies. In a book you would use scenes or chapters to cut back and forth between, for instance, home invaders preparing a robbery and a family getting ready for bed...)

Introduce threats to your character.

Where is the antagonistic force? In the same room? No? Can the character be sure? In fearing the appearance of an antagonist your character can spend time thinking about the conflict.

You may be able to boil down scenes and chapters into one paranoid set of fears and thoughts...

Or raise the stakes. If his life is at stake, how will he think and feel? Imagine your character balancing on one of the metal beams in those old black and white photos of the Empire State Building construction (I think it is)... hundreds of meters above the ground, no guardrail, no lifeline... if he trips and falls, he's dead.

Make sure your scenes do double, if not triple, duty.

Description should not only describe things. It can also foreshadow (gun on the wall -- yes, you can spend time describing that gun on the wall because the reader anticipates it will be fired at a later time... a promise, buy the way, you must keep...), create atmosphere, and if you have a POV-character, all of this will be done with that character as a filter. If they are scared, make the descriptions and atmosphere scary. If they are bored instead of scared, a creaky old door will be described differently.

When your scenes do several things at the same time each step can become a new clue to the reader about character, milieu, story, theme, plot... your imagination sets the limits!

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