Are You Okay? Not If You Keep Asking Me
PINK HEART SOCIETY COLUMN
A year or so ago, I was judging a writing contest. I'll confess that while I really enjoy reading competition entries, I break out in a cold sweat when I have to actually assess them.
I know how difficult it is to put your work out there for someone to pick over, so I therefore operate on the principle of ‘Do Unto Others’, which means I go into each reading in a positive frame of mind, wanting to be delighted, while nevertheless being scrupulously fair when it comes to the point scoring part.
In this particular instance, there was a book I enjoyed immensely. I loved the plot, I liked the characters, the writing was smooth. But one thing, nevertheless, kept grating on me: the need for the hero to ask the heroine the same question over and over… ‘Are you okay?’
Yes, the poor girl was having a tough time and yes, he was a decent, caring guy - but really? How many times can you ask a woman the same question, have her tell you yes, she is indeed okay, know she’s lying; and yet not try a different tack? It's not only repetitive, it's a little bit stupid on his part, don't you think?
Happily that book went on to a deserved spot on the list of finalists, but I raised this particular example to show that even the best writers have words and phrases they repeat - not as a stylistic device or as a character trait, but unconsciously, just because they slip through the net.
I give you my least favourite crime repetition as a prime example: 'You've got to believe me', said by every second suspect being questioned by police in just about every crime show on television. Er, no, they don't have to believe you, and please stop putting that question in the script because it might be true that suspects say it and say it and say it, but it's also boring!
And I confess, I am not immune. My characters tend to do a lot of 'turning' until I take them in hand and find other ways for them to face each other (drives me nuts). My hero in Escaping Mr Right kept referring to the heroine by name, tacking a 'Chloe' onto everything he said to her without any good reason for doing so - who else was he talking to when they were the only two in the room? There's often enough snorting going on for a whole stable of horses, and plenty of eye rolling and nodding and head shaking, too.
Believe me, I've got so many examples, I've taken to keeping a list of my repeat offenders so I can do a search for them!
Recognising repetition of unusual words - if, for example you use a few too many 'insouciants', 'ephemerals' or 'byzantines' - is going to hit you pretty quickly. But the sneaky common words, phrases and actions require extra vigilance.
Going back to the example of our concerned hero and his predilection for inquiring into the okay-ness of our heroine, I should point out that there's nothing wrong with the sentiment being repeated; I just would have liked to see a little more variety in its expression. How about a sequence of utterances at various points like this for example:
Are you okay? (one or two of these - fair call)
Why are you chewing your nails/wringing your hands/pulling the petals of that rose?
Stop pretending you're okay and talk to me
I'm not going to ask you again if you're okay, because I know you're going to lie to me the way you have every time I've asked
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