Monday 5 March 2012

Monotone Writing Is Monotonous Writing

Monotonous means boring, so as long as you have interesting stuff going on in your scene it won’t be monotonous, right?

But that’s not what monotonous means. It’s boredom brought on by repetition or lack of variety. Monotone. So even a scene that in itself is fairly interesting, when put in an environment of similar scenes, not only loses its impact, it actually becomes a negative force.

There’s something about the human brain that makes patterns standout. We love spotting them, and we love predicting them, and we also expect them to mean something. But we get tired of them very quickly.

Readers are particularly quick at seeing repetition and echoes. In some cases this is a good thing. It helps solidify a theme or create a rhythm to the writing. But often it is unintentional and jarring.

Something as innocuous as using the same word more than once in a paragraph can result in clunky syntax.

Dave climbed over the wall which was covered in climbing ivy.

Even though the above sentence makes perfect sense and in no way confuses the reader, it still reads stilted because of an unintentional repetition.

When the tone or type of story element gets repeated, it can quickly get tiresome. It can be something as overt as three conversations on the phone one after the other (even though each phone call deals with important developments), or it can be something less obvious.

If Tina is at work preparing for a presentation when she gets a call to set up a date with a new guy she met, and she’s thinking about how to deal with seeing her parents on the weekend, even though each of those three elements can be fantastically dramatic and interesting, the fact each of them are presented at the same (planning) stage can make it feel monotonous.

Whether or not the actual scene you write is boring or not, having similar elements together can be enough to wear the reader down. This isn’t just true of books, it’s true of most things in life. Even the thing you love doing, if you do it too much, you’ll get tired of it.

A fast paced action scene followed by another fast paced action scene, followed by... you get the idea.

It’s not just the content that decides if a scene or chapter works, it’s the context. What comes before? What goes after? If things repeat themselves it will be noticed. It’s one of the things our brains excel at.

That’s not to say you can’t use that instinct to your advantage. Think of how a hook in a song works. But if you do use intentional repetition, you have to be careful how you go about it. A monotone beat can produce a rhythm, but a little syncopation can really get feet tapping.
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Unknown said...

Excellent point. There is such a thing as 'flow' to a story, and if it's overly consistent it can become stale. Good stories are like rivers; there are slow parts, fast parts, rapids, bends, etc. all culminating into something that takes you from A to B in a beautiful fashion.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Oddly enough, repetition is sometimes difficult to spot in our own works. (Critique partners have no problems though!)

Gail said...

Point taken. Nice post. Made me think about the rhythm in my own work in progress. I have a feeling that a large % of my scenes are pretty fast paced, especially in the becoming. Thanks for sharing.

Gail said...

Point taken. Nice post. I need to take a look at my own scenes. I may have overloaded on fast pacing. Thanks for the heads-up.

dolorah said...

I had that problem with my first novel - too much of the same sentiments running through the scenes. Different people and settings, same emotional content.

I've read this problem in other novels I've read, making it so one novel in the series is enough and halfway through the first book I'm ready to put it down.

I thank my crit partners profusely when they spot these errors in my own writing.


Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

What about using the word "said" over and over as a conversation tag? Can that be monotonous if overdone?

mooderino said...

@EJ-it's a really hard thing to get right though.

@Alex-so true. Usually really obvious when it's pointed out to you.

@Donna-balancing a consistent tone with a varied narrative is no easy task.

mooderino said...

@Michael-it can be.

The conventional wisdom is that 'said' is considered to be the best word to use in a dialogue tag, mainly because synonyms tend to be distracting and noticeable and take away from the dialogue itself. The way someone says something should be self-evident (screenplays are a good source for seeing how effective this can be).

The brain is astute enough to be able to tell the differnece between real variety and half-hearted attempts. So:

Peter ran up the stairs, sprinted along the hall, and hurried into the room.

even though I'm using different words for 'run' it just feels like I went thesaurus-crazy, and that's how it often feels with 'creative' dialogue tags. This is exaggerated by the fact that dialogue tags appear in large chunks of writing at the end of each line, forming an eye-catching pattern.

However, you can still throw in 'he whispered' or 'she shouted' where you feel it's imprtant to specify how someone speaks. Just don't overdo it.

It is possible when you have a large chunk of dialogue that all the he said/she said gets a bit plinkety-plonk as you read it. In those cases often you can leave the dialogue tag out altogether (if it's obvioius who's speaking) or you can use action tags that describe what the person is doing, as the dialogue will be assumed to belong to that person:

Jane looked out the window. "Nice sunset, don't you think?"

Overall though readers are used to seeing a lot of 'said' and so they don't register it as strongly as other words, so it's a bit of a special case.

Rachna Chhabria said...

I usually spot repetition in my critique partners' work but tend to overlook mine. Earlier I used to indulge in repetition but now I am a bit more careful. Great post.

Alexis Bass said...

Repetition is the first thing I notice when critiquing for others - but I hardly ever in my own stuff. Sometimes the 'search' function is the best tool ever. :) Happy Writing!

mooderino said...

@Rachna-me too.

@Alexis-I think reading your own stuff out loud also helps (tedious as it can be).

Anonymous said...

I believe in balance and the time between action scenes is an opportunity for character development, character arc, and reflection.

Julie Daines said...

I've noticed a similar problem in some types of writing where the sentence structures themselves are repeated--no variation in length, addition of power words, and lots of lyrical language.

Monotonous sentence structure makes it difficult for the reader to separate the important, emotional or pivotal moments from the rest of the writing.

Like looking at a busy collage of pictures--unless some pictures are given more prominence, our eyes don't know where to settle, so we just skim the whole thing.

Golden Eagle said...

I recently read a book on writing fiction that emphasized repetitions/patterns (Plot by Ansen Dibell) but also pointed out what you just did--readers will notice repetition, so you have to be careful where it is and if it's intentional or not.

(And I love the "mostly harmless" addition at the end of your post. :))

Michael Di Gesu said...

Hey, Mood,

You nailed another great post. Many of us do get bogged down by repetition. Your examples clarify so much. Well done.

I always appreciate your no-nonsense way of simplifying writing situations and make the easy and clear for all of us to understand. Thanks. You are a shining star in our community.

Lydia Kang said...

Well said, Moody. I try to pick out the monotony after my first draft. It's so much easier for me to see now than when I first started writing.

mooderino said...

@Stephen-I think you can play around with exact amount of one ting vs another to suit your own taste, just as long as you have some variety.

@Julie-true. same with ove-describing everything, makes it hard to know which are the important things.

@Golden-any time you deliberately try to create an effect I think that's fair enough. Whether it works or not it's still a valid approach.

@Michael-thanks, man. Very nice of you to say.

@Lydia-I agree, I used to defend the boring stuff like it proved my worth as a writer. Better to let your writing do the talking.

Nicole Pyles said...

Someone above mentioned whether "said" could become repetitious. I would say it can be, but then on the other hand, phrases like, "he cried," "she grunted," "he exclaimed," "she sighed," "he shouted," "she exclaimed," can get just as monotonous.

Another monotonous habit of my own is the nonverbals of my character. I'm in a first draft now, but when I go back I have to rewrite some scenes. There are so many nods that people can do without it getting ridiculous.

By the way, I don't know if you accept blog awards, but I have just passed one along to you!

mooderino said...

@Nicole-facial expressions get old very quickly too.

Thanks for the award, very nice of you to think of me.

hauptp said...


I am not a native speaker, for me it is unclear when to use mnotone vs. monotonous. Eg. can my work be non-monotonous or non-monotone?
Great article btw.

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