Stuck in the Cycle


Stuck in the Cycle

There's something haunting you. A strong feeling, an image, a moment you know has to go into your story. You write the scene for it, taking your time, working it out. But somehow it isn't quite right.

So you write it again.

Then you think it's done, and you start writing a new scene. But somehow, it ends up being remarkably similar to the scene you just wrote, with the same concerns at heart.

Then you write it again.

And again.

Has this ever happened to you? Have you found yourself, in one way or another, writing the same scene over and over again, unable to get beyond it? When we have a good idea, the idea can become very seductive. We think it's the only good thing we've got, so consciously or subconsciously, we find ourselves writing similar scenes over and over. The problem with this, of course, is that no scene in a story should repeat itself, especially in a short story. Every scene should be a further unrolling of the red carpet, a deeper and more complicated view of the characters. So we've got to be wary of writing that same scene over and over. This problem can sometimes carry over into other stories; an interview I recently read with Haruki Murakami, for example, said that Murakami had recently become embarrassed because he had re-used the imagery of wells in several novels, so now he was avoiding wells entirely. Sometimes an image or moment is so compelling to us that we just can't help using our best stuff again and again.

So what's a writer to do? Here are a few strategies for keeping your writing fresh and not repetitive.

Recognize scenes that do the same thing.

Redundant scenes can take a variety of forms. Some are recyling the same tropes over and over, like Murakami's wells. If you have your character walking down a rain-soaked alley at night more than twice in a story, be wary. Sometimes, however, redundant scenes are hard to spot. Say for example that you've got a scene in which your character realizes what a cold person her husband really is. If another scene's fundamental purpose is to again show what a cold person the husband is, then that's another kind of scene redundancy.

Strike out or re-shape the redundancy.

Eliminate things with a scalpel rather than a hatchet. Sometimes you can subtly change a repetitive scene so that it doesn't feel like an echo anymore. Change that rain-soaked alley to a sunny one in another city, or have another character walking down it. Add some other revelation to the husband scene so that the wife learns something new. In scene one she learns he is cold; in scene two she learns he is cheating on her. We have to keep growing, learning, and changing along with the story.