Wednesday, April 25, 2012


In the old days of paper manuscripts, there was an editing shorthand, "R.U.E.," that found its way into the margins of many manuscripts. That stands for
Resist the
Urge to

This is essentially a problem of redundancy or repetition, as we'll see in a moment. But first, let's talk about why this is a problem. Any time you pause the flow of the narrative to explain something to the reader, the pacing lags. This can happen in ways both big and small, from large backstory dumps to tiny repetitions. But it's not just a pacing issue. It sends a subtle message to the reader that the author doesn't trust her own skills enough to communicate something clearly the first time through. It builds boredom and uncertainty into the text. Not a desired outcome, right?

So let's look at a couple of examples.

The Unnecessary Summary

Carla slipped into her raincoat and grabbed her purse and umbrella. Then she turned her back on the front door, and starting on the right wall, made a full circuit of her house. She checked all the light switches to be sure they were off. She unplugged the stereo, looping the cord across the top of the cabinet so it would be easy to reach the next time she wanted to listen to music. In the kitchen, she turned each stove burner as far to the right as it would go, and she made sure the toaster and coffeemaker were both unplugged. Carla never left the house without checking all plugs and switches. She was very cautious about doing anything that might start a fire.

Okay, it's a boring example, but it illustrates the point. We have action to start the paragraph. The final two sentences summarize what she did in the action sentences at the start of the paragraph. First, we watch her actively check the plugs and switches. Then, the author tells us that she checks the plugs and switches. It's repetitive, and we don't need that final bit of restatement that summarizes all the preceding action. Dump it.

The Double-Down

"I'm going to make a pot of coffee." Carla made a pot of coffee.

Sometimes, an author will reveal a trivial detail twice, using different narrative elements each time. Here, we have dialogue followed by action. Both accomplish the same task, to inform the reader that Carla is making coffee. Unless these are magical coffee beans or laced with arsenic or something, there's no reason to place this much narrative attention on them. And even if the are magic or poison, it's better to replace one of these redundant statements with something a little different. Maybe something like,

"I'm going to make a pot of coffee." And she'd make sure that bastard swallowed every drop.

The Blow-by-Blow

"But wait!" the new writer says. "How will the reader know she actually made the coffee if I don't say so? She said she was GOING to make it. She didn't say that she MADE it. Different things, right?"

This cuts right to the heart of the confidence problem I mentioned above. If the character says, "I'm thirsty," in paragraph one, and then is holding a glass of ice water in paragraph five, the reader will understand what happened there. No need to show the character getting the glass, cracking the ice tray, running the tap, and so on. If the ice water is thematic or symbolic, you might want to give it this kind of narrative attention, but for the most part, there's no real point to super-detailed explanations of trivial actions. Hit the high points, and trust your reader to understand what's happening. You don't have to explain every minor step along the way.

What other things do you see in manuscripts that might fall under the "R.U.E." category?



PatriciaW said...

Research and backstory dumps might fall into R.U.E.

She pulled out her Colt 45 and put a bullet through the barrel.

This followed by several sentences or paragraphs explaining why the Colt 45 was the right gun to use over other options in this scenario because the author researched guns.

When I can tell the author researched a particular issue, then they've probably included too much information.

On backstory, it's when the author feels the need to explain everything that happened in the character's life that led up to the story action.

Linda stayed home from her mother's funeral. No way she could attend. Not after all she'd been through. When she was five, her mother forced her to eat every green pea on her plate. Again and again and again. As she got older, Linda and her mother butted heads over any number of topics, from the length of her skirts to her boyfriends, even what she chose to study in college. Then...

You get my drift.

In both of these cases, either the information was necessary for the author in order to write the story, but the auithor mistakenly assumed the reader needed it to, or if in some way it helps to move the story, the author failed to drop it in bits at a time.

Adrian said...

I learned about RUE from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers (great book). While redundancy and useless detail are problems in their own right, I've always associated RUE specifically with the lack of confidence issue. The author tries to convey something with subtext, but is unsure that the point came across either because he/she doesn't have the skill or because he/she doesn't trust the readers to get it. When going over my own work, I reserve RUE markings for these show-and-tell cases.

Although I'm aware of the problem, and I can point to it on my own pages, I often have a hard time deleting those little explanatory sentences. A lot of my work is in first person, so I'm always tempted to justify the summary as the narrator's interpretation rather than actual redundancy. Part of me knows it's a cop-out excuse, but it works more often than I'd like to admit.

Leona said...

I've had beta readers say..."first she's thirsty and now five pages later she's drinking? When did she get a cup?" kind of comments. It's kind of frustrating...

But I think it's more frustrating when you mention "someone trained x years to learn something" in context of something else and DON'T remind the reader, then have them say, "How'd she know how to do that?"

GRRR Sometimes I feel like highlighting passages and sending them back LOL mostly cuz I don't know how to fix the problem. My beta readers and CP partners are all intelligent people. So how do you make sure they remember w/o doing what you just said is bad? LOL

Iola said...

PatriciaW said "When I can tell the author researched a particular issue, then they've probably included too much information."

That helps me understand why, when reviewing a book I don't like, I often find myself making the point that it was well-researched! Obviously the research showed too much. I should have been so absorbed in the story that I didn't notice - but I did. However, I get even more annoyed when authors have obviously failed to research, which I guess makes me hard to please...

So, DO the research, but then RUE the research.

R. E. Hunter said...

" your reader to understand what's happening."

I think that's the key to the problem - not writers not trusting themselves, but not trusting their readers to figure it out. I think that's why readers find it so annoying. It's like talking down to them.