6 Questions to Help You Avoid Repetitive Scenes

It takes a lot of scenes to make a novel. Not only do we need enough scenes to progress the plot and get the characters from Point A to Point B, we also need to reach a certain word count so the book can be a novel. (Or the movie can be a movie. Ya know.) So how can you make sure you’re not just filling out that word count with repetitive scenes?

At a certain point, most writers will receive critiques or edits in which whole scenes are circled in red with notes that read “nothing happens” or “they already had this conversation” or “this doesn’t advance the plot” or “feels like you’re padding the word count”—all of which are code for “repetitive scenes.”

Recognizing repetitive scenes can be tricky for authors (hence, the big red circles from critique partners and editors). Our deep immersion in our own stories inevitably causes a certain lack of objectivity. We may think a scene is full of new info when really the characters have already been there done that. Readers may not think too much about one or two repetitive scenes. But at a certain point, they will grow increasingly restless and frustrated with the story’s lack of progress.

A while back, I received an email from Wordplayer Sarah K. with an insightful question:

I’m working on a novel that seems to be lending itself to a lot of “talky” scenes, scenes (in the scene structure sense) where the conflict is typically interpersonal and expressed in dialogue; think lots of parlor arguments, gossip while hunting, etc. I know that not every novel needs to have car chases and sword fighting, particularly in certain genres. But I can’t help but worry that this is a function of something going wrong. My concern is that these scenes are starting to feel repetitive and that this is a symptom of me “telling” the conflict, or even having protagonists that aren’t quite right (i.e., just aren’t witnessing really interesting things firsthand).

Is this something you’ve seen often in unpublished writers? Do you have any insights into varying scene conflict and ensuring that conflict is dramatized in an interesting way?

My response was that there’s nothing wrong with keeping the conflict mostly interpersonal and expressed in dialogue. Many novels operate this way (and, indeed, I’d argue this is often the most interesting type of conflict). But Sarah still raises an excellent point: how do you know whether the scenes you’re writing are simply leisurely and character-driven scenes or whether they are truly repetitious?

Today, I’m going to dive a little deeper into this subject and examine what defines repetitive scenes, as well as strategies for recognizing and avoiding them in your own fiction.

When Repetitive Scenes Are Okay—And When They’re Not

As per Sarah’s example, it’s inevitable that many scenes within a story will be similar to one another. For instance, in a cop story, there will be many scenes of investigating clues. In a romance, there will be many dates between the leads. In an action story, there will be many action scenes. And so on. Additionally, every scene in the entire story will ultimately have the same overarching goal—to find the murderer, resolve the relationship issues, defeat the bad guy, etc. In some respects, every scene is repetitive simply because every scene is a small piece in a larger (and hopefully) unified whole.

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Particularly, it’s fine to include “repetition” in the form of thematic motifs or running gags. The latter is particularly obvious in serial works, such as TV shows. Many shows, especially comedies, will open with an isolated scene that stands apart from the main plot but which features a standard running gag of some sort. (The Andy Griffith Show and Gilmore Girls often opened their episodes with a scene in which the characters exchanged a funny conversation about a random topic.)

Thematic motifs also require repetition to become effective. For instance, one confrontation with authority does not a rebel make. But if your character has repeated run-ins with authority figures, then the entire story begins to take on a specific thematic shape. This is not only okay, it’s necessary to the formation of a cohesive and resonant story.

What is not okay is plot-oriented repetition.

6 Questions to Help You Prevent Repetitive Scenes

What differentiates one repeat scene of a character shoplifting and getting arrested from another repeat scene featuring the same incident?

The simplest criterion is: does the scene change something?

This change might be to the character and the plot itself (e.g., the character is let off with a warning the first time but arrested the second). Or the change could simply be to the readers’ perspective (e.g., the character’s second arrest provides the punchline to a joke or adds new insight into the thematic context).

Of course sometimes what the author intends as thematic repetition will still come across as boring and unnecessary to readers. Fortunately, there are several questions you can ask yourself to analyze whether your scenes are truly advancing the story or whether they are repetitive—and should probably be cut.

1. Is the Character’s Goal the Same as in the Last Scene?

Although not a catchall, this is the first and most important question you should ask yourself. As noted, the overarching plot goal will remain essentially the same throughout the story. But the smaller scene goals should still show a progression. If the character’s plot goal is to become President, then the smaller goals will arise in response to various obstacles along the campaign trail.

And what if your story is more relational with a less obvious plot goal? What if, like Sarah’s story, yours is primarily focused on lots of conversations between characters with a vaguer destination of something like “coming to peace with a complicated parent’s passing”? Ultimately, the same guideline applies. Examine how well the characters’ goals are evolving from scene to scene. Are they getting closer to what they want—or farther away? (Either will provide a sufficient movement of the plot circumstances.) If the talking isn’t achieving any movement for any of the characters then examine how you might adjust that from scene to scene.

2. Are the Obstacles the Character Is Facing Different From Previous Scenes?

If you find your characters’ scene goals aren’t changing much from scene to scene, the next thing to look at is your scenes’ conflict. Specifically, how are the obstacles evolving? How can you avoid your characters facing the same scene-specific problems in every scene?

It could be that the character’s goal doesn’t change too much for multiple scenes, and that’s okay, as long as the obstacles are changing. If your protagonist is a detective trying to get a conversation with a mob boss, he might have to try several different tactics before he gets what he wants. But if he faces the same obstacle (or a familiar variation on the same obstacle) in every one of those scenes, the action will quickly feel repetitious.

Sometimes realism and pacing demand characters won’t get what they want on the first try. In these instances, you’ll need to evolve their goal subtly from scene to scene by focusing on how they systematically work through various obstacles on their way to the goal.

3. What New Information Is Introduced in This Scene?

Even when you find yourself in a situation where you need to include several scenes featuring the same goal and perhaps even very similar obstacles, you can still prevent the scene from feeling repetitious. All you have to do is make sure every scene introduces new information.

This could be information that is new to the protagonist, but it could also simply be new insights for the readers. For instance, the protagonist might reveal a personal secret to another character. This might not directly advance the plot or immediately change the scene goal or conflict, but as long as it deepens the characterization context, it can serve to justify the scene’s existence.

This is a tricky one, since writers must be able to accurately judge whether the new information is truly adding something to the story. If the character’s secret is about how he broke his brother’s bike when they were kids, that secret must either become crucial to the development of the plot later on or offer significant insight into the character’s own personality and motivation.

Additionally, if you’re asking information to carry a scene, that information should be interesting in its own right. Examine it from your readers’ perspective. Why will this information matter to them?

4. Is This the Same Kind of Scene as the Last One (and the Last One and the Last One)?

Even if you’re acing the boxes from the previous questions, readers can still sometimes end up feeling scenes aren’t varied enough if all the scenes “look” the same. If every scene is a conversation or every scene is a fistfight or every scene is a make-out session, then the sheer lack of variety may weary readers.

Even genre books need variety. In fact, the contrast offered by varied scenes can create powerful opportunities for thematic subtext. For example, one of my favorite scenes in the Band of Brothers miniseries is one in which a French nurse eats a chocolate bar with the company medic in a bombed-out village. She dies shortly after and he never sees her again. But the quiet relational moment within a heavy war story created both poignant contrast and welcome variety.

5. How Is the Setting Different?

This one isn’t crucial. After all, some wonderful stories take place all within the same setting. But if you’re worried your scenes still “feel” too much the same even after examining the previous questions, a comparatively easy tweak is that of changing up the settings.

This can be especially handy in a dialogue-heavy story. Don’t set every conversation at the protagonist’s office or in the same restaurant. Mix it up. Have the characters talk in the car, talk in a pool hall, talk in a church, talk while helping each other move. Although settings should never be random, mixing it up can add surprising new opportunities and dynamics to your stories.

6. Are New Characters Adding New Dynamics That Are Different From Previous Scenes?

Finally, examine how well you’re varying the different pieces available to you. Within any given story, you will have a set number of puzzle pieces that you can mix and match. Particularly, you’ll want to shuffle your supporting characters to allow different people to be present in different scenes.

Not only will this change up the “scenery,” it should also give you the opportunity to deepen any given scene’s complexity by bringing in the motives, desires, goals, grudges, etc., of many different personalities. A three-way conversation between your protagonist, her mother, and the local vicar will be a completely different conversation from one between your protagonist, her father, and the local sheriff—even if the topic under discussion is the same.

***

Sometimes recognizing repetitive scenes is the toughest part. After that, the solution (although not fun) is usually pretty easy. Either delete the scene you don’t need and/or combine its important bits with a more comprehensive and important scene. The result will be a much tighter and more interesting story.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you ever worry about repetitive scenes in your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Eric Troyer says

    Ooo. Good post! I was just reading Robert McKee’s “Story” over the weekend and have been pondering his take on Scenes and Beats. I found the passage below enlightening. Your post helps expand on that.

    A SCENE is an action through conflict in more or less continuous time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life on at least one value with a degree of perceptible significance.

    Ideally, every scene is a STORY EVENT. Look closely at each scene you’ve written and ask: What value is at stake in my character’s life at this moment? Love? Truth? What? How is that value charged at the top of the scene? Positive? Negative? Some of both? Make a note. Next turn to the close of the scene and ask, Where is this value now? Positive? Negative? Both? Make a note and compare. If the answer you write down at the end of the scene is the same note you made at the opening, you now have another important question to ask: Why is this scene in my script?

  2. Miriam Harmon says

    Great post! I have a question but I don’t know if it’s related to this or not.
    I’ve read about scene structure and I think I understand it, but it’s always very difficult for me to figure out when one scene ends and another begins. I can make a goal, conflict, and disaster to some extent, but I always get stuck when it comes to the decision part. I can show in Action the goal and conflict and disaster occurring, but how do I “show” the decision that leads to the next goal? And how does the sequel come in between? You may have already answered this somewhere, but I’m just not sure I fully understand how to execute the scene-sequel stuff in my stories.
    Thanks for everything!

  3. I’m reading Roy Peter Clark’s The Art of x-ray reading. He makes the distinction between redundancy and repetition – redundancy is unintentional and adds nothing, repetition is intentional and builds an effect, or a theme. That fits well with your post, I think, and both have been a useful clarification.

  4. Great post, Katie! I’m adding these questions to my editing checklist. Thank you for continuing to give generously to writers!

  5. Joan Kessler says

    Great questions to keep in mind to keep the story moving forward, instead of in a circle. They can help clarify the purpose of the scene. On the flip side, the movie Shaun of the Dead uses repetition brilliantly throughout the film. For instance, the dialogue in a pub scene when they are discussing relationships is repeated in the same pub when they are discussing how to fight off the zombies. Same lines, same location, completely different circumstances. Thanks for the post!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “…to keep the story moving forward, instead of in a circle…”

      This is a *great* visual analogy.

  6. I have not run into this particular problem, probably because I’m vulnerable to underwriting. I sometimes get feedback which is the equivalent of ‘another scene needs to be added here.’ I’m still repetitious at the micro-level, such as by overusing certain words.

    Meanwhile, the essay which I mentioned a couple months back about comparing reviews on a novel left in English and Chinese has at long last been published, and I quoted Katie (thanks for that great blog post!)

    (I’m not Sarah K., there’s no ‘h’ in my name).

    (I think Akismet ate my previous comment because I included a link, anyone who’s interested in that essay can find the link at the top of my blog. If that other comment went through and I didn’t notice, feel free to delete this repeat comment).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Congrats on your essay! And, yes, it’s definitely a balance between overwriting and underwriting. It’s easy to swing back and forth between the two.

  7. Usvaldo De Leon says

    Very helpful, as my stories always seem to have 3 scenes that could be described as Sam goes to the post office AGAIN.

  8. Mpho Keitumetse says

    Hi there! Another great post. Another technique I’ve found useful in my current novel is to present the same scene from a different character’s perspective. It can work really well sometimes, especially if you maximise on dramatic irony. It’s not always a guarantee though (I can think of a one scene that became such a disaster using that technique that I had to cut it completely and start from scratch), but if you nail it, it really does wonders for creating intrigue and deepening a reader’s insight into the story and the characters moving through it.

  9. What about similar scenes from different protagonists? In the novel I am writing at the moment, the first few chapters are about different people getting let down by the justice system and the next few are about their revenge.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If it’s a “variation on a theme,” or repetition on purpose as mentioned in a previous comment, then the repetition can certainly be used successfully to achieve a certain effect. The only litmus test is whether or not the follow-up scenes keep readers’ attention.

  10. Last night I started working through what to do with a couple of scenes that are a little too similar, and then this morning there was an article helping me solve my problem. Thank you.

  11. Ok, this is a bit bold of me, but I want to suggest a couple of other things that might not kill particularly scenes, but might shoot a story. If the story keeps repeating the exact same type of conflict, it will get boring. So even in a dialog heavy story, it shouldn’t all be straight argument. There can be false agreement, thinly veiled insults, dismissal, interruptions, unwanted agreement, and a massive pile of internal disagreements. Frankly, I try to have multiple types of conflict afoot in each scene,

    I’ve also looked at works were the scenes all end the same way, and I get bored with this. Now, a fast action story can often get away with this, but for most stories ending on exactly the same type of “OMG the MC can’t get out of this one!” twist, gets to be repetitious, particularly when the scenes are longish. There are interesting ways to end a scene that don’t involve a cliffhanger (hint, hint: there might be an article in there – effective ways to end a scene). Cliffhangers are great, but they’re not the only game in town and your plot/character/world should be interesting enough to end on a point where the MC faces a non-life threatening dilemma or is upset about something or even (shudder) has something unexpectedly good happen to them.

    These are my thoughts, which may be as on target as the first native American who said, “ehh, these guys are too pale. They’ll never stick around.”

    May your words cascade off your fingers and bring you joy and delight.
    Andy

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “There can be false agreement, thinly veiled insults, dismissal, interruptions, unwanted agreement, and a massive pile of internal disagreements.”

      This is a great list of conflict angles.

  12. Grace Dvorachek says

    This came at a great time for me, as I’m currently working on the 2nd draft of my WIP. What I’ve found incredibly helpful with repetitive/boring scenes is similar to point #6 on this post. I already had enough characters, so I didn’t want to create any new ones. But I did have all of these characters with clashing goals and personalities that I wasn’t utilizing nearly enough. So I took some of these minor characters, and put them in the boring scenes.

    The result was instant conflict. Sometimes these characters ended up reshaping the entire scene into something way different—but even better—than I’d intended. This also helped advance some subplots that I wasn’t taking to their full potential. This method totally helped my WIP in the areas it was lacking, and just made the whole plot tighter.

    (I think I pulled this trick from one of your blog posts from several years ago… I believe it was “An Easy Way to Notch Up Your Scene Conflict.” This post in particular really helped me fix boring and repetitive scenes!)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nice! Giving minor characters goals that conflict with the main characters’ always spices up everything, including the characters themselves.

  13. As always Katie, very helpful advice. Repetitive scenes was an issue flagged to me by someone who read a draft of mine and ever since I keep looking out for them BUT your posting has made me think of the opposite. I need more thematic scenes. I have a character who I describe as impulsive but she’s only had one scene so far where she’s done something impulsive. Whoops!.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Dead on. Scenes in which characters demonstrate their posited traits are often some of the most evocative and interesting.

  14. Such a great post, KM. Lots of great information to consider when I’m writing my novel. Since the novel I’m writing is part fantasy, horror, and a detective story, there are 13 descendants that curse an ancient demon’s bloodline. That means they are murder/sacrifice victims. 13th Descendant isn’t supposed to be killed, though. The main character is supposed to save her. Although most of The Descendants are supposed to be killed, I try to vary the amount of people killed in each chapter, so it’s not just one person being killed every time. I just have one question. Before the demon kills his victims, he will say his bloodline is cursed by the victims’ bloodline, so they’ll die. Is it okay for me to have the demon say that each time, or should I change that up so it doesn’t come repetitive?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like it’s more of a motif. Although this is completely different tonally, it makes me think of the famous repeated line from The Princess Bride: “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

      • Thanks, KM. That makes sense about the motif. I didn’t think about it that way. Montoya was hilarious in that great film.

  15. Way late comer to the party, but I wanted to pop in and say thanks for this post! This was the perfect article for me this week; I have a tendency for too many “coffee in the kitchen” moments in my writing, and I’ve been working on ways to weed them out of my historical WIP. You’re my favorite writing mentor, and I love reading all the comments here and getting to hear about all the fabulous stories in progress.

  16. B.L.Albina aka Leilani Pearl Naida says

    I am reading some books by Deepok Chopra. My question is to you. Would my book I am writing be more interesting with runes in it because I am going to do that? Your thoughts? My character that I am writing in first person has thirteen kids.

  17. Oh, man. I like to spreadsheet each scene and note its type (where? who? what activity is happening?) to call attention to my repetitive scenes. By doing this I learned that my WIP has a meeting problem. So many meetings. I’m combining as many of them as I can, changing their settings, and of course eliminating as many as possible. One of the remaining meeting scenes was refreshed by moving it outside and adding a strutting, aggressive peacock who screeches while my MC is trying very hard be taken seriously.

  18. This post is perfect for me right now as I just got an editorial letter back from my agent explaining how many of my scenes are repetitive with so much running away in a cat and mouse scenes of almost getting caught and running again. You have helped me find a path forward through my running quagmire! Thank you!

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