One of the pitfalls of a long story is repeated information. Especially relevant when writing an adventure story, this happens when characters need to relate information they’ve already gathered to a character who doesn’t know it already, or when the author needs to relay information to a reader who might have missed it earlier (usually at the beginning of a new book in a series). As a reader, unless something new is revealed in the retelling of the information, these moments are Boring with a capital B. After all, you already know this; when the author repeats it, you begin to feel like they don’t think you were smart enough to catch it the first time. As a writer, you don’t want to leave out the second (or third or fourth or fifth…) exposition because you want to capture every moment in the world, because you are afraid it would interrupt a scene to just summarize at that particular moment, or because it really is necessary to repeat it. After spending my entire weekend with my nose locked between the pages of Harry Potter (I accomplished that summer goal, at least), I have some lessons to share from the expert writing of J. K. Rowling.
1. Don’t repeat if you don’t have to.
Throughout the Harry Potter series, there are plenty of instances where Harry learns something new and then needs to fill Ron and Hermione in on it. Usually this sharing of information comes directly after the scene where Harry learned it: the reader already knows everything Harry knows and really just wants to find out what’s going to happen next. But Rowling can’t just skip over the fact that he tells them because then the reader would be left wondering how the heck Ron knew what Harry was talking about (they would probably surmise that Hermione figured it out without Harry needing to tell her). Her solution: summarize. She tells the reader that Harry told them, usually quite plainly, like in the second book: “Harry told Ron exactly what he heard.”
2. Showing reactions is what’s most important
One of the reasons information needs to be repeated is to show different character’s reactions to the information. It might show a character’s trait, hint at their true nature, or force the protagonist to see the situation in a new light. However, repeating the information itself isn’t always necessary to get that reaction. Rowling shows this again in the second book. After Harry accepts an invitation to a Deathday Party, Rowling cuts straight to a new scene starting with Hermione’s reaction:
“A deathday party?” said Hermione keenly when Harry had changed at last and joined her and Ron in the common room. “I bet there aren’t many living people who can say they’ve been to one of those–it’ll be fascinating!”
Without repeating information we literally just learned, Rowling shows Hermione’s reaction, which helps quell some of Harry’s unease at the idea of a Deathday party in the first place (and of course, being at the party is important for the plot later on…), as well as the showing the fact that Harry has shared the information.
3. If you have to repeat, make it work for you.
One of the pitfalls of writing a series is that with each new book, the author has to catch any new readers up so they can understand at least at a base level all that’s going one without having to read the previous books (although by the last few books, Rowling was doing less and less of this, presumably because by that point I was the only person left in my generation who hadn’t read the books, and even I knew the base information). However, instead of having a stock paragraph inserted at the beginning of each novel, Rowling doles out the information differently each time, and it always works to move the scene forward. For example, in the second book, she reveals that Harry is a wizard after a scene where his family punishes him for joking about magic, and she spins it in a way so that his predicament is entirely relatable: “…Harry Potter wasn’t a normal boy. As a matter of fact, he was as not normal as it was possible to be.” After this she explains that he is a wizard, but by framing it in this structure, Rowling shows us immediately that Harry is feeling weird and left out, and she continues to use this throughout the exposition by telling us he misses Hogwarts (where he felt normal) and his friends who are also wizards and with whom he had many adventures last year (whose letters aren’t arriving due to plot development). All the information repeated builds the scene and Harry’s mood so it feels completely organic.
The third book’s repeated information works the same way, but is given out differently. The book starts with “Harry Potter was a highly unusual boy in many ways. For one thing, he hated the summer holidays more than any other time of year. For another, he really wanted to do his homework but was forced to do it in secret, in the dead of the night. And he also happened to be a wizard.” This sets us up for Harry’s emotional background–he feels uneasy at his home, he prefers Hogwarts, and he can’t wait to go back–and for the world’s fantasy background. More importantly, it puts us immediately in the scene where he is avoiding detection by his aunt and uncle while he secretly tries to continue his magical schooling. What I think is most interesting is that it has also a subtly older tone than the book before it: instead of starting integrated with his family at breakfast with his schoolbooks locked up, Harry is now staying up past his bedtime, alone in his room, bolstering his magical identity. Rowling works the repeated information into moving the scene forward and into revealing nuanced character changes.
So if you must repeat information as sometimes we find we do, try to imitate J. K. Rowling and you should do just fine.
P.S. Read the second AUTHORNOMICS Interview with Jenny Shortridge here.