The title of a post points you in a specific direction. Sometimes, it’s the wrong direction. So in order not to head down an erroneous pathway, I will leave the title open for the moment. Except now, I have no focusing pathway. Oh, well. Flying blindly…
You might find it surprising – and possibly headshakingly inexplicable – to hear that one of my primary concerns when writing these posts is being assiduously careful never to use the same word twice.
I am not, of course, talking about “the”, and the like; I am talking about words that matter. With apologies to “the” and the many short but valuable words I have selected “the” to represent – “A” and its fraternal twin “an”, “but”, “to” and, oh yeah, “and” and also “also” – all wonderful – and admittedly essential – words in this literary enterprise, but they are not, in today’s context, what I am talking about. Although the word “enterprise” is. In my world, you use “enterprise” once, and that’s it. Next time, it’s “undertaking.”
Bottom Line: You do not ever repeat words. Repetition is distracting, as well as reflecting a demonstrable narrowness of vocabularial latitude. So many words to choose from. Why serve up the same one twice?
Distraction in comedy is a guaranteed “laugh killer.” Repeat a word in a joke and you are a “ha-ah”-soliciting goner.
“How tall is he?”
“This guy is so high up there, people are, like, ‘How’s the air up there?’”
Dead. If it were a good joke – still dead. Telling a joke that way amounts to the public acknowledgement: “I have absolutely no understanding of what it means to be funny.”
Sometimes repetition itself is funny. But I am not talking about that. I am not talking about saying precisely the same thing over and over again. Saying the precisely same thing over and over again can be funny. But I am not talking about that. Saying precisely the same thing over and over again? That’s not at all… what I am talking about.
Hopefully, you are at least chuckling and I can move on.
Or I can say precisely the same thing an additional time. Or as many as it takes till I have worn down your resistance. Suffice it to say,
I am not talking about that.
I am talking about nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives repeatedly used in a single undertaking. Or a single outing. Or a single exercise.
See that? I’ve got three of them waiting for me – “As needed.”
Imagine a novel where every woman is described as “attractive.” Or, for those unable to make the grade, “unattractive.” It might otherwise be a really good novel. Still, your inevitable “take-away” would be, “This novelist has a limited vocabulary.” (An exaggeration, of course, – because that’s what I do – but right now I am listening to a “Book-on-CD” called Dodge City where the word “six-gun” is being egregiously overused.)
I know this is a perennial “sticking point” for me because a couple of efforts ago I used the word “success” and its adjectival companion “successful” three times in the same post. Reading it over, I felt like an absolute failure as a writer… because I was unable to come up with synonymal alternatives. I have a thesaurus, but “triumphant”, “prevailing”, “vanquishing” felt like regressing steps down in absolute clarity from “successful.”
So I gave up, using “success” and its variation three times.
I have to tell you, I did not sleep comfortably that night.
How did I get this way? It’s my training.
In my early days writing for some of the most respected sitcoms on television – Mary Tyler Moore, Taxi, etc – writers were expected to be more than just funny; we had to also be clever and original. Every joke and line of dialogue was required to be sparklingly freshly minted. That’s what made those shows standouts.
That’s what I learned and that’s what I did. And have continued to do. Notwithstanding the occasional lapse where I use “success” and/or “successful” three times in one post.
Oh, the ignominy! Oh, the shame!
Now, here comes the “turn.”
As mentioned previously, I am a habitual viewer of the show Blue Bloods. Blue Bloods, I have found, to my confusion and dismay, plays an entirely alternate game.
Rather than reinventing the wheel with every pronouncement, Blue Bloods talks like reasonably educated human beings. But not “fancy.”
Although they are on television, where highly paid writers are expected – I believed – to express themselves in a unique and imaginative manner, the characters on Blue Bloods speak like the everyday person-in-the-street.
The characters say things like,
“It is what it is.”
“What goes around comes around.”
“Sometimes it’s better to apologize than to ask permission.”
They actually said that. With nary a wink nor ironic acknowledgment that they are spouting retrograde clichés.
Blue Bloods characters are not pretending they are breaking new ground with their pithy observations. Rather than trying to “one up” reality, they simply echo what regular “Joes” and “Janines” in such situations might say. (They would probably say regular “Joes” and “Janes.”)
Naysayers might describe this as “lazy writing.”
But, to me, it feels surprisingly refreshing.
And in a way – a “back-to-basics” kind of a way – revolutionary.
It’s like nobody’s “trying too hard.” By easing up on the assiduous cleverness – see Aaron Sorkin and other pyrotechnical smarty-pantses, including myself, who could have found a more monosyllabic descriptive than “pyrotechnical” – or “monosyllabic” – they sound like regular, lived-in human beings – the scuffed shoes and corduroy trousers of characters.
To be honest, and in the final analysis – because I am not ready to jump into the rest of the sentence – I am not sure what I think about that. I have a feeling Blue Bloods “normalizes” its dialogue on purpose, so as not to sound snootily elitist. I see this “regularizing” technique in other aspects of the series as well. For example, the show’s star, Tom Selleck, is seen repeatedly wearing the same shawl-collar cardigan sweater. Breaking this television “wardrobe taboo” feels like a deliberate “character statement”:
“This guy really likes this sweater. And you know what people partial to a particular item of clothing do? They wear it a lot.”
That’s what I do. I wear this Sarah Lawrence t-shirt I’ve got on whenever it’s clean. If this t-shirt were the word “successful”, I would be summarily drummed out of the “Smart Writers Club.”
So, what’s better, is what I’m wondering – “highly imaginative” or “readily identifiable”?
The Blue Bloods approach has gotten me thinking. Though I am unlikely to stop obsessing about deliberately repeating myself.