By Writing Excuses | September 27, 2009 - 9:00 pm - Posted in Guest, Theory and Technique

John Brown rejoins us for this discussion of  repetition. How do we, as writers, avoid repeating ourselves? We’re not just talking about the literal re-use of words and phrases here. We’re interested in avoiding the re-use of themes, character arcs, and plotlines.  Forget the problems Howard might have coming up with a new joke… he (and all of us) need to reach further than that to keep things fresh.

This week’s Writing Excuses is Brought to you by Servant of a Dark God by John Brown.

Writing Prompt:  The princess is trying to eat a pie, but someone is trying to stop her. Oh, and the fate of the world depends on the outcome.


This entry was posted on Sunday, September 27th, 2009 at 9:00 pm and is filed under Guest, Theory and Technique. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.


  1. September 27, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    […] As usual, the guys had some great insights. Check it out: How to Not Repeat Yourself. […]

  2. September 27, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

    I can’t imagine trying to do the pseudo mad-libs to create the characters or plot for my story, which means at some point I have to try it I think…

    Posted by Patrick Sullivan
  3. September 28, 2009 @ 9:54 am

    That must be one heck of a pie!

    Posted by Jake
  4. September 28, 2009 @ 11:31 am

    While I look for originality in any book that I consider reading, I have to say that redundancy is pretty powerful, and can hook a lot of readers. Because, lets face it:

    We do not want Gilligan to get off the island.

    We do not want Superman to permanently die.

    We do not want a Star Wars movie where the good guys barely mention the force (even though we got three such movies in the past decade).

    And we do not want the magic-sword-toting hero to discover, halfway through the book, that he feels he can better save the world by becoming a cosmetic surgeon who lives in a sitcom world where laughtracks actually happen.

    There will always be some unoriginality and repetition in every great story. Some archetypes were meant to be broken, and some are unbreakable natural laws. What I’m trying to say is this: Don’t be too hard on yourself. If one of your books is similar to another, don’t fret. Because it seems sometimes like creative people worry themselves into the ground.

    Posted by AlanHorne
  5. September 28, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    Yes! I got started with TMNT & Other Strangeness too!

    Really appreciated the discussion. Recently a friend and I made a decision to discontinue a webcomic we were working on, partly because it got too hard to not repeat ourselves. We will definitely make use of your advice while working on our next webcomic.

    Posted by Michael Dozark
  6. September 28, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

    As jazz musicians (or composers), we use repetition all the time to set up expectations, then change it at the last moment to (hopefully) pleasantly surprise the listener. The challenge is to make sure it doesn’t become redundant. I believe this same principle can be carried out in our writing.

    Posted by Berin
  7. September 28, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    Wow, this gives a lot of good insight. I have that problem like none other. I blame me creative writing class, because it wasn’t AS bad before I took my most recent one (well, it’s more like I didn’t NOTICE it was that way). I really like the advice given. And the random plot generator mentioned in the podcast finally got me to buy XDM (I’ve been on the edge for awhile). So I guess this episode was a great salesptich as well as great advice.

    Posted by Spencer Conrad
  8. September 28, 2009 @ 8:26 pm

    I think there’s a certain advantage in repeating themes as an author. You DO get to write what you’re interested in, but readers also get to read what they’re interested in. The first book of Brandon Sanderson’s I ever read was Warbreaker, and I loved it. When I looked to see what Mistborn and Elantris were about, I could see they had similar themes; themes Sanderson did really well. So I was confident I would enjoy the books and wasn’t disappointed.

    As long as the themes are kept fresh like the podcasts suggests or explored in new ways, I don’t think authors should worry too much. They may find fans who are glad they know where to look to explore certain concepts reliably.

    Posted by Jack
  9. September 29, 2009 @ 1:39 am

    Was it just me or did this episode end rather abruptly?
    I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially the part about turning your repetitions into a theme, tres cool.

    Posted by WEKM
  10. September 29, 2009 @ 11:59 am

    Speaking of repetitions. Brandon you ARE the religions and cool magic systems guy… 😉

    Posted by Jake
  11. September 29, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    I really don’t think that repition is as bad as we think. The important thing is that we avoid formula. Many of the literary greats repeated themselves. Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Austen and so many others. In genre fiction we have Tolkien, Asimov, Jordan, Brooks, Herbert, and so many others. All of these writers leaned heavily on repeating themes, and I would like to think that these are the kinds of authors that we are trying to be like.

    The difference is that we need to avoid formula fiction. Think of Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. That was formula fiction, because it did the same thing every single book. The important thing is to take a new look at your recurring themes. Approach it from a new angle. Throw in some unexpected elements. This correlates with the idea of recombination.

    Essentially, we can repeat things, but we have to add some fresh elements.

    Posted by Matthew Watkins
  12. September 29, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Another great podcast, especially good point about getting to the root of what your story is all about and making sure to take future stories in different directions if you keep that same root or seed. I had the same feeling when I read Eddings’; Belgariad was great, Mallorean was slightly derivative, but ok because it continued the story and gave it a bit larger scope. But the Elenium threw me, from what I recall (it’s been a while) it was decent enough but too close of a copy to the basic premises of his prior novels for me to really get into.

    Posted by Clifton Hill
  13. October 1, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

    Here we go again — a transcript.

    Posted by Mike Barker
  14. October 2, 2009 @ 10:30 am

    I want know if Mr. Brandon Anderson will make a second part of Elantris I like know what will happen with the impire fjordell, arelon, new Elantris and our heroes… please say me what do you think????

    Posted by Luis Montero
  15. October 3, 2009 @ 2:36 pm

    I could be wrong on this one, but as far as I know the only sequel he’s planning on (aside from Way of Kings stuff) is for Warbreaker.

    Posted by Raethe
  16. October 4, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Excellent podcast, I often worry that my desire to get my characters into close combat is going to lead to repetitive scenes, so I found this podcast really useful.



    Posted by Andrew Jack
  17. October 12, 2009 @ 6:11 pm

    Does this writing prompt call for actual pie or metaphorical-or-allegorical pie? Either way, I’m hungry, and I’m going to write something now. Thanks for another great episode!

    Posted by Carla
  18. November 4, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

    […] debut novelist who Howard helped interview in two recent episodes of the Writing Excuses podcast: How Not to Repeat Yourself, and Emotion in Fiction with John Brown. If you click the links you can listen to the podcasts […]

  19. December 8, 2010 @ 3:31 pm

    I picked up listening to this podcast earlier in 2010 and hadn’t listened to this episode until now, so it’s probably a bit late but on the extreme off-chance that anyone looks through the comments on this, I actually translated the tool that Tracy Hickman created that Howard mentions in this episode, taking it from paper “roll the dice and turn the page to find out your answer” into a javascript-based app that selects your words from an array based on how it fits into the sentence. I posted it over at the XDM forums after getting Mr. Hickman’s approval and he seemed to like it. Much easier to show than explain: http://wwwdotstgeorgegamingdotcom/storybuilder. I’ll be adding to it soon, he mentioned he’d be interested in hosting the code on their official XDM site so we’ll see how that goes too.

    Posted by Chris
  20. June 22, 2011 @ 7:00 pm

    […] been mentioned in passing in at least two Writing Excuses episodes (Season 2, Ep. 12 [transcript]; Season 3, Ep. 18 [transcript]). The way it manifests itself in his work is not necessarily uniquely Mormon, but […]

  21. August 7, 2012 @ 1:04 pm

    Don’t worry Brandon, I really enjoyed the different takes on divinity and a “City of the Gods” in Warbreaker and Elantris. I couldn’t help but notice, but I thought you succeeded well at making them two entirely different stories that happen to include a similar theme.

    Posted by Burst
  22. March 13, 2013 @ 9:15 pm

    FYI: The MP3 for this episode is only 2:26 or so long.

    Working my way, slowly, toward the current season. The podcast is very helpful and greatly appreciated.

    Posted by Nik
  23. March 28, 2013 @ 3:58 pm

    Man I learned a lot from this episode. Man I leaned a lot from this episode.

    Posted by Jared Serra