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The Law of Diminishing Returns

There’s something called the Law of Diminishing Returns and I apply it a lot to fiction when I give notes. It has several different applications, but the point behind each is the same: every time something is repeated, it has to be different.

Take, for example, action sequences in a novel or film. They sure are exciting. Until you have five of them in a row and they start feeling boring. That’s the Law of Diminishing Returns in action. Or sex scenes in a romance novel. Or conversations between friends that are meant to be funny. These can all have impact on a reader or viewer, but you have to be very careful with any repeating elements in your story.

The golden ideal in fiction is to have your action, relationships, imagery, tension, stakes–everything–build as you near the climax of your story. Your plot cannot plateau, and it certainly can’t slow down, as you go. Everything must also grow in significance. But if you have some redundant elements, like lots of classroom scenes or several fights between your protagonist and antagonist, those will lose significance and power each time and threaten to drag your plot down.

When you’re doing revision, go through your manuscript and isolate everything that repeats, whether it’s an encounter between characters, a setting, or a plot point. Then make sure that each is different enough from its predecessors and also that you craft its impact slightly differently from all the other times. If it’s a fight with a couple, let this fight plant a seed of doubt in the character’s mind about the future of the relationship. Let the next one inspire the character to stick it out and work through the issue. Let the final fight lead to a bout of the silent treatment, or whatever.

Sometimes you have to have things happen multiple times in a plot. If you can’t change that, change the impact or the significance or the character’s takeaway.

There are lots of ways to manage this issue and keep readers from experiencing Diminishing Returns. Being aware of the problem is the most important step toward fighting it.

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  1. Shirley’s avatar

    This is especially interesting because it is something many don’t actually think about. I discovered a few in my first round of editing. I’m now editing (second round) and I’ve been paying close attention for any diminishing returns. You summed it up in your last sentence quite nicely. Thank you for all your professional comments, advice, and insight. I’ve read everything, but this is my first comment.

  2. Dionna’s avatar

    Very interesting! I’ve never heard this advice before. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Gwen’s avatar

    So what you’re saying is, don’t be repetitive. If we have to have a plot element show up more than once, find a new way to present it. Have I got it?

  4. Chris in Virginia’s avatar

    Mary, great post. I try to watch for the repetitiveness in my words and dialogue, but your post today made me go back and think about location…where were my scenes taking place? I was revising yesterday a scene that involves a military captain and needless to say, I went back after reading your post and realized that all of his scenes (at least the first 3-4) take place in his tent. But the very same scenes could be out walking among the soldiers, or in the mess hall, etc. Doing so would offer a different perspective.

    Thanks again for great insight!

  5. Rick Crawford’s avatar

    Great suggestions. I’ve never thought of this in fiction. Variety is the key is what I hear you saying.

  6. Peter Dudley’s avatar

    Like others, I’ve not heard it said quite this way before. Since I’m about to start revisions, this is timely and a refreshing way to help me look at my text. Thanks!

  7. Adele Richards’s avatar

    I kiss your feet.

  8. Eric Luper’s avatar

    I tackled this very issue this morning in my revisions. I ended several chapters with my main character’s little sister suddenly disappearing to do something that propels the plot forward. Even though the device does speed things along, the act of her disappearing started to feel flat after the first time. I went through them one by one and changed them in ways to make it less repetitive. And guess what? It ramped up the momentum even more!

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