Prose Echoes

Here’s a subtle sign of hurried writing, or of insufficient proofreading and editing: echoes.

An echo is the undesirable and unintentional cousin of symmetry, or certain kinds of foreshadowing. It’s when a word or phrase, perhaps in a slightly different form or sense, is used more than once within a short passage, creating a subconscious feeling that something is wrong with the text.

Here’s an example from my own story, Let’s Get Started, in its initial draft.

The fact of the matter was that some things were right and some things were wrong, and it didn’t much matter what your opinion was. McEwan put his coat on, and left without another word.

The echo here is on the word “matter”. It’s used twice in the first sentence, albeit in two different senses, and the word is just uncommon enough that it’s jarring to find two instances of it in such close proximity. It has a discordant effect, and almost breaks the fourth wall in a careless way. It’s also very hard to notice when you’re doing it whilst writing. I’ve done it hundreds of times, and it pays to be constantly on your guard.

Here’s an extract from Drawn From Life, by John Glasby. As is immediately evident, it’s a Lovecraft tribute, presumably intended to evoke Pickman’s Model. These are the opening three consecutive paragraphs, and I’ve marked the echoes which hit me upon reading it.

Never had I thought I should have to write of the hideous affair of Antonio Valliecchi and the terrible happenings in the house in Mewson Street, for there are shocking events which occur on the very rim of human consciousness which are best kept hidden and unmentioned. The horrendous truth behind his death is something no one will believe. I am only writing this record now because I have heard vague rumours the authorities are considering pulling down those old houses and I dread what they might find in the one at the very end, standing alone on the hill.

This is the one where Valliecchi lived when he came to London in the autumn of 1975. It is an early-Georgian building standing in its own grounds. Very few outsiders know this area of London, right on the outskirts, well off the beaten track. I must confess I had no idea it existed until that night. Yet it was there Idiscovered that there are shadows in this world of which few are aware; and yet of which all should be afraid.

I lived in a little Mews off Chelsea at the time and was busy with my book dealing with the lesser-known contemporary artists and had taken to frequenting the older and lesser-known bookshops and art studios searching for material during the mornings, writing up whatever I had gathered in the afternoons and evenings.

Now, it’s certainly possible that Glasby is masterfully recreating the feverish, frenzied scribbling of his narrator, complete with authentic notes of inelegance; I’m more than willing to extend that line of credit. The third echo, in particular, could readily be style. Ultimately, though, it’s the smoothness and immersion of the reader’s internal voice which has to be our guide. Strictly speaking, I’d also probably flag the choice of “Mewson Street” in proximity to “a little Mews off Chelsea”.

I love Glasby’s story, and you should read it. And then, you should check your own work to see if you’ve perhaps accidentally introduced some prose echoes of your own. I do it every single week, and constant vigilance is the only defence.