Beware Groundhog Day

Probably the thing I loved most about this movie was just getting a new term for the same ol’-same ol’ phenomenon.  My husband walks in. I say, “Hey, sweetie, how was your day?”

The movie gives him another option to choose from:

  • Grunt
  • Same shit, different day.
  • Groundhog Day

What was cool in the movie, though, was that it wasn’t ACTUALLY the same day over and over. Not for the viewer. Part of what makes it enjoyable is looking for the things that are the same, and for the things that Phil does differently and the way that changes events. So Groundhog Day, the movie: sweet, funny, entertaining.

Groundhog Day

  1. A movie in which a character must relive the same day over and over until he gets it right.
  2. A description of a day, or other experience, that feels tediously repetitive.

Movie = good, in life = blah, more often than not. But what about books?

The reason I bring this up is because lately I’ve noticed a personal intolerance for Groundhog Day.

The way a lot of books are written now is very visual and very TV/movie-like. Which I like. And in TV and movies, there are often only so many sets. So in a story, there are going to be places that are familiar to your characters and your reader, places they keep going back to because they have to (like school), or because they’re comfortable there (like a favorite coffee shop). Some familiar places that come to mind would the Sunnydale High library, Roswell’s Crashdown Cafe, Keith Mars’ PI office, Clark’s loft in the barn.

Having these kinds of familiar places in books is good, partly because it provides a kind of shorthand for the reader. We once we’re into the story, we don’t have to keep describing places as much because the reader already knows where we are, what it looks like, and how it relates to the life of the character. We can all concentrate on what’s happening.

But I think I get fouled up when there’s too much sameness. When there’s a combination of same place and similar sequence of events that feels like a Groundhog Day. When I feel the characters and I are experiencing a similar set of events, a change affects a different outcome to the scene, but the scene itself doesn’t give me enough that’s unique to make me feel the gift of having read it. (I’m big on gifts to the reader. Don’t get me started because I have to out this morning and there’s a towel on my head.)

I’m lazy. Even in my head. If you take me from one location to another, I like there to be a reason. Because, yes, people meander and take drives and go to coffee shops for no reason (even though they invariably stink like coffee). But characters aren’t really people. That’s why we don’t need to be in on their brushing and flossing habits either, unless it has something to do with the DNA trail or there’s a zombie behind the shower curtain.

So if we have to go into school again because that’s the time of day this scene takes place, that’s cool. I get the necessity of that. But I don’t need to go through the whole approach to the school, the bell rings, visit my locker, get a dirty look from the same person in the same place as yesterday. Too many same place, same sequence things feel like tedium, rather than a gift. Start where the new stuff happens. If there was something important in that sequence for me to see or experience, it’s important to find a way to make that new for me.

This is on my mind because I’ve complained about it a few times recently, and I’ve got a Groundhog Day twin-set of scenes in Heroes that I know will have to be combined or in some way fixed. It’s such an easy thing to fall into when you write because you know it’s different this time, and sometimes don’t realize–it’s really not different enough.

So what about you, readers? Is this all in my nit-picky head, or do you experience Groundhog Day when you read too?

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Beware Groundhog Day

  1. I’ve never really thought about this. My soon to be released novella has to move from place to place because that’s key to the story. But there’s kind of a groundhog thing about what happens in these places; because it has to be that way. I like the reference you made to the library in Buffy. That’s kind of “their place”. But it’s not boring because their quirky dialogue makes it fresh and new every time. So I think it depends on how the whole thing is handled. To be honest, I’ve never really noticed this problem in anything I’ve read. But I’m much more forgiving of a story than you are. Bwa ha ha. If it entertains me, I don’t care if it’s perfect.

    • Yeah, they also don’t make a big deal about the library, unless it’s relevant. It’s not that I’m saying don’t do it, I was just saying I think it’s the kind of thing we need to pay attention to, because it’s easy to not realize that it’s getting tedious.

  2. Uh, no. LOL. I must be a lazy reader, if there are too many different places and characters, I start to skim because I haven’t got a fooking clue what’s going on. 🙂 I’ve been known to flick back a few pages trying to figure out where the characters are. (And don’t even get me started on pointless characters that have no purpose and could easily be condensed into one useful character).

    I quite like it when there’s a safe place you know they can go to, I loved the library in Buffy, it was hard for me to get over its loss. A familiar location helps ground me in the world.

    Similar to Lauralynn – as long as it entertains me, I really don’t care. 🙂

  3. I admire the way modern TV series – Law and Order in particular – cut out all the ‘getting there travelling and arriving in helicopters and cars, etc.,’ you see on old police procedurals, the kind of thing I think Susan is objecting to in books. This series also uses the same sets obviously week in week out, the stories take place a lot in the sets, the cases are different but the sets remain the same. And it is reassuring to revisit these, the story is stabilised somehow. Personally I find stories where the characters move from set to set, never revisiting the same one, road movies, that kind of thing intensely irritating. I like the story to move around within a finite number of places.

    E-books suffer from the same problem as audio books, in that it’s a bit tricky thumbing back thru to check up and remind one who a character is – be difficult to read a Russian novel in E-format I would think, with all that exotic nomenclature. Perhaps e-books should have a list of characters at the front, like dramatis personae in a play, for quick reference.

  4. Carolyn Williamson

    I enjoyed reading Hush Money. You seem to have captured the teenage scene well. I liked the way things kept getting worse as the problems kept escalating for the characters.
    Carolyn Williamson
    (I belong to a large writer’s group with lots of YA writers, so I hear a lot of stories in that genre as we read aloud at each meeting. Feel free to copy my short review if you wish.)

  5. For me, I have no problem revisiting a place and the actions if there’s a reason. But if there’s no reason for duplicate actions, or if it APPEARS that there is no reason, I will skip it. And though I know in doing so I will sometimes skip important stuff, I just can’t be bothered to read the same actions too many times. Better to skip the section than put the book down entirely.

    • Yeah, I often wish I were better about knowing when it’s time to just skip to the next part, rather than reading through and then being really annoyed because I feel like I’ve wasted my time.

  6. Pingback: S. V. Rowle » Blog Archive » Groundhog Day Syndrome

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