Sunday, February 15, 2015

How to Revisit Events in Your Book without Being (too) Repetitive

In my last post, I wrote about using a modular structure in my book. Among other things, this lets readers dip in and follow discrete threads (for instance, the civil rights movement’s push for a workplace Constitution or federal agencies and the workplace Constitution).

So far so good, except that the past isn’t modular; instead, the book’s various stories interwove and shared important context. By unbundling them into discrete chapters, I risked foregoing needed context or content in a particular chapter or repeating the same events over and over across multiple chapters. I needed to somehow make the chapters self-contained while acknowledging relevant interconnections among them but still avoiding too much repetition across them. As stating the balancing act makes clear, this was a tricky problem.

I encountered three variants of the problem and designed a different solution for each. In the most common and easily resolved version, some concept or case popped up in a number of chapters, but only needed to be explained in-depth at first mention.  For instance, Steele v. Louisville & Nashville Railroad Co., a 1944 Supreme Court decision, crops up in almost every chapter in my book but it is unknown to many lawyers, let alone non-legal historians or any of the more general readers I might hope to attract. Luckily, it was also the dénouement of my first chapter. Having explained the case in depth in chapter one, I simply referred to it thereafter, usually with a descriptive phrase as a reminder (e.g., “the railroad discrimination case”) and perhaps a cross-reference to chapter one in the notes.

But even this easy example came with some more challenging wrinkles. First, explaining concepts and cases at first mention gave chapter one an incredibly heavy load to bear. Just when I was trying to gather some narrative steam to suck my reader in, instead I had to pause and explain another complicated, abstract, or dry concept such as “industrial democracy,” the state-action doctrine, or how the federal labor laws worked. To address this, I cut anything that did not absolutely have to be introduced to understand chapter one, saving anything I could for later. And even where some introduction was necessary, I tried to limit it to the bare minimum. Even so, I also had to reconcile myself to the fact that, with all the ground I had to lay for the book, its narrative steam might not fully gather until chapter two or three.

In another version of the problem an event or concept was very relevant to one chapter, but not to the first one in which it arose. Here, I followed my editor Sally Gordon’s sage advice to give your reader what she needs when she needs it. Resisting the temptation, for instance, to say everything about Barry Goldwater and the right-to-work movement when he first cropped up in chapter five, I let him be a minor character in the first few chapters in which he appeared. I devoted extended discussion to his views only in chapter eight, when I really needed him to explain how right-to-work advocates squared opposing Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with their efforts to amend the federal labor laws to prohibit racial discrimination by unions. My discussion of Goldwater crystallized conservatives’ turn to antidiscrimination as a useful anti-union issue, a trend that threaded throughout the book but gained salience in its later parts. Thereafter, Goldwater receded into the background again. I thought of this a bit like a zoom function on a camera—most chapters were zoomed out from Goldwater. In chapter eight, I zoomed in, switching him from background to foreground. For those following Goldwater’s appearances, hopefully the approach also built a little mystery: by chapter eight readers might be feeling sufficiently puzzled by his racial politics to be primed for the explanation.

Finally, sometimes an event was equally relevant in multiple chapters but for different reasons. For instance, Southern Democrats and Republicans held hostile hearings about the National Labor Relations Board and tried to repeal or amend its authorizing statute in the late 1930s and early 40s. This fact was relevant to my second and third chapter. I gave these events equal space in both chapters, but focused on how this congressional hostility made the Board cautious in chapter two and used the hearings to develop conservatives’ anti-union rhetoric in chapter three. As a result of this fix, when you read across the chapters you see familiar events from new perspectives.

There is only so much you can do to resolve these “what to put where” problems ex ante. Instead, I found myself shifting content around as I wrote and had to fine-tune my choices once the manuscript was complete. But the effort was worth it. In addition to avoiding too much repetition, it focused my attention on the microstructure of the book. Having pulled the book apart into modular segments, working out these problems helped me figure out how to knit them back together again.

What strategies have you developed for avoiding repetition when writing about interlocking stories or simultaneous events?

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