There are a lot of articles out there that give writing advice. I’ve come to realize that one of the lesser talked about issues (and one of my personal favorites) is repetition. Most posts I’ve read primarily touch on how not to use repetition, not how you should. So seeing as textual repetition is my secret (read: not-so-secret) love, I figured I’d do the opposite: write a few posts to show you how to use repetition to the benefit of your work, because repetition, when used correctly, can prove to be one of the most powerful tools in a narrative.
But, first things first, what is repetition?
Well it’s harder to define than it seems, and there are actually half a billion academic terms for the various types, depending on when and where they occur in a sentence or word. Basically, repetition occurs on all levels of a narrative: repeated words, repeated phrases, clauses, and syntax, repeated ideas or expressions, repeated sound patterns, repeated structural techniques. (See what I just did there?) The list goes on, actually.
And what does repetition do? Well, its main goal is emphasis, and just as repetition may occur on all linguistic levels, so too does its emphasis on the reader: on emotional, physical, and mental levels. That’s the beauty of it. Not only does it connect areas of the text, it also connects the text to the reader: from the basic structures to the abstract semantics.
So that next week I can get on to the part I love, let’s get the bad, negative stuff out of the way. When should one not use repetition?
1.) When the rhythm becomes too predictable.
2.) When the reader notices the fact that you’ve repeated the same words or ideas.
3.) When it’s more of a distraction than an asset.
And when does this happen?
Badly Repeated Words:
There is a time and place for repeating words, and I’ll get into that at some other point, but in general, it’s bad practice to overuse a word, especially within a small portion of text.
Example: She stepped out onto the street, looked about, and purposely strode in the direction of Booth Street, weaving in and out of street vendors and less savory characters. (Sentence contribution courtesy of Robyn.)
There are two primary repetitive problems with this sentence: the repetition of the word “street” and the repetition of the word “out”. Even to the untrained eye, they are immediately visible distractions. A change of vocabulary will keep the prose fresh for the reader (and will refrain from launching them out of the story).
Badly Repeated Syntax:
Syntax is the way we arrange sentences, and the way we arrange sentences is important to rhythm. It may be one form of repetition that is less obvious to the author at first, but it’s immediately noticeable to someone who is reading your work for the first time. As I said, this is where you form your rhythm, and if it’s consistently the same rhythm, you run the risk of boring your reader.
Example: I went to the store. I bought some eggs. I went home.
Despite the simplicity of these sentences, there are several issues of repetition here. Firstly, the repeated pronoun “I” is not only a repeated word, but it’s used repeatedly to start the sentence, which means the subject never once changes. But that’s not the only reason these sentences are so repetitively boring. Check out the syntax structure: Subject + Verb+ Object/prepositional phrase. There is no variation from that pattern. Most people would suggest combining the sentences: I went to the store to buy some eggs and then went home. Not much more interesting, but at least it gets to the point.
Repeated Ideas or Information:
Not only is repeating ideas distracting, but it’s somewhat insulting to the reader’s intelligence. It’s possible to repeat themes, for instance, but if you have characters repeating information over several pages, that’s going to gnaw on the reader’s insides. Repeatedly. Don’t do that. Don’t gnaw away the reader’s brain.
One example I can think of is from a book I recently (several months ago) read. The character always performed the same motions when she sat down (with the same wording, too). Something like: “She sat on the chair and tucked her legs beneath her.” At first, this was used to emphasize the character’s issues with trusting people. Eventually, I started noticing she did it every time she sat, and then I started wishing the author would find different words to show the character’s wariness of people. It was so noticeably repetitive that I still remember this. (I went and actually ran a count of how many times the author wrote it into the novel.) Avoid this by finding different ways to describe a character’s actions.
For a prose writer, repetition will make or break the text. Too much in the wrong way is going to drive your readers crazy (perhaps off the nearest cliff), but just the right touch of it can help hone that emotional moment you were working on, for instance, or call attention to the right parts of a scene in just the right way. Most importantly, however, repetition will give your writing rhythm. Want to write poetic, lyrical prose? Learn the art of repetition.