As a line editor, I am charged with finding those pesky repetitive words that detract from the story. Sometimes, if they are special words (words not used all that often in the narrative or in everyday life), I’ll even mark them as a “bad” repetition if they are in separate chapters at different ends of the novel. Call it nitpicking if you want, but fresh words are an asset to any writer. But what happens when using the same words is actually beneficial?
Well, let’s get started, shall we?
The easiest way to show effective repetition, is to give examples. Kirsten will be happy to know that I’ve chosen Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence as one of them. See, even romantic scenes get some love from me on occasion. The reason I’ve chosen this novel is that it uses repetition a lot—and it’s good at it.
Repeating Words to Emphasize
He laid his hand on her shoulder, and softly, gently, it began to travel down the curve of her back, blindly, with a blind stroking motion, to the curve of her crouching loins. And there his hand softly, softly, stroked the curve of her flank, in the blind instinctive caress.
Firstly, the repetition of adverbs “softly, gently” right next to one another is an example of what stylisticians call epizeuxis. The two words are synonyms, which is repetitive in itself, but the same style is repeated not more than one line down, again: “softly, softly”. Minus the phonetic properties of the words (which are arguably “soft” sounds), the repetition emphasizes the way he goes about the motion. This transfers to the character, too. The softness and the blindness of his actions could translate as any number of nouns to the reader: hesitance, instinct, compassion, desire. I’ll let you decide.
The “curve” repetition emphasizes the structure of her body. It’s syntactically repetitive (the sentences are structured similarly), but the words themselves draw attention to the physicality of the scene. Curves are round; they are softer than lines. The entire scene emphasizes the softness of the body and of the emotions, and gently draws the reader in.
Repetition Emphasizes Emotion via its Rhythm
And he stood up, and stood away, moving to the other coop. For suddenly he was aware of the old flame shooting and leaping up in his loins, that he had hoped was quiescent for ever. He fought against it, turning his back to her. But it leapt, and leapt downwards, circling in his knees.
There are two repetitions here I’d like to bring your attention to: “And he stood up, and stood away,” and “But it leapt, and leapt downwards”. The rhythm is in their similarity of structure. They repeat internally: “stood up” — “stood away” and “leapt” — “leapt downwards” and this rhythm translates into the emphasis of emotion. The character needs distance, so the author creates distance by repeating verbs that move in different directions. The two also repeat externally, too, and by doing this, the repetition only reinforces this need of distance as well as the character’s subsequent desire (and also where that desire is going): the conflicting desire between staying and going away. The word choices create these two different meanings through their similarity.
The author uses repetition of words as a clever opposition, too: the old flame leaps up in the character’s loins. But when he can’t resist it, his desire continues to leap down.
The more I read this, the more I see, so I need to step back before I bombard you all with 2000 pages of academic-worthy analysis. Despite my own interest in the topic, however, the uses of repetition in the examples above can be translated into your own writing. It takes practice: sometimes it’ll work, sometimes it doesn’t. But if you’re aware of you word choice, you can control the impact you’re making on the reader.