Friday, December 2, 2016

Prose Blip – Repetition

There are many stylistic choices we have to make, as writers. In fact, there are many stylistic choices we don’t even realize we make. They come to us as part of our voice, things we do unconsciously to make our prose different from your average textbook.
For instance, I tend to use random single-word paragraphs to add emphasis to certain concepts, and to build tension and emotion in the reader. In addition, the vocabulary I use fluctuates between simplistic word choices and spontaneous use of esoteric terms for no discernable reason.

One common stylistic choice is that of repetition. You’ll find it in movies, where a character action or short clip of movement is shown several times through the story to communicate a specific emotion or idea. For instance, in Gladiator, there are three or four (I can’t bother myself to actually go confirm which it is) times where the same basic clip of the main character running his hand through stalks of wheat as he walks through his field is used to communicate very specific concepts and emotions.

Today, I’d like to take a look at this specific stylistic style, and examine the ways it appears in the stories we tell and the powers and dangers therein.

The Character Repetition

When it comes to repetition and characters, there are two basic ways they work together: symbolic and developmental. The first is in the way a certain character represents something in several instances. A good example of this is Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. He’s repeatedly shown as a man of mercy and wisdom, as a way to create a theme.
The repetition comes in the similarity of the scenes where he is portrayed this way, because the scenes that show his wisdom and mercy are closely related and near-identical in layout.

The latter combination of repetition and character supports character development. You find this sort of repetition mostly in minor characters. We call these character handles, bits of characterization that we can identify them with: repeated use of a scar or a twitch of the eyebrow or the type of clothing they wear.
This sort of repetition is handy when we have a single-scene character who is never named but needs to be recognizable from the rest. It can be dangerous, however, to use this sort of repetition as sort of crutch: choosing to use character handles rather than actually developing characters.

Dialogic Repetition

Another sort of repetition, one that I feel is underused and a fantastic way to develop characters and your story world is that of repeated dialogue. Whether this is entire conversations or individual words, dialogic repetition has powerful implications on your story. Firstly, pay attention to conversations you’re a part of. You’ll find that people use a lot of the same words in many of their sentences. People have their “favorite” words, words they use a lot in conversation. Whether they’re actual words or some sort of pseudo-word that they use to mean something useful, they have those favorite words.
When a character has a word they use a lot, it shows their character. Whether it’s a beggar who uses “extravagant” a lot because it’s the biggest word he knows, or if it’s a Sicilian repeatedly saying “inconceivable”.

Another way dialogic repetition comes in handy is for showing worldbuilding. Many facets of worldbuilding – religion, politics, familial relations, economics/currency, and more will have words or phrases that are repeated quite often. Be it ritualistic words in a religious rite or a child calling their paternal figure “da” instead of “dad” or their aunt “sister-mum”, repeated use of these words and phrases can show a good deal of your worldbuilding without having to linger.
For instance, in Agram Awakens I have a religion that shows up repeatedly, and so I had to develop it. One thing I developed was the burial rites that people of this religion followed. This may seem odd, but considering the characters I had who followed this religion, this was extremely handy for my worldbuilding. I was able to use the ritual words of blessing along with actual burial practices to show a great deal about the characters and the world, all while maintaining the plot and pacing.

Word Choice Repetition

One of the subtlest and most powerful forms of repetition is that of word choice. This is one that requires a good deal of observation and experience to really notice, but once you can, those authors which do this stand out from the rest. Careful repetition of specific words can prime your reader to receive messages they couldn’t otherwise understand. I say prime because it’s unconscious unless they’re paying close attention.

It’s hard to fully describe this sort of repetition, because it is very subtle and unnoticeable. One of the best examples I can think of for this are the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne. While his purple prose can be difficult to push through, but once you do, you find beautiful imagery and some of the bluntest repetition you’ll find. The Christian Bible is also known for the repeating of specific words in a passage to encourage the right mindset; Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller also uses repetition, though it’s less obvious.

In short, word choice repetition exams the goals of the story/novel/scene and attempts to find key words that can be used in multiple ways and contexts to prepare and point the reader toward those goals and the outlying themes around those goals.

All repetition has potential to be powerful, done right. Whether your repetition is character handles, dialogic worldbuilding, or theme developing, it’s useful in many ways. Many, many ways.


  1. Ooh, I like the idea of the repetition in dialogue, favorite words and the like.

    I'm reading the Scarlet Letter for school in a few weeks, so I'll definitely keep an eye out for the word choice.

    1. Repetition in dialogue is actually my favorite kind. It show attention by the author, I feel, to character quirks that are more than surface level.

      Yes do! Sometimes he gets a little wordy and I don't always like his purple prose, but he's really quite good at many of the more technical parts of writing.