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The Power of Repetition

July 5, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 13, 2013

Repetition is a powerful force in fiction. It can emphasize setting, highlight a character trait, draw attention to a seemingly minor detail.

Repetition can also drive your readers crazy.

Repeated words, repeated information, repeated sentence construction can turn your reader’s attitude from eager interest to downright hostility. Face it, there’s not much more irritating in a novel than reading the same events again and again. Or the same phrases. Or the same unusual word used three times in five pages.

Yes, readers like connection in their stories. But they certainly don’t enjoy overkill—Fiona and Ed walked the avenue, the most beautiful of the avenues surrounding central Paris. Of the roads and tree-lined avenues, the one just outside their hotel was the prettiest avenue.

Single-word repetition is often easy to spot. Yet sometimes its use does get past a writer. Be sure to proof your work for this irritant.

Information that’s repeated until a reader wants to throw your book across the room is also a problem. Tell the readers once. Repeat if you have to, using different words, a different character, a different tone. But don’t treat your readers like students who have to be told a point again and again. They find repetition of this kind more than annoying. And you lose readers when they’re annoyed.

Character description is often repeated in novels. How to avoid the annoyance factor? Give it a twist. If a character has unusual eyes and you’ve already said so, show how those unusual eyes affect another character rather than repeating that they’re unusual. Build on what you’ve established rather than saying the same thing.

Repetition That Works
Lest you think all repetition is bad, here’s a reminder that it can be strong rather than annoying.

Repetition is great for making a point, for creating a mood, for establishing rhythm. Sometimes a repeated word or phrase hammers home a point. And as long as you don’t overuse the technique, it can be powerful and effective.

Robert intended to leave a legacy, a legacy that would remind his children where he’d come from. Where they’d come from.

Because it’s noticeable, repetition has great power in fiction. It can drive the reader away or draw him deeper into your imaginary events. Repetition can weave threads to hold your reader close or pound at your reader until he gets the unintended message—leave this place; there’s nothing new here.

Use repetition, but practice restraint as well. Repetition should be effective without calling attention to itself. While you want readers to experience effect, you don’t want them noticing the cause.

If you’re writing long fiction, you’re trying to entertain your reader, hold him with your storytelling skills until he finishes the story. Yet, if he sees the mechanics, the underpinnings of the tale, he’s no longer involved in the fiction but in the elements that create the fiction. The reader doesn’t want to see Oz behind the curtain, manipulating him. He just wants to enjoy the manipulation. After all, he’s willing to believe your lies. He’s willing to invest time with your imaginary world. He’s willing to let his emotions be stirred and to put his mind to work to figure out the resolution before he reads it.

He doesn’t really believe there’s a serial killer loose in Dallas, picking off husbands of female cops. But if you write the story well enough, he’ll indulge himself and join his imagination to yours and he’ll act as if he believes, at least for the time it takes to read the novel.

Keep him involved. Keep him interested. Don’t give the reader an excuse to doubt that what you’ve written could happen—did happen—and that there’s something vital at stake for your characters and for himself.

As you use other writing tools, use the power of repetition to strengthen the fiction, the story, the emotion. Refuse to let it come between you and the reader’s enjoyment.

Tags: ,     Posted in: Craft & Style

4 Responses to “The Power of Repetition”

  1. Vivian A says:

    Repetition of background details is probably one of the most annoying things in a novel. When an author feels the need to relay the same data in the same manner it just implies that I haven’t been paying attention. Well, I was, but now that you’re going to treat me this way I’ll zip through faster because I don’t have to worry about missing anything.

    Repetition for emphasis, as in your example, is a potent rhetoric tool. Used judiciously it gives the writer an unparalleled authorial command.

  2. Excellent tips, Beth. It’s a challenge to find that perfect mix of repetition and unique. I recently caught where I’d used “of the stage” in FIVE sentences in the same paragraph. Down right annoying, it was, so I rewrote parts of it. I like to repeat something in the novel as the final line of the book. It sort of ties everything together, somehow. At least, I think it does.

  3. Beth says:

    Olivia, I know exactly what you mean about tying the final line to something used earlier in the book. I love to do that myself and I love reading it in novels.

    Vivian, I wished I’d thought of unparalleled authorial command.

  4. Kat Sheridan says:

    Excellent article, Beth, and one of the things I’m most guilty of. After so many years of writing instruction manuals, where you have to repeat info in different ways for different learning styles, it’s a sad habit I’ve carried into novel writing. I’m adding “repitition” to my list of things to review on re-writes!

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