I had been trying for days to find a topic related to creative writing for my next blog post. I was running dry, possibly because I haven’t written or edited my fiction in a while, and working on my fiction usually spurs some idea I can develop on my blog.
So I was pondering, and pondering, and trying to hit on SOMETHING that might work as a blog post. Eventually, I realized my brain was taking me down the same dead-end paths again and again. And then my topic came to me:
Repetition is one of those tools that can be extremely effective when used well, and devastating when used incorrectly or overused.
How much to repeat a point, and which points to repeat, will obviously vary based upon the story and the author’s style.
My personal feelings are that a more complex story might require more repetition in order to help readers keep things straight. We might need reminders from time to time of how all the pieces fit together. I know I usually do!
This is so easy to do in television shows: a quick throwaway shot, two or three seconds, to a previous scene as a character connects current events to the past, and BOOM. You’re done. With written fiction, things become more complex.
So, how do you use repetition well? You go with your gut, but you question your gut. You get organized, and you keep track of when and where information is repeated. You also rely on beta readers and editors. Their outside perspective is irreplaceable!
For the purpose of this post, I wanted to focus on different kinds of repetition, because not all repetition is the same. Different forms might serve you better at different moments.
1. WORD-FOR-WORD REPETITION.
There are various forms “word for word” repetition can take.
- Characters in conversation can repeat one another’s words asking for clarification.
- All people have catchphrases they use in dialogue.
- A word or phrase–“and,” “then,” “floor,” “wall,” “Annie,” “professor”– is repeated multiple times within the space of a paragraph or two.
- Every author has set phrases that he or she loves to write. And by “write,” I mean “use so much you might as well be beating it with a stick.” (Two of mine are “forced a smile,” and “exchanged/shared a confused glance with….”)
Word-for-word repetition can definitely be artistic, meaningful, or humorous, and worth keeping around. One of my favorite examples is from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
ALIEN: “Come, or you shall be late.”
HUMAN: “What do you mean, late?”
ALIEN: “What is your name?”
HUMAN: “Dent. Arthur Dent.”
ALIEN: “Late as in the late Dentarthurdent. Come.”
I, however, am no Douglas Adams. I find that in my writing, it’s generally best to delete as many examples of a repeated phrase as possible and then change what ones I can’t delete. Especially when the repetition was not intentional from the first.
2. CONTENT REPETITION: SUMMING UP
This kind of repetition is not repetition of a word or phrase, but of information. Something has happened. We might even have been present, through the narrator, and watched it happen. And then we have to sit through character A telling character B what happened, and then character C. After that, for good measure, character D might need to know, so we get to hear character B tell her about it….
When done sparingly, and after enough time has passed that a reader could use a gentle reminder that a past event is related to a different or a new event, content repetition can be wonderful. And there are lots of fun ways to do it.
- A quick, one paragraph “memory” that delves into a character’s brain as her or she makes the connection.
- A conversation between characters as one or more people reminisce for a reason or “connect the dots.”
As a reader, I find content repetition works best for me when it occurs in the middle of something important (i.e., something interesting.)
As a reader, what I already know is kind of boring. I don’t want a passage focusing on what I already know. If a passage focuses on taking “what I know” further, though? On revealing implications or causation? On clearing up a mystery related to what I know? THAT is fun.
3. CONTENT REPETITION: DEJA VU
This is content repetition, but with a twist. With “Deja Vu,” characters don’t keep rehashing the same event over and over. Rather, the same events keep happening to them with little variation.
Maybe the event recurs on a different day, or different time of day. Maybe, in the course of events, one character is substituted for another. Still, the same basic thing keeps happening. This is why series can sometimes wear out their welcome. They don’t shake things up or renew things, and the old formula turns stale.
Maybe Jane keeps being a klutz. Maybe Ralph keeps being awkward around girls and can never land a date, whether he’s always going after Julia or bounces from love interest to love interest. Maybe Kate is always misinterpreting people’s intentions, seeing ulterior motives where there are none.
Now, on some level, each of these tendencies are simply reflections of personality. There is room for repetition there: personality, by definition, implies consistency.
The key is to breaking “Deja Vu” is to find variation of results and of stimuli.
Maybe Ralph finds a girl more awkward than him, or one who is willing to give him a chance. Maybe Kate is right the third time she suspects bad intentions. Maybe Jane’s clumsiness brings her across the path of a Good Samaritan, or destroys a work presentation, or causes a falling out with her boyfriend after she injures him. Each of those results opens a unique door to Jane’s story.
What causes “Deja Vu” to be a negative thing–as I mean “Deja Vu” for the purpose of this article–is the repetition of a pattern. The repetition of cause and effect. If effect varies, or something else is the cause, then you have some variety. Something new and different to attract reader interest.
Now, all kinds of things can fall under the definition of “Deja Vu,” including criminal M.O. There can be a place for “Deja Vu” in fiction. And there can be a place, especially, for characters calling out other characters for making the same mistakes or for trying the same process over and over.
The trick to using “Deja Vu” successfully in your writing, if you do use it, is recognizing in-story that the pattern exists and again, having more going on so that the only thing readers have to focus on isn’t the “same old same old.”
So, what do you think of repetition of a literary device? Do you use it much? Is there a particular kind you like to use, or can you think of a use of repetition I skipped over?