3 Kinds of Repetition You’ll Find in Fiction

roundabout-1265027-mI 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.


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.


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.


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?


44 responses to “3 Kinds of Repetition You’ll Find in Fiction

  1. Personally I like repetition of sound to create a rolling effect. It doesn’t always work so well on paper, as a read, but since attending my first Literary Festival I’ve tailored my writing around how it would sound when spoken. At least, so far as short stories are concerned. I’m not sure I’d take the same approach if ever I wrote a novel.

    Content-based repetition is effective so long as it’s very intentional and the author is fully aware of its presence. Unintentional repetition and repetition without purpose probably leads to those devastating effects you alluded to.

    • alliteration and assonance…. such awesome, awesome poetic devices!!! I love that you said this. There is a place for that kind of repetition outside of poetry, I think. And we novelists tend to overlook it for all kinds of reasons.

  2. Name repetition. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read where the next day I can’t even remember the names of half the primary characters because the names are used so sparingly. I have found that most of the books that have stuck with me the authors have done a phenomenal job of branding the names of their characters into my mind, usually by having their characters address each other by name frequently. It’s not something most people do in real life in everyday conversation, but strangely enough it doesn’t read weird in fiction.

    • This is a fantastic point!!! I hadn’t really thought about that too much, and now you have me evaluating my style πŸ™‚ I know I do tend to use (even overuse) character names in my books just because I’ve read too much Harry Potter and JKR does that. But names are essential! Personally, I will try not to use a name more than once per paragraph or right after a previous use. I’ll use a pronoun or a descriptor (such as someone’s occupation.) But I always come back around to the name (or try to!)

    • Miss Alexandrina

      Interesting. I’ve had readers tell me to cut more names from my dialogue as it does read oddly compared to real life. I, personally, like to use names, especially if in emphasis of a character’s emotional state, but I guess, as always, personal taste changes perspective.

      • I’m sure it’s like anything else, it can be overdone and different people will have differing opinions on when it crosses the line.

        As an example, I always think of the TV show “Psych” where the MC’s sidekick is always saying his name with exasperated annoyance. The show’s a comedy, so they can get away with overdoing it more. However, it’s still prominent enough that it became a joke in our house and we can’t hear the name Shawn without at least one of us using it as a curse.

  3. Any repetition I have in my story is never intended. I’m not that good of a writer to pull it off. My rough draft will be filled with it. My first revision is to weed it out.

  4. Really appreciate this post. And to think, you were straining for an idea? πŸ™‚ I have issues with repetition in all areas, but I do try to weed them out in re-writes. I find it difficult to imagine how much the readers knows/info they retain. I get the urge to drop in an old fact here an there, but pull back. Then I worry readers won’t see the dots joining or recall a pivotal detail. This is where CP’s/beta readers are worth their weight (if we’re lucky enough to find good ones). X

  5. I’ve only ever thought of repetition as being a ‘bad’ thing in my writing; this post has given me a lot to think about in terms of how it can be skilfully used. I tend to repeat plot events without even realising it – i.e. the same thing, broadly speaking, will happen to two separate characters or groups of characters – and, clearly this is something I need to stamp out. Of course, I never spot it until it’s time to edit. Thanks for a really useful post!

    • Glad you enjoyed the post! Editing is a good time to notice stuff like that. Honestly, for those of use who, like me, don’t enjoy using outlines, it might be the only time to catch it (besides mentally, before diving into a scene and writing it in the first place. And I’m not sure getting hung up like that before writing is a good thing. “Bad” or unneeded passages can always be scrapped or edited.)

  6. I agree with Kira, if names are not branded, passages can easily become hard to follow. This is especially true of dialog.

    I have a couple of paragraphs in my very first chapter having to do with repetition, but I am not sure how it fits into what you have described. There is a paragraph where the narrator explains how the character’s mother divorced her father, married another man, then divorced him and remarried her father. This was in explanation of how it affected her and her sister relative to having to move all the time.

    Then, I speak of the divorce, marriage, divorce and remarriage again later in the same chapter, and how it affected them and their mother emotionally…the trauma to her and her sister. The details are delved into. Not sure if it’s working to revisit that in the same chapter.

    The chapter is engaging and informative…not really and info dump because you are getting different information about their childhood…but repetitive. Not sure if a reader would appreciate the revisit.

    • Really awesome thoughts here, wow!!! My inclination is to say repetition in a first chapter might not be the greatest idea, just because, even if you know what are you doing and you have a purpose for doing it, it’s too early for readers yet to have developed a reason to trust that that’s the case: unless you can find some way to really make it interesting/artsy (and it might already be that!) Of course, that’s only generalities. Each book is its own special case so I’m not telling you what to do here. Just wanted to offer something to think about.

  7. Repetition is certainly a dangerous tool. I use number one to denote confusion and, as you said, get clarification. I’m not sure where it fits in, but I sometimes have characters hold more than one conversation on a topic over the course of a book. For example, a character having trouble with a romance might get into the ‘what should I do?’ conversation with multiple characters. So some of the ideas and phrases might repeat, which I see as natural because there are some incidents that people need multiple viewpoints on. Though it can get annoying in a book if done too much.

    • I love that you brought up the multiple viewpoints thing. I struggle with that because as you say, it’s necessary, but it’s tricky and can quickly become boring or tedious if all extraneous info isn’t cut…. Its very manageable, but difficult (at least for me.) So I admire writers who are able to write multiple interesting conversations about the same topic with seeming ease.

      • It does wear on me. So I occasionally to have the character get annoyed with having the same conversation. This even forces them to make changes.

        • that is an awesome approach!!! brings to mind my idea for a next post, actually. I already have it plotted out: how an author can demonstrate he or she understands something is frustrating to readers, and how that can help alleviate the frustration.

        • It’s a new trick for me. I realized it in my fifth book when it became very battle heavy. The characters became exhausted and some we’re showing signs of mentally crumbling. So I had a few of them talking about their fatigue, the chaos, and hoping it will end.

  8. Reblogged this on Daphodill's Garden.

  9. My favorite form of writing from Douglas Adams is when he tries for a short while to adopt a tense to use after traveling to the future.

  10. Ah, repetition. I always get so paranoid about whether or not I’m re-using various phrases over and over again–but fixing things like that are what revisions are for, so I try not to worry too much.
    The one thing I find difficult to balance with repetition is in horror. You want to have things in for that creep factor, but mention them too much, and the effect gets lost. For example, I have a character who does some…interesting things, let’s say, with eyes. It’s a core part of the character, but not all he is. So whenever he shows up, I have to figure out how to balance his eye gore with the rest of his attributes/personality/etc, so he’s more than just “that weirdo with the eyes,” and how to keep his actions fresh instead of, “oh look, he’s toying with more eyeballs, yawn, let’s keep going.”

    • wow, I don’t think many horror writers stop by here, so this was really interesting! you are so right about character quirks, whether they are horrifying ones or more mundane. They are important, and need to show up from time to time but they are also easy to over emphasize. I totally agree.

  11. I’ll sometimes get deja vu when reading the same rarely used word or phrase twice within a short time. It throws me out of the flow. I could be a little over sensitive to those so I try to avoid them at all costs. I am also very guilty, at least in last years Nano exercise (another reason I abandoned it) with the repitition of info. Like your example where different characters describe the same world changing event, albeit from their own perspective. I didn’t like it. Maybe the fact that it affected people in different ways gave it some promise but I wasn’t happy with it.

    • thanks for bringing up telling the same events from different perspectives. That can work, depending on how an author does it…. I think people like when no one knows EVERYTHING, so one version of events creates a question or problem that another perspective answers/solves. But it’s a matter of taste, I think, more than anything. πŸ™‚ Sorry to hear you abandoned your NaNo project. I’m still struggling to fix my 2012 NaNo project because I don’t want to give in! I probably should just call it a loss as well.

  12. Great post!! I think repetition and foreshadowing work well together. I use it when something a character said comes to pass. It’s like that scene in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of TWO TOWERS when SPOILER ALERT Aragorn recalls Gandalf’s words at a crucial moment at Helm’s Deep–“At dawn, look to the East.” END SPOILER ALERT. In my book a mentor character teaches the main character a truth about herself that dawns on the character later. So I repeat the mentor’s words.

  13. So, let’s talk about repetition in a plot over many books from the same author. (You touch on this pretty good in the last one.) Have you noticed that books by the same author often have books with the same kind of heroine, plot, bad guy, etc. Julie Garwood, a romance novelist, is a prime example of this. She write basically the same story, just changes the names, the setting, and a quirk or two. But she’s also a best selling novelist. So why does the same plot sell?

    I find this in lots of authors. Dickens constantly featured some kind of underprivileged boy from the street, unrequited with a love he doesn’t get. Poverty, a crazy person with bad intent, etc. All these elements exist in most Dicken’s stories (obviously not all of them. I think that’s why I adore Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities so much.) Anyway, I think it all comes back to authors ‘writing what they know.’ Dickens was forced into the streets as a young boy and had to figure out how to survive. He married a woman he didn’t love, and eventually worked his way into business.

    • You are SO right that writers write “the same thing” just tweaking here or there and changing setting/names. I don’t know how I feel about that in terms of judging it as a good or a bad thing. If people enjoy what you are writing, and writing what you know in that way fulfills you emotionally, why fix what ain’t broken, so to speak? Look at Dickens, I mean!!!! How much weaker would English language lit be if he had stopped writing the same plot?

      I always say writing is about the author. That we all need to write for us individually. So I really can’t judge authors for writing “the same thing.” Some people do, and others genre jump at incredible speeds. It’s all about the individual person…. and fascinating to think about!!!

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  15. Miss Alexandrina

    Ah, repetition. That has to be something I’ve extracted from manuscripts the most. Time-travel stories are tricky, because one wants the reader to understand, but one also wants them to get the science piece-by-piece, rather than having it all at once.

    One of my Betas has a very sharp eye against word-for-word repetition, so, as such, I have very few instances in one of my MSs. However, I think, handled well, it can be useful: a paragraph I can think of uses ‘cold’ three times to emphasise not only the physical coldness of the setting, but also the brother-to-brother hate.
    I also like that you mention catchphrases. They’re not something writers think of immediately – perhaps because they could be considered colloquial. But catchphrases – done well, anyway – definitely add flavour to dialogue.

    Do you watch The Big Bang Theory? I was reminded of Raj and Lucy when you said “Maybe Ralph finds a girl more awkward than him.” TBBT definitely uses a lot of deja vu ideas, but I guess that’s the episodic format.

    “You go with your gut, but you question your gut. ” Hmm, a summary of writing in general, eh? πŸ˜€

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  18. Thanks for that. I just went over a piece of my writing which I maybe used a little too much repetition in, so this has been a useful guide for editing. Also my sister and me were just discussing repetition in The Great Gatsby and the effect which it causes, but also the mood it sets (for instance the constant repetition of the rumours throughout the first chapters). I think if repetition positively adds to the mood of a story and enhances a sensation the author is trying to create for the reader then I’m all for it.

  19. This is kind of unrelated, but what tips do you suggest about quote set-ups and transitions in dialog between multiple characters?

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