Tips & Tricks: Repetition -- A Tool or a Weapon?
Repetition -- A Tool or a Weapon?
Repetition is a literary hammer. It can be an artful tool or sharp blow. It can build suspense or plant ideas. Mystery writers use it to leave clues and poets emphasize their points with refrains. However, it can also alienate readers who have grown up with NCIS, where the plot unfolds in forty minutes. And novices often bore their audiences with the old adage from business communications - tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you told them.
The technique can bring balance and playfulness to ponderous prose, but some writers worship at the altar of redundancy so often that "repetition" is one of the characteristics MWSA reviewers and judges evaluate in determining which books will win awards -- and which won't.
One of the most effective uses of the technique was in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Over the course of the novel, Heller uses a series of flashbacks to create an effect, spiraling around a single traumatic event. Yossarian is in the back of a bomber in a sky full of flak. Suddenly, wind is screaming through a hole in the fusilage. Each sequence begins with a voice on the radio calling, "Help him, help him."
Yossarian responds, "Help who?"
"Help him, help the bombadier!"
Yossarian says, "I'm the bombadier, I'm okay."
"Then help HIM!"
Yossarian takes off his headphones and heads into the belly of the plane to see what is wrong. A member of the crew, a boy named Snowden, is hit. In the early chapters, Yossarian remembers only Snowden's moans. Later, we see him trying to treat what he believes is a minor injury. As the plot develops, the visions become more detailed - and progresses until we witness Snowden's death. Somewhere along the line, we realize why Yossarian is haunted by this incident -- but the moment he finds the second, lethal gut-wound is still horrific. Heller builds emotional impact through this circular tease.
Here is the climax of Catch-22. If you haven't read it yet, it's worth a look from the perspective of the use of repetition within this passage too. (Death of Snowden)
Sometimes books are redundant because they haven't been properly edited. I read a piece last year where the narrator began a chapter by telling me that the protagonist was old. Two lines later, the character looks into a mirror and notes her own 'old' eyes in internal monologue. Three-quarters of the way down the page, the butler comments on how old his mistress has become and in the next paragraph, her niece describes her as 'old lace.' At that point, I screamed in frustration, "Enough!" and laid the book down in favor of Top Chef Texas.
Other times, it's a proofing issue. Using the same word two and three times in a sentence is seldom necessary since Roget invented thesauruses. Lawyers and tech writers do this because they are trying to be precise. I maintain that you can be clear without repeating yourself, but then I'm a stickler.
If you choose repetition as a strategic element in your work, think about the environment you are creating and how this technique will either enhance or detract from it. Decide how you want your audience to react and how you will elicit those feelings. Determine how much information you want to deliver and how much to withhold in each cycle. Consider pacing -- too many hammer strikes can create noise.
Once you have completed your effect, let it rest for a few weeks before tackling it again. Reading the pertinent passages out loud and recording it will help you judge how well it works. If you are still not sure, ask others to read it. If they don't "get" what you are doing without prompting, redo it.
Even if your writing is linear or less-literary, readers can help you find unplanned redundancies in your work. Fresh eyes see what you really write, not what you think you have written. If friends aren't willing to help with this little chore, you can hire professional proofers or work with critique groups. If you are suspicious that you might have overworked a word or phrase, your word processing package can help you find just how many times you have repeated "phantom" or "squelch."