Literary devices: repetition in books

Have you ever noticed? The best novels imitate reality. They don’t try to photocopy it.

In fact, reality is too thick and complex a tapestry, so made up of billions and billions of different threads, to be captured in its entirety. It’s a tapestry where each thread represents a different story–each going on at the same time all the others are also going on. Besides, as soon as we lean closer to a thread we discover it’s just as complex and vast as the whole tapestry. In a way, reality is a sort of fractal.

To navigate reality and understand at least part of it we need tools. These can be maps, songs, books, paintings, and whatever else can help us to make sense of the complexity we both live in and host within ourselves.

But given that we humans have eyes and minds that can focus only on a few details at a time, each of us experiences reality in his or her own unique way. In fact, when we share the same experiences with a person particularly close to us, we tend to focus on and notice certain things but not others. And even the way we do this is uniquely shaped by who we are. 

For example, I could consider beautiful a square because of the notable buildings that surround it. Instead, my wife might love it for its peculiar shape. Other people could be attracted by the colors and inviting fragrances coming from its innumerable coffee shops, or by the monuments and the trees you can find there.

By the same token, a book shows its author’s take on the world. Even when it’s written striving to be as objective as possible. Or, as it is often the case, to enter another person’s head.

In fact, if you tell your readers that a bird landed on a sill and pecked at some bread crumbs, doing so you are necessarily choosing not to describe all the rest–maybe that a young couple walked by hand in hand. Or that leaves whirled in the wind. Sure, you’ll be writing of a character, a fictional person who doesn’t think and behave the way you do in real life. Yet, only you could come up with that character. Only you could describe him or her in the way you did.

As for telling everything, always… Well, even if you wrote a ten thousand pages volume you would still be leaving out tons of things. As we have seen, reality, like fractals, is infinitely vast and deep.

However, even if a book is a human artifact–one that strives to present a story as coherently as possible, this doesn’t mean we should turn narration into didacticism.

Here I’m particularly referring to one of the simplest and more intuitive literary devices writers and creatives in general can use to put weight behind their works:  repetition.

Repetition in fiction

Repetition as a literary device can be used to achieve different goals.

1 – Give prominence to particular ideas, situations, or details.

2 – Underline the importance of a concept, an idea, or an objective.

3 – Help readers remember important aspects of the story they are reading

4 – To create particular patterns and so make the text more appealing, or easy to read.

Often repetitions carry out two or more of the above mentioned functions at the same time. For example, in The chain broke. It broke and fell to the ground with a sudden clunk, we have a detail that is sharply brought into focus–the breaking of the chain. An event that for the way it’s described must be of some import.

In the example above, repetition also produces a nice effect on the way the text reads. In fact the word “broke”, positioned just before the end of a sentence and then repeated at the beginning of the following one, foreshadows how with this breaking things are to change.

We can say we have a psychological movement, maybe from Captivity to Freedom, or maybe from Stillness to Action.

Of course, we could also write The chain broke and fell to the ground with a sudden clunk.

There’s nothing wrong with such a sentence. It’s perfectly fine. But we should be aware that in such a case the emphasis is a lot less apparent.

In short, with repetition we create micro-tension. Without repetition it is as if we took a step back and described the event from a more objective point of view. Beware, I’m not saying the second phrasing wouldn’t work. I’m just saying that it can have a distinctly different effect on your readers.

Speak, memory

Repetition can also be used to help readers remember important aspects of the story they are reading.

However it is important to understand how to use it in such a way as to render these repetitions as invisible as possible to your readers.

For example, lately I read a fantasy novel set in the Middle Ages. In this book an enemy army has first invaded a country, and then settled in it.

Given that the invasion is inextricably linked to the development of the whole story, it is reasonable to repeat a few times how grim and desperate the situation is for the citizens of the invaded country.

Unfortunately to do so the author keeps repeating in a didactic style always the same things. That warriors couldn’t wear weapons. That ever new and outrageous laws kept being passed, and on and on.

In short, this reiterated explanations were terribly boring. Because even if I have the attention span of a drunken hamster I don’t like the impression of reading over and over always the same couple of pages.

In such a case, if the author had wanted to emphasize how difficult life can be for those who live under the occupation of a foreign army, he should have avoided repeating those damn two pages so often.

Or, better still, he should have thought up some scenes to exemplify such predicament.

For example an insolent boy might have mocked a warrior for his sword made of wood.

A judge asked to intervene in a dispute might have seen his authority wrestled away from his hands and put into those of an idiot–of course, an idiot of the occupying army.

In this way each scene would have reinforced the significance of all the others. Besides, in this way readers would have gone deeper and deeper in the story instead of being so often and so bureaucratically reminded how troublesome is to be invaded.

Think about it. In this way we have repetition of a general concept through the instantiation of several different scenes. A win win.

A last word

Don’t worry about repetitions until you have finished your first draft. I’m not saying this because all first drafts are horrible messes, though almost invariably they are, but because until you haven’t finished telling your story you can’t be sure of what is repetition and what is not.


Pictures: Marcocarli – kellepicscortixxx

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