Six impossible things

More than repetition

“There’s more to the theater than repetition. There’s more to the theater than repetition. There’s more to the theater than repetition…

“But not much!”  – The Flying Karamozov Brothers

There are some basic things about writing that people who’ve done it for a while tend to take for granted. I was reminded of one of them last week, when I was reading over a young writer’s manuscript and discovered a line of dialog that went something like this:

“Jack, why didn’t you tell Jane I would be here? It’s not fair. I knew that Jane would be here. ”

To be fair, it’s not really a particularly horrible line, and it’s also the sort of thing that shows up in my own manuscripts from time to time – but only ever in the zero-eth draft. Because there’s something about the repetition of “Jane … would be here” that just…bothers me. So if it were me writing it, then before anyone else got to see it, that line would get changed, along the lines of “Jack, why didn’t you tell Jane I was coming? It’s not fair. I knew that she would be here.”

Most would-be writers have at least some awareness that it’s a bad idea to repeat a word like “fewmets” or “rococo” too many times too close together (sometimes even twice is once too many) without a really good reason. Words that aren’t in common, daily use stick out a little, even when they’re just exactly the right thing to say, and repeating them makes them stand out even more. But it doesn’t always occur to people that the same effect can occur when two phrases are repeated, especially when they’re phrases we hear all the time, made up of ordinary, everyday words. And the closer the two identical phrases are to each other, the stronger the resonance they set up.

It’s easy to overlook such niceties during the white heat of getting a scene down on paper. It’s almost as easy to miss them during a review of the draft, especially if one hasn’t bothered to cultivate an ear for the look and sound of effective prose. It wasn’t until I settled in to write this post, though, that I realized that the real trouble with that original line isn’t so much the repetition, as it is that the repetition emphasizes the wrong thing.

Because repetition isn’t just a potential problem; it is also an extremely useful tool. The resonance between two or three identical or nearly-identical phrases or sentence structures can build emphasis and give more strength to the series:  “I wasn’t tired. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t sick. I was angry.”

In that dialog line above, the point is that the speaker is chewing out Jack for telling something to one friend and not the other. The phrase that repeats, though (“would be here”) is about the friends, not the telling. To get the emphasis back on Jack and what he said, I’d use: “Jack, why didn’t you tell Jane I would be here? You told me she was coming. It’s not fair.” Or maybe even “Jack, you jerk! You warn me that she’s coming, but you don’t warn her that I’ll be here? How fair is that?” The exact phrasing would depend on the voice of the speaker; either way, repeating the verb “tell” or “warn” points up Jack’s actions, where repeating “would be here” doesn’t.

On the other hand, if there were several people in the know, then the author might want to point up the fact that Jane has been left out by repeating: “You didn’t tell Jane I would be here? Everyone else knew I was coming – Greg knew; Sally knew; Jonathan knew; heck, even Geraldine knew! So why didn’t you say anything to Jane?”

Whether repetition is a problem or whether it’s a tool, the first step in correcting or using it effectively is noticing that it’s there. You can find analysis tools that will tell you how many times you’ve used each word in a manuscript, but when it’s a phrase or a sentence structure that’s repeated too often, the best help for it is to train your eye. Second-best is finding a helpful friend or colleague who will spot them for you.

Once you find a repeated word or phrase, the next step is to figure out whether it works or not, and if not, which occurrence stays and which one goes. A good friend of mine pointed out some time back that about 80-90% of the time, the one you want to keep is the second one, because the reason you repeated the word or phrase is that writing it the first time brought it to the top of your mind, so that the second use is the perfect spot for it. Note that this means the second time you wrote it, not the order the reader will read it…especially if you went back and added it in while revising a previous sentence or paragraph.

About half of the rest of the time, it’s like that sentence about Jane – you want a repetition in there somewhere, but just not the one you have. And the remainder of the time, it’s just fine the way it is. (Percentages vary by writer – some of us are more inclined to egregious and unnecessary redundancy than others.)

  1. I have a tendency to overuse repetition and my first readers always point it out. Thanks for the reminder on how to use it well!

  2. The last sentence of your post (the one in parenthesis) made me laugh out loud. Or, rather, gasp in a rather unladylike way which might make persons nearby wonder if I was having an asthma attack.

    And, advice taken (in– to think about). Thank you!

  3. I like the idea of not just avoiding repetition, but avoiding the WRONG repetition. 🙂

    • Alex – You’re welcome.

      S.A.Cox – You’re welcome, too. Thinking is good. 🙂

      Chicory – I think you just summed up about 3/4 of my blog posts in one sentence!

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