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Fiction Crimes Part 4: Repetitious Repetition
There are times when repetition adds gusto to your story, but it can also detract from what you’re trying to say. Here are some guidelines to help you decide when to use it.
Repetition is good when:
It heightens impact - Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic speech on racism includes eight instances of ‘I have a dream’. That phrase becomes a refrain, adding emphasis to each new point so that you feel like cheering by the end. Repetition is also effective in poetry and lyrics.
A reminder is needed - Well-placed repetition can help readers keep track of relevant points, especially if the novel is part of a series or if there’s an intricate plot with lots of characters. For example, if you mention that Bob’s a builder in Chapter 2, but we don’t see Bob again until Chapter 10, you could include something to tweak the reader’s memory (e.g. ‘Let’s ring Bob and see how much he’d charge to build that new deck.’)
It’s essential to the plot - Repetitive dialogue might be a trait of your protagonist or repeated phrases could highlight the tedium experienced by a character (e.g. working on a production line in a factory).
You’re writing for young children - Repetition can help children learn words and grasp different concepts.
Repetition is bad when:
It’s lazy writing - For example, using the same word or similar words in one sentence, such as:
‘Miranda asked a passer-by the way to the park and made her way across the street.’
Rather than using ‘way’ twice, change one of them (e.g. ‘Miranda asked for directions to the park and made her way across the street’ or 'Miranda asked a passer-by the way to the park and crossed the street'). Instead of ‘she sat on the seat where Tom was sitting’, say ‘she sat on the sofa next to Tom’.
It’s unimaginative writing - Sometimes writers have pet words (e.g. very, great, really). Rather than saying things are ‘really good’, try ‘fantastic’ or ‘idyllic’ for a change. A Thesaurus is helpful, but be careful not to go to the other extreme, filling your prose with exotic words that jar the reader out of the story.
It lessens impact - Your reader might be moved by your description of the trickle of blood that left ‘vermilion teardrops on the snow’. However, as 'vermilion' is an unusual word, a subsequent reference to ‘vermilion autumn leaves’ would take away from the previous description. Raymond Chandler used to write metaphors down in a notebook and then cross them off when he’d used them. Why not try something similar.
It serves no purpose – This point should be the final arbiter. Unless you have a good reason for including them, leave those repeated words, phrases and descriptions on the cutting room floor. Your public will thank you.
Can you think of any other good or bad examples of repetition?