Today we’re very pleased to have Karen Conlin from Grammargeddon with us! Without further ado:
If I’ve told you once . . .
There’s repetition, and there’s repetition.
It’s something editors warn writers about all the time. Don’t repeat the same sentence structure throughout a paragraph. Don’t begin every sentence with the same word. Don’t use the same phrase every time X happens.
And yet, if it’s done well repetition is a powerful tool. The thing is knowing how to do it well and knowing when not to indulge.
When done well, repetition makes prose sound nearly like poetry. When done badly, it makes prose sound like—well, like bad prose.
He got up from the chair and walked to the window. He opened the window and looked out. He saw a rose garden across the street and noticed a woman walking. He closed the window and leaned his head against the glass.
By the time I got to the third sentence I didn’t care anymore. If the second sentence started differently, I might care. “Opening the window, he looked out.” Even better, what about combining the second and third sentences? “Opening the window, he looked out and saw a rose garden across the street, with a woman walking between the rose bushes.” (Assuming, of course, that the woman was really walking there. The original sentence doesn’t really say, does it? It just says she’s walking. There’s also the possibility of using a pronoun for “window,” to avoid repeating the noun, and of reordering phrases and clauses. “Opening it, he looked out and saw a woman walking between the bushes in the rose garden across the street.” But I digress.)
Before anyone asks: No, that’s not an actual excerpt from an actual project. I made it all up. I wouldn’t humiliate anyone by sharing their poor writing. However, I will say that it’s representative of much of the writing I encounter daily, either in projects or in independently published work.
So, what’s an example of repetition done well? One type is called “symploce,” a rhetorical device in which a word or phrase is repeated at the opening of two or more clauses and another appears similarly at the end. Usually this is done within sentences; however, I have seen it done at the paragraph level to excellent effect in this excerpt from The Minus Faction, Episode 1: Breakout by Rick Wayne. To me, it’s glorious in its use of symploce. This particular chapter opening is about the main character’s life before the present day, looking backward chronologically. Its first five paragraphs begin and end with the same structures and nearly identical wording. Then the structure changes until the last paragraph, which returns to those two sentence structures and wording for a final time. It’s gripping. I have Rick’s permission to share it here.
John lost his best friend in Suriname. He left Danny’s body in a ditch after shooting him in the head. . . . After the shot, John ran through the jungle, seventeen miles in a relentless rain, and mourned his friend. But when he made the extraction point, he put it away. For the unit.
John lost the only woman he had ever loved when she smiled and said her vows to another man. . . . John cried for his love in quiet, feather-light heaves. Then he went for a dawn run and put it away forever. For his friends.
John was overseas on his first big mission when his sister’s life fell apart . . . When he got back to base, there were new orders and he put his pain away. For his country.
John was seventeen when his stepmom sent his little brother to the hospital. He stayed with him until the boy made him leave. . . . He cried under his helmet before the game. Then he put it away. For the team.
John lost his mother in seventh grade. She’d been sick for months. . . . He cried the whole way. But as he hugged them in the parking lot, he put it away forever. For them. Their dad wasn’t a strong man. So John would be. Always.
. . .
John wiped his face with his good hand. He took a deep breath and put it away. For the unborn.
That repetition of “John [verbed]” and of “he put it away for X” where X is someone he loved or cared about is powerful, but not preachy. It’s visceral, but not verbose. Returning to it at the end of the chapter is a brilliant bit of writing, in my opinion, which brings the reader full circle. The skalds knew the power of repetition, of using specific structures and phrasing to make their words more memorable. I’m not saying that everyone who uses repetition skilfully is a skald, but I am saying there’s plenty of historical precedent. When done well, it’s an efficient tool in the writer’s toolbox.
Thank you to Karen for an interesting and insightful post.