writing craft: the art of repetition

Since I’m taking a break from my book, I’ve decided to write a bit about craft and technique.

Repetition is a subject that I don’t see nearly enough coverage in craft essays. True, it is not a necessary element to a book, of less importance than characterization or plot. A writer does not need to know this to make a good story. Still, it is a tool that a writer may use to strengthen the elements in their story, and well worth thinking about.

When a reader sees a character behave in a certain way, they make judgments about that character. They will expect this character to do something similar when placed in another situation like the first. The reader judges the character by his actions and his insinuations. This is characterization.

When the character repeats himself as expected, this is called consistency.

And if three characters do similar things for similar reasons at different times, though their situations and their personalities differ, this is a repeating motive, one of the elements of repetition. It enhances a theme in your work, it sets the tone of your story. It plays with the prejudices the reader has toward your world, your events, and your characters.

Repeating elements can be used for foreshadowing. Say that four characters have a gun in a story. The reader will anticipate a time when someone draws it, will assume a need for weaponry (either in the situation, or because of characterization), and adjust their attitudes accordingly. It will be off-putting if no one makes use of said guns in some manner. Even if they’re not drawn, reliance on a weapon when fighting something like hunger can be a potent mental image.

Repeating elements are a base. They make the reader familiar with the setting. Let a church be a setting for a particularly happy scene. Take that same church, put some different characters in, and have something terrible happen. Put the church in again a third time, and the reader will have some very strong emotional connotations with that location.

4 thoughts on “writing craft: the art of repetition

  1. I love to use repetition in this manner. I will bring up a theme (lying, cheating, stealing, religious problems, etc) that I have set for a character again and again, but in different scenarios and the reader can see how they’ve grown and changed from the last time it happened. Then they can contrast that with how another character deals with the same problem.

    Very good mini-essay on the craft.

  2. (Sorry about the double comment)

    Oh, I was thinking today after reading your post and replying: can you write a piece on how to write a second draft? Once you finish the first draft, do you just go back and make major revisions, adding parts, removing parts, etc? Or do you rewrite the entire thing? But if you rewrite the entire thing, then how does the first draft figure into it? etc, etc. Thanks.

  3. Well, even if you do it differently than everyone else, put some sort of question at the end like “How do YOU do it?” and let’s open up the floodgates of discussion. 🙂

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