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.