#amwriting: Using repetition and parallelism

Some aspects of writing craft were never taught in school. I know! I was shocked to discover this too. Many people learn these things through getting their MFA, but the rest of us must educate ourselves.

One concept I discovered through reading is how my favorite authors will use the intentional repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or show a scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction. It is used to evoke an emotional response in the reader and can be exceedingly effective when done right.

Literarydevices.net says, “The beauty of using figurative language is that the pattern it arranges the words into is nothing like our ordinary speech. It is not only stylistically appealing, but it also helps convey the message in much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”  (End quoted text)

Also, according to literarydevices.net, repetition as a literary device can take these forms:

  • Repetition of the last word in a line or clause.
  • Repetition of words at the start of clauses or verses.
  • Repetition of words or phrases in opposite sense.
  • Repetition of words broken by some other words.
  • Repetition of same words at the end and start of a sentence.
  • Repetition of a phrase or question to stress a point.
  • Repetition of the same word at the end of each clause.
  • Repetition of an idea, first in negative terms and then in positive terms.
  • Repetition of words of the same root with different endings.
  • Repetition both at the end and at the beginning of a sentence, paragraph, or scene.
  • A construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause. (End quoted text)

One thing that has been a pain in the pen for me is the way my narrative will feel awkward to me, and I can’t figure out why. When I take a closer look, I realize the awkwardness is caused by poor sentence construction.

When you present two or more ideas in a sentence or paragraph, they must be equal in importance, or parallel. When using repetition for literary effect, parallelism is crucial.

What parallelism means can be shown by a quote attributed to Julius Caesar who used the phrase in a letter to the Roman Senate after he had achieved a quick victory in the Battle of Zela.

I came;

I saw;

I conquered.

Caesar gives equal importance to the different ideas of coming, seeing, and conquering. In literary terms this is elegant on two levels:

  1. It employs repetition of the word ‘I’ to good effect
  2. Three ideas are presented in one sentence: He arrived in Zela, saw something he liked, and took it.

Washington.edu offer us this example. Consider the sentence: They fought in the streets, in the fields, and in the woods.

If you leave out the second instance of the word ‘in’ the sentence is no longer parallel. They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.

In a series of phrases beginning with a word such as to or in, repeat the word before each phrase or don’t repeat it at all after the first one:

They fought in the streets, the fields, and the woods. However, in literary prose, there is magic in the number three: the emotional impact of three repetitions of such a small word as ‘in’ elevates the prose from merely reporting a fact to something poetic.

‘In’ is a correlative word, a word or concept that has a mutual relationship with another word or concept. It is rarely a standalone word, so when used in repetition the words it modifies must be given equal importance.

Intentional repetition of key words can create impact:

Pulling loose from his grip, Ellen wept. “I hate you, I hate your mother, and I hate our life!”

What we want to remember is that when we intentionally repeat a word or a phrase, each repetition must be given equal importance, or the phrase will become awkward in a subtle way.


Sources and Attributions:

Repetition Copyright © 2017 Literary Devices. All Rights Reserved

Quote from the PDF Parallelism: They fought in the streets, the fields, and in the woods.  http://faculty.washington.edu/davidgs/ParallelConstruc.pdf

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “#amwriting: Using repetition and parallelism

  1. I had an English teacher in high school that said something similar as your true story quote. Mr. Flanagan was not impressed with my writing. I’m not sure I would want to know now what he thinks. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post. Yes, magic in the number 3, I will have to keep that in mind when I write.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great subject. We talk about this idea of repeated phrases or repetition in sounds or sound patterns quite a bit in my UW classes. it’s an excellent means of creating narrative distance and allowing a wised-up flaneur style narrator to take over. the repetitions do however take the reader away from the immediate action, so these effects must be used judiciously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You always raise points I hadn’t considered! I would like to hear more about the wised up flaneur–I keep planning to write a story from that pov and never get around to it! I do agree repetition is a seasoning and should be used with common sense!

      Like

  4. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Repetition, assonance, alliteration and so on: great way to create some narrative distance and get unstuck from your character.

    Liked by 1 person

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