Sometimes authors want to emphasize a concept, and deliberate repetition is the way to do it. Some of my favorite authors use the repetition of certain key words and phrases to highlight an idea or to show the scene. This technique is an accepted rhetorical device and is commonly found in mainstream fiction and in poetry. 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 a much more engaging and notable way. The aura that is created by the usage of repetition cannot be achieved through any other device.”
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.
- It can also be a construction in poetry where the last word of one clause becomes the first word of the next clause.
Some famous examples of repetition as a literary device:
“Every book is a quotation, and every house is a quotation out of all forests, and mines, and stone quarries; and every man is a quotation from all his ancestors.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, Prose and Poetry.
“This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
The prose of the The Great Gatsby is powerful. Fitzgerald’s repetition of the word ashes evokes the atmosphere of the valley, a place created through industrial dumping and which was a by-product of greed. The people and the environment suffer. The rich look down upon the poor as being there solely for their use, and don’t have even a thought for the physical suffering caused by the carelessly dumped byproducts of the industries that make them wealthy. Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, with their rich, empty lives, are represented as metaphorical bodies of ashes in the valley of ashes.
The ashes are symbols of dead, with more self-centered and arrogant people arising from them. Every generation, the ashes pile, distorting the American Dream further.
When an author writes it intentionally to drive home a point, repetition is an effective tool.
It is when words are inadvertently used with a lack of creativity that repetition ruins a narrative.
Unconsciously using the same words too often in our descriptions is one of the pitfalls of writing. It happens to all of us, and for me, it occurs most often when I am laying down the first draft, and my vocabulary can’t keep up.
Many common words (the, and, etc.) don’t really stand out when used more than a few times in a paragraph, and you couldn’t write well if not for those words. However, some words will always stand out more than others, and if you use them more than once in a paragraph, it looks like you’re unimaginative or a lazy writer. This is especially true if the word in question has a lot of common synonyms you could have used instead of repeating the same word.
Some words don’t have a lot of obvious substitutes, so you get hung up on the few you can find. I have mentioned before that in my own work, the word sword is one of the main culprits. The type of blade my characters wield in the World of Neveyah books is a claymore, and four ensorcelled blades figure prominently in the Tower of Bones series.
The many obvious synonyms for the word sword will not work, as rapier, epee, saber, etc., are distinct blade types that are in no way like a broadsword, which is what a claymore is.
Fortunately, the spell-check function of your word processing program will find many inadvertent double-up repetitions, accidents such as “the the” or “and and.” That particular form of repetition is the devil and is one I struggle with, especially when writing blog posts.
When it comes to making revisions and checking for areas of inadvertent repetition, sometimes I need to see how the chapter looks printed out. I sit at my table with the printout and start on the last page, using a blank sheet of paper to cover all but the last paragraph.
This paragraph is my starting point. With a highlighter, I begin at the last sentence of the chapter and work my way forward, paragraph by paragraph, until I have arrived at the first sentence. The highlighter is a good way to make the places I want to correct stand out at a quick glance.
Once I have marked up my hardcopy, I open my digital files and make the revisions. This speeds things up—looking at my notes and crossing them off as they are completed saves me weeks of work when I am in the revisions stage.
There is another benefit to using this method. Working with hardcopy from the bottom up, blind to what has gone before in that chapter, allows you to see your own work through unbiased eyes. When you do this, you will find places where you have repeated an entire thought almost verbatim and places with hokey phrasing. You may decide to change some things around.
Large thesauruses are excellent resources, and I have one I use regularly. However, it’s important to remember that they are written for academic use and contain many obscure words that a casual reader would have to stop and look up, which can turn them off your work. So, we must be careful not to use words that shout, “Look! I’m educated!”
Yes, we want to have a wide vocabulary, but we don’t want our writing to sound pretentious. Great authors walk a fine line, writing prose that isn’t dumbed down, yet can be understood by most readers without their having to stop and look up the words.
I have a useful paperback book, the Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms. It’s full of good common alternatives to most regularly used words.
This little book has become just as important to me as my copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. It can be purchased used from Amazon. I do recommend purchasing this as a paper book rather than an eBook.
I know you can right click for the thesaurus in most word-processing programs, and I do that when I am in a hurry. But these thesauruses are limited in scope, and I like having a larger variety of commonly used words available to me in book form. I tend to make better use of what I read on paper than what I read in eBook form.
If you have not read The Great Gatsby, I suggest you do so. There is a reason it is an enduring classic, and you should read it if only to develop your own opinion of it.
Credits & Attributions
LiteraryDevices Editors. “Repetition” LiteraryDevices.net. 2013. https://literarydevices.net/metaphor/ (accessed March 8, 2017).
Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Complete Works. Published 1904. Vol. VIII. Letters and Social Aims, VI. Quotation and Originality, Bartleby.com, accessed (March 8, 2017)
The Great Gatsby; Symbols and Motifs by http://thegreatgatsbysandm.blogspot.com/2011/05/valley-of-ashes.html (accessed 19 Feb 2018).
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby, pub. 1925 Charles Scribner & Sons.