How To Build a Better Story – The Power of Repetition

How To Build a Better Story – The Power of Repetition

[An excerpt from How To Write Your Best Story, by Philip Martin, Crickhollow Books, 2011]

Good storytellers know the value of throwing away the thesaurus and using one of language’s most beautiful forms of expression: repetition. As Ursula K. Le Guin pointed out in her excellent book of advice and exercises for writers, Steering the Craft, “Repetition of words, of phrases, of images . . . all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.”

Delight in repetition is seen in its purest form in the child who wants to hear the same story, time after time, told in the same way, perhaps with embellishments but with most of the same words repeated in familiar litany.

Repetition works in literature for adults, too.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

What is notable about that famous opening line?

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. . . .”
– Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

Repetition is a device pulled from oral tradition, from the bedtime stories of Three Bears or Pigs or Billy Goats Gruff to inspiring speeches by the likes of Winston Churchill:

“We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

The success of this technique is rooted in its simple language. As Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted:

“At the beginning of their careers many writers have a need to overwrite. They choose carefully turned-out phrases; they want to impress their readers with their large vocabularies. By the excesses of their language, these young men and women try to hide their sense of inexperience. With maturity the writer becomes more secure in his ideas. He finds his real tone and develops a simple and effective style.”

Maturity in a writer doesn’t mean throwing around a lot of fancy words. A secret of successful writers is the ability to tell a story in a way that focuses everybody’s attention on the story, not on the brilliance of the author, pulling strings like a poorly concealed puppeteer.

(For more on writing a great piece of fiction, see the book How To Write Your Best Story.)

1 Comment

  1. Hello Philip, I’d just like to say that I only just discovered your page through following Jane Friedman and I am thankful I did. I love the knowledge you share and I am hungrily searching around your articles here. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, I shall come back often to catch up on all I have missed. I am a new writer, currently writing my first book, a memoir.

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