Throw Away the Thesaurus (on Repetition)

Throw Away the Thesaurus (on Repetition)

“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 season 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 (1859)

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? The ability to recognize and tell a story . . . in a way that focuses on the story, not on you as a brilliant writer, pulling strings like a poorly concealed puppeteer.

Here is a passage by E.B. White, a true craftsman of clear, beautiful language. He is introducing a barn, but not just any barn. It is Homer Zuckerman’s barn in Charlotte’s Web, the setting where much of the novel will take place, where Charlotte the spider, lives.

Note how the passage starts with simple, repetitive sentences.

Then White builds on that. He introduces the sense of sweet patience that is the barn itself. We pause to enjoy the diverse scents, taking them in, as we begin to image the place fully for ourselves. We learn who shares the space: the cat, the cows, horses, sheep.

The barn was very large. It was very old. It smelled of hay and it smelled of manure. It smelled of the perspiration of tired horses and the wonderful sweet breath of patient cows. It often had a sort of peaceful smell – as though nothing bad could happen ever again in the world. It smelled of grain and of harness dressing and of axle grease and of rubber boots and of new rope. And whenever the cat was given a fish-head to eat, the barn would smell of fish. But mostly it smelled of hay, for there was always hay in the great loft up overhead. And there was always hay being pitched down to the cows and the horses and the sheep.

The barn was pleasantly warm in winter when the animals spent most of their time indoors, and it was pleasantly cool in summer when the big doors stood wide open to the breeze. The barn had stalls on the main floor for the work horses, tie-ups on the main floor for the cows, a sheepfold down below for the sheep, a pigpen down below for Wilbur, and it was full of all sorts of things that you find in barns: ladders, grindstones, pitchforks, monkey wrenches, scythes, lawn mowers, snow shovels, ax handles, milk pails, water buckets, empty grain sacks, and rusty rat traps. It was the kind of barn that swallows like to build their nests in. It was the kind of barn that children like to play in. And the whole thing was owned by Fern’s uncle, Mr. Homer L. Zuckerman.

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 wonderful book on writing technique, Steering the Craft:

Repetition of words, of phrases, of images; repetition of things said; near-repetition of events’ echoes, reflections, variations . . . all narrators use these devices, and the skillful use of them is a very great part of the power of prose.

C.S. Lewis is another who uses a storytelling prose to good purpose in his Narnia books. He has no fear of repetition and simple words to deliver deep concepts; to use, as Le Guin says, echoes, reflections, variations. As in the samples given above, Lewis uses the technique to communicate great power and confidence. Here, early in The Silver Chair, heroine Jill Pole awakes by a steam to meet the lion, Aslan, lying nearby, “head raised and its two fore-paws out in front of it, like the lions in Trafalgar Square.”

“If you’re thirsty, you may drink.”
They were the first words she had heard since Scrubb [her friend] had spoken to her on the edge of the cliff. For a second she stared here and there, wondering who had spoken. Then the voice said again, “If you are thirsty, come and drink,” . . . and the voice was not like a man’s. It  was deeper, wilder, and stronger; a sort of heavy, golden voice.  . . .
“Are you not thirsty?” said the Lion.
I’m dying of thirst,” said Jill.
“Then drink,” said the Lion. . . .
“Will you promise not to – do anything to me, if I do come?” said Jill.
“I make no promise,” said the Lion. . . .
“I daren’t come and drink,” said Jill.
“Then you will die of thirst,” said the Lion.
“Oh, dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”
“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

Instead of trying to dazzle with fancy verbal fireworks, great writers from C.S. Lewis to Ursula K. Le Guin, from E.B. White to Charles Dickens, know how to use the tools of beautiful language. One of the most powerful is that of repetition: the flowing cadence of an orator, the soothing lilt of “come hither and I’ll tell ye a tale.”

A bit of repetition can resonate and create an intimate bond . . . to draw the reader into the circle of your story.

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