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Again Again Again: Repetition

If you’d like to read his previous columns, you can find a complete list on his author page.

One of the first things I learned about English prose style, far back in the ancient days of grade school, was that I should vary my vocabulary. Repetition of the same word (other than prepositions, conjunctions and articles that have to be repeated often) displayed a lack of art. If I were writing a paragraph about a rose, then I should next refer to it as “flower” and then perhaps refer to its “petals,” rather than writing “rose” in three different sentences.

The requirement that we change words is arbitrary. If I am listening to a story being read aloud and hear the same word used too many times, I may cringe with embarrassment for the writer, but only because I have been taught to detest the same word cropping up too often in my own drafts. A paragraph that says “rose” five times is probably just as clear as one that says “rose,” “flower,” “bloom,” “posy,” and “inflorescence.” In fact, the repetitive version may be clearer than the varied one, particularly if the pursuit of variety leads the writer to scour the thesaurus and find words that aren’t quite right. Inflorescence? Is that really an adequate substitute for “rose”? The thesaurus is a two-faced ally. Pity the poor writer who probably consulted the thesaurus in haste before bringing to class a story containing this riveting action: “He placed the amulet around her cervix.”

There are aspects of art that I think we can call “natural aesthetics.” People from a variety of different cultures will find certain landscape paintings beautiful because the settings depict real or imagined places that appeal to the human animal: fresh water, game, fuel, good weather, and a road or path that connects us to other people. But the demand for varied vocabulary in prose is an example of “invented aesthetics.” I think this preference developed as a method for showing off one’s education. A writer who can say “rose” five different ways probably knows more words than the writer who is limited to saying “rose” five times. So the demand that we vary our vocabulary without sacrificing clarity is just an arbitrary way of making writing harder and keeping the riffraff out of literature. Indeed, you can see just how arbitrary this demand is by comparing the tolerance of different languages for repeated terms. I vary my vocabulary enough to be considered a good writer in English, but my French translator tells me that he has to inject even more variety into his translations. For French tastes, I use the same words far too often.

We demand variety in prose because we can. The variation of vocabulary may make the writing harder to understand, but prose lives on the page. A reader can read the sentence again. The reader also has the advantage of visual signals, the paragraph breaks that show that these sentences are all related to one topic, for example. Prose can afford to be difficult.

Listening is much harder than reading. If we’re hearing a speech or the recitation of a poem or traditional tale, we can’t say, “What was that? Could you say that bit again?” Our attention may wander for a moment, but there’s no going back each time someone in the audience didn’t clearly hear a phrase. In the middle of a long list, we might realize that we’ve forgotten what the things in the list are all meant to have in common. So the style of oral language uses repetition, celebrates it as part of what makes such language beautiful, memorable and clear.

Not repeating yourself is a virtue of good prose, and flash fiction is prose. Therefore, the flash fiction writer will want to avoid repetition. Usually.

By now you should know that flash fiction writers like breaking rules, and there are at least two reasons why you might repeat words, phrases, and even whole sentences in flash fiction. The first reason is structural. There are two kinds of cyclical stories, the contrast and the progression, that depend on repetition. The second reason is stylistic. You may want the story to feel more like a speech, a poem, or a traditional tale than a work of prose. That is, you may want to signal that your story is meant to be read as an oral work.

If you write repetition into your flash, remember this general principle of writing: if you’re going to break a rule, don’t just break it. Snap it in two, throw it on the fire, and dance around it. Hollywood writers know this. If a movie has a huge plot hole, often the best way to deal with is is to point at it, to make it deliberate: “But why didn’t you just shoot him when you had the chance?” “That is a question I’ll be asking for the rest of my life!” If the script points at the plot hole, the audience won’t think of the hole as a mistake.

If you are going to repeat in your prose, repeat often enough so that the reader can see that the repetition is deliberate and part of your design.

In the first kind of cycling narrative, the contrast story, the point is to tell the same story in ways that emphasize some contrast. You might tell the story in two points of view. Or as in the case of my example story, “Love Is Strange,” you might recount the same action but with contrasting character attitudes. What the reader enjoys about the story is the points of divergence. In one telling, bottles behind the bar clink together. In the other telling, bottles behind the bar explode. The two narratives have to be so similar that in reading the second version, the reader remembers what the first version was. There is a lot of repetition of detail throughout both versions to supply the reader with precise reminders of how version A contrasts, point by point, with version B.

In the cycling progression story, the same event or scene is repeated in time. Let’s say that the story is about the conversation that the mailman has with the lady of the house each day when he brings her a package to sign for. The first telling gets the reader up to speed in a way that a story usually has to create the context in the beginning. But in a story of progression, what matters is what details are different in each of the subsequent scenes. So the second scene where the mailman is delivering a package has to say just enough to get the reader to think: “Oh, that again.” The emphasis is then on what is different. Perhaps the packages are a little bigger each time. Perhaps there is a new piece of scientific equipment on the roof of the house with each delivery. Each repetition starts with just enough “that again,” followed by the newest set of changes.

An important principle about the use of repetition is that variety still matters. One of the pleasures of all sorts of literary repetition is that good repetition manages to surprise us at the same time that it gives us more of the same. In the example of the mailman, the packages keep getting bigger. A nice surprise would be for the final package to be tiny (with a good reason for being tiny). Or the surprise can be in the same direction, but different in scale. In “Love Is Strange,” I tried to keep the extremes and exaggerations in the second narrative wilder than what the reader might be anticipating next.

In a story with an non-repetitive structure, your repetitions might be only a matter of style. There are a number of rhetorical patterns that poets and speech writers use. They can seem self-conscious and ostentatious in longer prose, but as with other techniques, you can be finished with your flash before the reader begins to object to your technique. Be dazzling, and be gone!

Here are a few patterns to consider.

Anaphora. This is beginning each clause with the same set of words. One of the most famous examples if from Winston Churchill’s address to Great Britain after the disastrous fall of France in World War II: “We shall not flag or fail. 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.” Note that variation is part of what makes the pattern beautiful. Churchill said “in the fields and in the streets” instead of “we shall fight in the fields, we shall fight in the streets.”

Epiphora. This is the same re-use of a phrase, but now at the end of clauses: “Although I was born in Arizona, Oregon is my home, it has long been my home, and I hope that will always be my home.”

Conduplicatio. This simply means using the same word again and again even though our style rules say that we don’t do this in English prose. In other words, this is “rose” five times. Like any kind of repetition, you have to show that you’re doing it on purpose, so the word you repeat should be one that you want the reader to dwell on.

Anadiplosis. The “word loop” form that I wrote about earlier is one long exercise in anadiplosis. This is when you end a clause with one word and then begin the next clause with that same word. “Today I feel a little blue, but blue becomes me.” Or, to separate the clauses into their own sentences: “Today I feel a little blue. Blue becomes me.”

I don’t think there is a formal name for this, but in many storytelling traditions, there will be a sentence or two that repeats exactly throughout the telling. “Porcupine sharpens a quill and puts in in his tail. He sharpens a quill and puts it in his tail.” In one Native American story I have heard told, the story teller says these sentences every time someone doubts that porcupine can really be successful at hunting buffalo. The repeated action shows us something about Porcupine’s steady personality, but this repetition also invites the audience to take up the chant with the storyteller. Eventually the storyteller just has to say, “Porcupine…” and mime sharpening. The audience will chant “sharpens a quill and puts it in his tail.” Readers of a flash would recognize such repetitions as part of the experience of an oral story even if they are reading that story in silence.

There are other forms of style repetition. Perhaps you can think of, or invent, some more of your own. I will close with one more repetition pattern from classical rhetoric, one that I hope to use one day but have not yet found occasion for.

Commoratio, useful especially in humor, is the repetition of phrases that all mean the same thing. Perhaps the greatest example was spoken by John Cleese: “He’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! He’s expired and gone to meet his maker! He’s a stiff! Bereft of life, he rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed him to the perch he’d be pushing up the daisies! His metabolic processes are now history! He’s off the twig! He’s kicked the bucket, he’s shuffled off his mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible! This is an ex-parrot!”


Bruce Holland Rogers has a home base in Eugene, Oregon, the tie-dye capital of the world. He writes all types of fiction: SF, fantasy, literary, mysteries, experimental, and work that’s hard to label.

For six years, Bruce wrote a column about the spiritual and psychological challenges of full-time fiction writing for Speculations magazine. Many of those columns have been collected in a book, Word Work: Surviving and Thriving as a Writer (an alternate selection of the Writers Digest Book Club). He is a motivational speaker and trains workers and managers in creativity and practical problem solving.

He has taught creative writing at the University of Colorado and the University of Illinois. Bruce has also taught non-credit courses for the University of Colorado, Carroll College, the University of Wisconsin, and the private Flatiron Fiction Workshop. He is a member of the permanent faculty at the Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA program, a low-residency program that stands alone and is not affiliated with a college or university. It is the first and so far only program of its kind. Currently he is teaching creative writing and literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary, on a Fulbright grant.


 

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