Monday, January 21, 2008

Part 3, Repetition Devices

Everybody knows you shouldn’t repeat words, right? It’s boring and irritating to say, “He knocked himself in the head by hitting his head on the low doorframe. His head hurt.” Really boring, really redundant. Your critique partner won’t even let you get by with using the same word more than once on a page, much less in a sentence or paragraph. Well, now you can tell your critique partner that repetition is actually a powerful tool in the hands of a skillful writer, and it’s called anaphora.

You didn’t know you were going to expand your vocabulary so much, did you? But you don’t need to worry about memorizing the fancy, Greek-sounding name. Just learn the technique.

In poetry, this device is used a lot. “Rage, rage against the dying light,” Dylan Thomas writes. Anaphora is repetition of a word or words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, phrases, or sentences. But poets shouldn’t have all the fun. We can do it, too, and it will give emphasis to points we desperately want the reader to remember. I like this example from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
“Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assignment, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend and sole mourner.”

I don’t understand what some of those words mean, but I definitely get the point: Scrooge only had one friend. But Dickens says it so memorably, and he emphasizes his point by repeating the words “his sole.” Simple, isn’t it? But powerful. Much more powerful than saying, “Scrooge only had one friend.”

Do you remember that little sermon Jesus preached in Matthew chapter five? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are . . .” Jesus said “Blessed are” eight times in a row. Was that memorable? Only the most memorable sermon ever preached, because he was trying to make a very important point: God’s values are not the same as the world’s values.

Anaphora’s counterpart is epistrophe, or repeating the last word or words in a phrase or sentence. A Biblical example comes from the love chapter, I Cor. 13:7. “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” The repetition of “all things” makes it memorable and emphasizes a point about how powerful love is.

Once again, these examples were taken from Cindy Rogers’s informative book, Word Magic for Writers.

If you don’t have it, and you like wielding your word power, get it.

All right, your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to find a scene in which you are trying to make a really important point that is integral to your story. Rewrite a sentence or paragraph in which you use one of these repetitive devices. See if it adds more power to the scene, and share it with the rest of us, if you’re so inclined. I’ll try to do this one, too.


Robin Johns Grant said...

I love these examples! And I'm afraid a lot of critiquers these days would mark this repetition down as an error, because it seems to break "the rules."

Melanie Dickerson said...

You're right, Robin.
Tomorrow I'll post some of my examples from my latest work-in-progress, then I'll post some from my favorite author, Kate DiCamillo. She's a master of repetition.

Pamela J said...

I love repeating the last phrase in a song when I am finishing it up the last go-round. May not be exactly what you mean but for me it seemed a fitting ending, like it wraps the whole piece up. Thanks. I will watch for my chance to use this strategy.
cepjwms at yahoo dot com

Andrew Clarke said...

Melanie, I think what you say about repetition is true. The example from "Winn Dixie" is a case in point. It gives emphasis, and makes for resonance rather than boring or tiresome repition. Done well, repetition can be like the refrain in a song: it adds to what is being said, or sung, by dwelling on it, rather than needlessly prolonging it.