My son has autism spectrum disorder. My daughter has some congenital hearing deficit. This means I spend even more time than most parents of young children repeating myself. Then I go to work and repeat myself some more. It gets tedious—especially as a habitually impatient person who (usually) understands things on the first try.
Life is built of repetitions. Most of us do nearly the same thing every working day. My days start with the same beeping alarm, proceed through breakfast and waking myself up…then the tug-of-war to get the kids out of bed, make their at-school meals, and generally try to herd everybody out the door. Waking, working, meals, sleep…the necessities of life are repeated. If we’re inclined, we can sketch broader patterns of repetition: weeks to seasons to years to “history” repeating itself.
We sometimes allow ourselves comfort in repetition, but I think that most of us find it tiresome. We complain about cookie-cutter sitcoms or action movies or rom-coms, about derivative pop songs and comic books and fashion. Part of acquiring “culture” is learning to praise originality and novelty. Even popular consumer culture constantly reinvents its surface features. Why, then, is repetition such a powerful tool in art?
Most musical structures, for example, are about repetition and return. Whether it’s a song’s verse-chorus form, orchestral movements shaped by the sonata principle, or even the simple ternary form, we constantly hear repetition. In electronic dance music (and most dance music, really), the repeated units are even shorter, their repetition more frequent. (There’s also minimalism—if you’re interested in how minimalism, disco, advertising, and “sewing machine” classical tracks used similar structures and principles, check out Robert Fink’s book Repeating Ourselves. Yes, that’s where I got this post’s title.) When we hear something, we want to hear it again. Sometimes we won’t recognize it when it returns. Other times we will. Think about the way themes work in film scores to reinforce characterization and narrative shape. One of my few thrills in the Star Wars prequels came during Episode II, where the Imperial March began to weave into Anakin and Padme’s love scene. The power was in recognition; to recognize, we have to have encountered something previously. Without repetition, recognition is impossible.
In writing, similar principles apply. Essays conclude with amplified versions of the ideas at their openings. The Hero’s Journey classically ends with a return home. Repeating imagery in a poem heightens the image and helps unite the whole. (The same can be done in novels.) We introduce parallel scenes to demonstrate how characters have changed…or how they contrast with their counterparts. On the small scale, repetition creates mood. Assonance accelerates action scenes…or lugubriously oozes through confusion. Alliteration can secure us in Scandinavian scenes or highlight the hurting in our hearts. (The sonic tricks are fun but obviously best used sparingly.)
Repetition creates shape. It creates pattern. It’s possible to develop structures that don’t rely on repetition, but they’re harder to perceive. When we repeat ourselves in writing, we must do so mindfully. Repeated elements gain significance. Too much repetition destroys meaning. (In an early Conan book, for example, the hero was described as “panther-like” in consecutive paragraphs. Rather undercut the effect.) It’s one of the things beta readers and editors can help with tremendously: we’re often blind to the habits that lead us to repeat ourselves.
Repetition is one of our most powerful tools in telling stories and in making words dance. We just have to make sure it’s more like sunrises and coffee than alarm clocks and commutes.