Writing advice blog: repetition and variation

Susie Helme

Photo by Corinne Kutz on Unsplash

I’d like to say something about repetition and variation.

Repetition is one of the principles of design, and it adds balance to your work. Beginning with a certain phrase, idea or piece of dialogue and ending with a repetition of that same element is one good way to structure a short story. If you’ve used a certain expression–eg ‘you know what?’–later in your story saying ‘you know what?’ about something else can pull your theme together.

Of course, we all know the principle of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’–if there is a gun on the wall in Act I, by Act III someone needs to have shot someone with it. The idea is you don’t want to fill your work with extraneous details that don’t matter. (I have a BIG problem with this in my writing; I just can’t resist passing on to readers all the dinky details I’ve come across in my research) Referring back to earlier elements has an added advantage in creating balance.
If your protagonist crosses a bridge, contrast your antagonist by having them cross a different bridge. Or create a sense of journey and purpose by, later, having your protagonist go back over that same bridge from the other direction.

Having said that, it’s boring to use the same words all the time. I edited a novel whose author consistently used ‘as’ to begin her subordinate clauses–eg She swung her sword in the air, as she jumped off her horse’. Nothing wrong with that, but there are so many other ways you can say it. Swinging her sword, she jumped off her horse. She swung her sword, then jumped off her horse. She swung her sword; she jumped off her horse.
For, as, since, therefore, hence, consequently, though, due to, provided that, because, unless, once, while, when, whenever, where, wherever, before, and after. Any of these would do, and varying it up a bit adds spice to your style.

The same goes for vocabulary. If I used ‘spectacular’, I would not use that same word within the same paragraph or within nearby paragraphs, instead using a different word, such as ‘remarkable’.

So, as I began this piece (what is it? a tweet? a mini-essay? a blogpost?) by mentioning repetition and variation. I’ll end with it, too. Repetition adds balance to your work, and variation spices it up.

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