Saturday, 28 May 2011

Repetition - Different Types and Meanings

There are different types of repetition that writers use within their narrative, description and dialogue. Each form has its own unique effectiveness that is sometimes so subtle that the effect goes largely unnoticed by the reader.

The way we string certain words together within a sentence gives the reader different patterns but also gives us different effects. Rhetoric expression is a way of stressing the meaning of certain words and sentences, most often used in speeches, but just as effective nestling within your masterpiece.

There are hundreds of literary terms, too many to go through all of them, however, I’ve listed the most commonly used literary uses of repetition/figures of speech that are useful within creative fiction.

This term, from Greek, meaning ‘doubling’, refers to when we repeat the last word of a sentence and then use it again to begin the next. Its purpose is to give a sense of rhythm to the writing, to make it flow seamlessly, for instance:

Men in great place are thrice servants: servants of the sovereign or state; servants of fame; and servants of business” - Sir Francis Bacon

Or you can conjure your own:

To the end of time; time is all we have.’

Another similar form of rhetoric, anaphora is designed for emphasis and comes from the Greek meaning to ‘carry back’. It works by repeating a sequence of words at the beginning of neighbouring clauses to give this effect. It works with dialogue and narrative.

One of the best examples comes from 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." - (Speech to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940)

This refers to the repetition of a word in a different or contrary sense. The Greek meaning is ‘opposition, or opposing position.’ Its best use is in dialogue, for snappy rhetoric or a retort.

I wasted time and now time doth waste me.” - (Shakespeare)

"A kleptomaniac is a person who helps himself because he can't help himself." - (Henry Morgan)

This is a strategic use of repetition by emphasising a point by repeating it several times throughout a sentence. It derives from Latin ‘dwelling’. In other words, you are dwelling on a point, and again most effective within dialogue.

"Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space." - (Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, 1979)

This is a rhetorical term for the repetition of a word or even a phrase which is broken up by one or several more intervening words and is derived from the Greek meaning to ‘cut in two’. The repetition is still emphasised, especially to convey deep emotion, but the effect is less obvious than anaphora.

All lost! To prayers, to prayers! All lost!” - (Shakespeare - The Tempest, Scene 1, Act 1)

This refers to the repetition of a word at the end of a clause or sentence and which also begins the next sentence, a kind of refrain, which derives from the Greek ‘resumption’. It is designed for emphasis in dialogue rather than narrative.

"Romans, countrymen, and lovers! hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear: believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe." -(Shakespeare, Brutus in Act 3, scene 2, Julius Caesar)

From Greek, ‘bring to’, this is the emphatic repetition of a word or phrase placed at the end of several sentences. You’ll notice that anaphora is repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of sentences, and epiphora is repetition of a word or phrase at the end of sentences. The rhetorical pattern creates rhythm and it thus creates flow within the text. It works well with narrative and dialogue.

"She's safe, just like I promised. She's all set to marry Norrington, just like she promised. And you get to die for her, just like you promised." - (Jack Sparrow, The Pirates of the Caribbean)

Repetition of a word or phrase for emphasis, very often with no words in between. It comes from the Greek meaning to ‘fasten together’. It makes the reader focus the words in a sentence, to convey importance to the sentence.

"If you think you can win, you can win." - (William Hazlitt)

"I undid the lantern cautiously--oh, so cautiously - cautiously." - (Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell-Tale Heart 1843)

This comes from the Greek, ‘climax’. It refers to a sentence in which the last word of one clause becomes the first of the next – an extended form of anadiplosis where the repetition continues from clause to clause. The repetition is structured to increase the order of magnitude, hence the ‘climax’, from which the term derives. It works effectively within narrative and dialogue and lends a rhythmic lilt to any text.

"We glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope: and hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." - (Paul, Romans 5:3)

Whatever the method you choose, however you want to use it, the use of repetition is a clever tool if used correctly. Words and clauses - the emphasis of these allows you as a writer to bring emotion, rhythm, pace and atmosphere to narrative and dialogue. It allows you to focus the reader on what you want to convey, all without them even noticing.

Next week: How to build suspense

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Repetition - How to Use it Effectively

Repetition isn’t something a writer will normally think about, particularly if one thinks about schools days of being told that repetition is a no-no.  In creative writing, however, there is good repetition and bad repetition.  Repetition can and does work.

The above opening paragraph uses repetition effectively.  The actual word 'repetition' occurs five times, but it’s not overpowering within the text.  It is there to reinforce the message and provide and subtle way of denotative resonance.  This is an example of good repetition.
Bad repetition, on the other hand, occurs when the same descriptive words appear in the same sentence or paragraph several times without offering denotation or structure, for instance: 

He fumbled for the keys in the dark, finally managed to open the door.  He shuffled through the hallway, switched on the lights, and in his drunken haze, fumbled with his coat buttons...

This basic illustration shows how easy it is to make repetition all the time throughout a story.  The first ‘fumble’ is fine, but then it’s repeated. A writer should engage different descriptive words, such as ‘struggled’ or ‘clawed’.  This is a form of redundancy, where the second repeated word is pointless and should be changed.

Effective repetition of key words or phrases, however, can create different effects.  The denotative effect reinforces the overall message the writer wants to give the reader. It can also create a sense of tension, atmosphere and emotion.  It also creates resonance and rhythmic patterns – rather like poetry.
In effect, cleverly crafted, deliberate repetition can become a strategic weapon in any writer’s armoury.  Look at this example:

His dark ways, his dark thoughts; soulless and barren and as dark as the swirling ocean beneath him...
The repetition here works because ‘dark’ is a simple descriptive word, and each time it is mentioned, it adds to the feeling of the sinister overtones the writer wants to convey.  It also created rhythm within the sentence – it almost has a beat to it.  And also because it repeats three times. 

Other ways can create emphasis for emotion or conflict, for example:

He was slave to their ways, slave to the demon colonel; slave to everything he had known...
This style of repetition creates a dynamic flow of a powerful key word: slave.  This simple sentence creates an impression of emotion simply because the very word slave creates this effect and it can be employed effectively with any well chosen words.  Again, it is repeated three times.

She was soft against his touch, soft like the silken threads he had slipped from her body, soft like the gentle murmur of summer.
Once again, repeated three times, the word ‘soft’ reinforces the mood and atmosphere.

It also comes into its own when writing pensive scenes, to create a sense of tension.  It works the same way as children’s stories, repeating one emphasised word two or three times.
They huddled in the dark, listening as the silence gave way to their fear.
Thud.  Thud. 
This sound, creeping ever closer...

Of course, repetition works well within dialogue too. Well chosen words and phrases emphasise what the writer wants to achieve.
‘I told you what would happen, I told you, and you chose not to listen.  I told you and you refrained.’

This example shows how the character is reinforcing his/her message, not just to another character, but to the reader, too.

Repetitive strokes can enliven dialogue, and again gives rhythm and resonance to speech patterns, something the reader will be intuitively tuned into, without them even noticing.

As a writer, you have to choose which words and phrases you think would be effective, or how they would create the effect you want to achieve, but repetition is always about emphasis, whether you are highlighting mood, emotion, tension, atmosphere or even action, or whether you use it with within your, narrative or dialogue.


·         Repetition should emphasise
·         Make repetition denotative – reinforces the message
·         Make it simplistic and effective
·         Create resonance and rhythmic patterns
·         Create word dynamics
·         Don’t repeat complex words, but instead keep them simple.

Next week: Part 2 – The different types of repetition and their definitions

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Description - too much or too little?

This is the kind of thing that will confuse any writer – how can you tell if you have enough description, or too little, especially when you are confronted with conflicting advice on what constitutes enough description.

Many writers believe that there shouldn’t be great chunks of description in your narrative, because this tends to bore the reader.  Some say you don’t need to go into huge detail about your characters or setting– again resulting in a block of text – because the idea is to keep the reader engaged and interested.  They don’t want to read lots of description.
This trend of using little description to ensure more action, is flawed - it’s designed for writers who can’t be bothered to invest the time to enrich their stories, nor invest in their readers, and it benefits the readers because they don’t have to use too much brain power reading large chunks of description, when all they want is action and dialogue.  

Some of those who write in the thrillers/action genre wrongly assume that description isn’t too important, because action is what counts.  Well placed and well-written description, however, is the difference between a great thriller and a poorly written one, and those lacking the element of good description will never make it past the slush pile.
Everything in society, it seems, is fast-paced.  It’s what readers demand – short attention spans need shorter descriptions, but writers must remember that there are three elements that must balance to have a fully realised story: dialogue, description and narrative.  Sacrificing one at the expense of the other may not get you noticed by agents or publishers, and could weaken your story. 

Description should move the story forward –it should hint at something, build a picture for the reader, create mood and tension, heighten the atmosphere.  These elements cannot be achieved without description.  Too little, and your story really will suffer.
For you, the writer, description is your lifeblood, you need it, the story needs it and your reader needs it (whether they like it or not).  The premise of description is for you to fill in the information that the reader won’t know, to build on their awareness, to provide background information and sensory appreciation, to reveal characters and plot and to keep the momentum of the story.

The key is getting the balance right; just enough to inform the reader, but not too much that it bores them.  Take, for instance, a scene that describes the main character waking up and facing a day of stress at work, but it has so much description that it’s not until page 8 that he finally gets out of bed!  This is where it’s just too much.  The more you write and gain experience, the more you will intuitively know that you need to cut lots of unnecessary waffle.
Description can inform and tease your reader.  It can hint, it can play with them; it can build them up to a crescendo, it can create emotion, it can take them on a journey. Of course, that would all depend on whether you’re writing the correct kind of description.  There is a difference between the wrong sort of description and the right sort. The wrong sort makes excessive use of adjectives and adverbs and provides information that isn’t really necessary, like this:

He raced down the street, his thick black hair glistening in the low-level lighting which cast soft pools of amber across his square-jawed face, which remained unshaven, but his strong blue eyes penetrated the murk in time to see her running into an alleyway.  His strong, powerful legs powered him through the darkness and into the alley, his masculine presence filling the entire narrow stone corridor...
By simply cutting the double adjectives and tidying sentence structure, you have a better sense of description, one that is just enough for the reader and one that moves the story forward, without it being excessive.

He raced down the street; his black hair glistened in the low-level lighting and soft amber pools found his face.  He saw her slip into an alleyway and he followed, quickly reaching the darkness that clogged the alley.  He listened to the echoes of her footsteps across the stone...
The kind of description to avoid is the useless kind; the stuff the reader doesn’t need to know, like the colour of your protagonist lipstick and whether she spent half an hour straightening her hair, or describing the villain’s expensive Italian suit and leather shoes which he bought from Versace in London last Tuesday. 

Description should be proportionate to the story - it should be balanced. Think of the Goldilocks rule – Baby bear’s bowl of porridge was too little; papa bear’s was too much.  But mama bear’s bowl was just right for Goldilocks.
The same is true of description.  Too much – by that I mean pages and pages of it – will bore your reader.  Too little – a sentence here or there at the expense of lashings of action and dialogue, will mean you end up creating a story that doesn’t satisfy.

There will be times when maybe a page of description is required to strengthen a particular section of story.  There may be times when there is no dialogue for several what else is there other than description? 
It's surprising how many writers lose sight of the importance of description and how it can influence how much the reader will enjoy their story.  No one can tell you how much or how little to use.  It’s up to you, as writers, how you attain that fine balance, but practice and editing goes a long way to achieve it.

  • Make sure it’s not the wrong sort of description – keep it pertinent, tight and consistent.
  • Keep it proportionate – Look for a balance between narrative, description and dialogue.
  • Appropriate placement of description – interspersed throughout the chapters to help strengthen key scenes.
  • Don’t over explain – describe your characters, the scene, the tension, but don’t describe every single minutiae.  Keep it simple, keep it interesting.
  • Read and re-read what you have written - you will learn to recognise too much or too little.

Next week: Writing strategies - Repetition and how it works.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Description and why it's important

Description is one of the three key elements in fiction, along with narrative and dialogue, which brings your story to life.  It’s the lifeblood of your role as storyteller.  It means a writer must involve the reader at every level, and he or she can do that through the medium of description. 

Description creates a vivid picture for the reader, it allows them to open a gateway to your story and imagine themselves within your fictional world.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to go into detail about everything for every scene.  It simply means that you have to be prudent in knowing when it’s required and why.

You as a writer can elicit emotions within your reader, you create tension and atmosphere, and you create a sense of immediacy – a sense of being right there with the character.  Great description helps the reader to build a fully formed picture in their mind’s eye; to understand what your character is going through and how the character sees his or her world.  It creates a sense of the whole scene.

Description isn’t about using pretty words and pages of complicated sentence structures to make a story, it’s about understanding the reason why you use it and when you use it that matters.  It’s about conveying important information to the reader in strategic places.

The idea here is not just simply to fill your pages with description in the vain hope of plumping your masterpiece; it’s about conveying four key things that will happen in your story:

·         Convey a sense of place/background
·         Convey a sense of emotion and mood
·         Convey a sense of tension/atmosphere
·         Convey a sense of action

Scenes that include some of these can help focus your story.  So how can you achieve this effectively?  By remembering that you are telling the story, not actually being a part of it.  Your reader is the one who will become part of it; they’ve purchased a ticket for your particular roller coaster ride and they want to experience everything you have to offer and enjoy every moment.

Probably one of the best ways any writer can achieve this is through the use of the senses.  In real life we perceive the world with our senses; we smell, we touch, we taste, we hear and we see, but so too must your reader.  They want to feel and touch and taste and see your fictional world.

Descriptions that incorporate sensory stimulation help the reader to transport themselves from real life to your character’s story.  This is where the power of a writer’s observation and imagination mix with amazing results. 

The idea is to reward your reader every now and then with some descriptive flourishes to enhance all that is happening within scene, particularly important ones.  Let them hear the door creak, let them shudder in the dark as they see the shadows, let them touch the softness of a character’s skin, let them smell the trash cluttering the alley and let them taste the fiery sting of a malt whisky.

Description doesn’t have to fill page after page.  It could merely be a sentence or two, a snippet within some dialogue perhaps, or a simple flourish within the narrative that will fire the reader’s imagination.  Of course, there will be occasions where longer descriptions are required, particularly if you need to express the setting of the scene and the atmosphere of it, and maybe build some tension throughout the scene.

The idea is to involve the reader on as many levels as possible.  Scare them, make them cry, move them, make them laugh.  Description can do this, and it can also move the story forward.

All this leads to the question: how do I achieve this? 

Firstly it’s important to identify what is it is you want to describe and why.  Do you need to invoke a sense of atmosphere and tension or emotion within an important scene?  Do you need the reader to understand the place or the people?  Do you want your reader to feel what your character is feeling at that moment during an argument or a kiss? Do you need to show the mood of the moment, the fear or the panic?  If it does, then describe it.  If it doesn’t, leave it. For example:

He ascended the stairs, moved through the dark, listened out for noises, but he didn’t hear any.  At last he reached the top of the stairs.

The above paragraph is typical of lots of ‘descriptive’ writing I see with writers, but it doesn’t do much.  It’s pretty flat.  It’s a key scene that would benefit from some proper description in order involve the reader on an emotional level, like this:

He began to ascend the stairs.  The wood creaked beneath his feet and he held himself still for a moment, tense.  He slowly moved to the next step as the darkness pressed against him.  He listened.  Nothing, except for the rhythmic thud of his heartbeat.  Muscles tautened as he crept up each step until he reached the top of the stairs…

This builds atmosphere for the reader, it creates a mood and it shows tension. This example involves the reader, so be careful not to overlook key scenes like this within the narrative, otherwise your reader won’t care much for the story.

Remember, always engage your reader.  How you do it will depend on the following: 
  • Choice of language
  • Choice of word/sentence structure
  • Relevance to the scene
  • The ability to keep it real (description needs to feel real)
A story without description is flat, unemotional and boring.  Your reader needs to know what characters look like, what places look and smell like, what’s really happening, how they’re feeling, what they’re thinking, they need to know what things feel and taste like, they want to feel a little scared, a little horrified maybe, they want to feel that emotion, to smile, to gasp…all of these created through description.

Description is what makes an ordinary story a great story.

Next week: How much description?  Too much or not enough?