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


  1. This is a great blog, really helpful!

  2. I've been advised to change this sentence: "She would make me feel foolish for holding such a foolish belief." What do you think?

  3. That's an interesting sentence. As I don't know the entire context of the piece, I would offer the following:

    Firstly, I don't think the repetition of 'foolish' works, so I would use replace it with another word.

    Secondly, this sentence sounds like the character is recalling a past incident, so in that respect, the tense "she WOULD make me feel foolish etc" is quite reasonable to use.

    If this is not a recollection, however, then the tense might change to, "She COULD make me feel foolish etc"

    Without seeing the whole thing in context, I would make an educated guess that the above options are better.

    Hope that helps.

  4. Finally I found a name for what type of repetition it is that I commonly use in my writing. Diacope.

    I love to write things (for effect), like:

    Motionless. On the street corner. He stood.
    Sirens in the distance. Approaching. He stood.
    In view. A vehicle. Black and White. Red and bl-He stoo-Into action. Now. Standing no more. He goes.


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