Literary Ditto

November 30, 2007
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LITERARY DITTO

by Rochelle Jewel Shapiro

December 2007

". . .it is a good idea not to repeat words when it’s done carelessly or clumsily . . ."
—Shapiro
How many times have you as a student or you as a writer gotten back your work with red lines through words you’ve repeated within a sentence or short paragraph? The comment in the margin would usually be “Substitute new word or rephrase.”

Yes, it is a good idea not to repeat words when it’s done carelessly or clumsily as in these examples:

As an escape, I escaped to the woods.

He walked up the steps. He went into the room and looked around. He sat down and scratched his head. (Overly he-d, don’t you think?”)

He was playing ping pong in his recreation room, Ping pong was his favorite form of recreation.

"On the other hand, repetition of images, phrases, dialogue, events, objects, reflections, and symbols are an invaluable part of storytelling . . ."
—Shapiro

 

A sentence should feel good on your tongue. Reading aloud is the best way to rid yourself of clunkers.

On the other hand, repetition of images, phrases, dialogue, events, objects, reflections, and symbols are an invaluable part of storytelling from a grandmother telling her children a family story or folktale to the most gifted novelist writing a masterpiece. Prose cannot have the same obvious beat and rhythms as poetry. In prose, repetition is the main way of producing rhythm. In The Lovely Bones, for example, Alice Sebold repeats the image of a ship in a bottle throughout the novel. Each time she does, it strikes the familiar, but also takes on new meaning and power. The repetitions may involve the entire structure of the story. Foreshadowing, for example, is a type of repetition. The writer gives you constant glimpses of what will be until at the end, it all becomes very clear. Ursula L. Guin in Steering the Craft (Eighth Mountain Press, 1998) compares the subtle repetition in a long work of prose to not being able to see the shape of the mountains when you’re driving along a road while knowing all along that they are there.

In sacred texts of the oral tradition, there was no distinction between poetry and prose. Repetition was a major way in which a narrative was built. Repetition helped the teller remember the tale and keep it uniform as it passed from one mouth to the other.

Le Guin cites “Thunder Badger,” a Northern Paiute tale as an example:

He, the Thunder, when he is angry that the earth has dried up, that he has no moist earth, when he wants to make the earth moist, because the water has dried up:

He, the Thunder, The Rain Chief, lives on the surface of the clouds. He has frost; he the Thunder Sorcerer, appears like a badger; he, the Rain Sorcerer, he, the Thunder. After he digs, he lifts up his head to the sky, then the clouds come; then the rain comes; then there is a cursing of earth; the thunder comes; the lightning comes; evil is spoken.

"Think of all the repetition in fairy tales. The Three Little Pigs."
—Shapiro
Think of all the repetition in fairy tales. The Three Little Pigs.“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.” The Three Bears “Someone’s been eating my porridge.” And the repetition in Kipling’s Just So Stories as when the small Stute fish tells the whale:

“If you swim to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West (this is magic) you will find, sitting on a raft, in the middle of the sea, with nothing on but blue canvas breeches, a pair of suspenders, (you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved), and a jack-knife, one shipwrecked mariner, who, it is only fair to tell you, is a man of infinite resource and sagacity.”

So the whale swam and swam to latitude Fifty North, longitude Forty West…”

"There is a delight in repetition, not just for children, but adults as well."
—Shapiro

There is a delight in repetition, not just for children, but adults as well. In a piece of music there is usually a theme and variations. The listener longs to hear the theme and listens carefully for it, feeling a kind of relief and a joy upon picking it on in all of the variations and then hearing the them played again.

Repetition can also have a comic effect. For example, Le Guin points out that in Dickens’ David Copperfield, the first time Mr. Micawber says, “Something is certain to turn up,” it doesn’t mean much to David. But each time thereafter when the bumbling Mr. Micawber says it over the long book, it becomes comic. It also takes on meaning. As Le Guin says, “The darkness under the funniness begins to grow darker.”

"Another kind of repetition is structural, when it involves the entire design and plot of the story . . ."
—Shapiro

Another kind of repetition is structural, when it involves the entire design and plot of the story, when events repeat themselves with variations. Le Guin gives Jane Eyre as an example. In the first chapter, Jane is timid, quiet, but self-respecting child, the outsider in an unloving household, who escapes into reading, looking at pictures, nature. But when the older boy who bullies her goes too far, Jane turns on him and fights back. As punishment, she’s locked in an upstairs room that they tell her is haunted. The grown up Jane ends up being a shy outsider as well and is forced to stand up to Rochester and finds herself once again all alone. And there is a haunted room upstairs where Rochester’s mad wife is hidden away.

"As an exercise, you might try purposely doing a short narrative that has repetitions . . ."
—Shapiro

As an exercise, you might try purposely doing a short narrative that has repetitions and see where it takes you. Think of how, in The Hallelujah Chorus of Handel’s Messiah, by the last hallelujahs, your heart is pounding, you’re ready to rise from your seat and shout, “Hallelujah!” And now, begin.

About
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro
Rochelle Jewel Shapiro’s novel, Miriam the Medium (Simon & Schuster) which was nominated for the Harold U. Ribelow Award and is selling in Holland, Belgium, the U.K., is NOW OUT IN PAPERBACK in paperback in the states. You can order it on http://www.simonsays.com/ or Amazon.com or order it at your local bookstore.

 

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