7.3 Repetition vs. Elegant Variation

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"Elegant variation" means avoiding the repetition of words that catch the reader's attention—that hang in the mind long enough that the reader realizes you've repeated yourself.

Let's take a concrete example. I recently finished a novel that had a lot of pyrotechnics in it. One set of characters liked to use flamethrowers as weapons; another character was a pyrokinetic, able to control fire by the power of her mind. Therefore, I had a number of scenes with people trying to char each other to cinders. That meant I had to come up with a lot of different words for fire. "The blaze...the inferno...the flames...the burning heap...the searing intensity..."

Why did I have to come up with these different expressions? Because I didn't want to use the word "fire" half a dozen times in a single paragraph:

The fireball flew across the room. Impervia dodged the fire, but Myoko didn't; the fire washed across her face and her hair caught on fire. She tried to put out the fire with her hands, but her coat-sleeves caught on fire, so they were on fire too.

You get the idea. Here's a version of the same paragraph with a bit of elegant variation:

The fireball flew across the room. Impervia dodged the blaze, but Myoko didn't; flames washed across her face and her hair began to burn. She tried to put out the fire with her hands, but her coat-sleeves ignited with a burst of smoke and light...

Elegant variation means avoiding the repetition of notable words. The more unusual the word, the less frequently you want to repeat it. For example, you'll notice that the above example still repeated the word "fire" (once in "fireball" and once on its own). I decided that was okay because "fire" is a common word that doesn't make a big impression on the reader's ear. A word like "inferno" is more uncommon, and I'd be reluctant to use it often. "Conflagration" would be even worse. I certainly wouldn't repeat "conflagration" within ten pages of itself—it's such a noticeable word that readers would think I was getting into a rut. Compare that with unnoticeable words like "the" or "a." "The" is used eight times in this paragraph and "a" is used six times, but I doubt if you feel I'm being redundant.

Repetition is not always a bad thing. It can be effective in a parallel structure like the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

The repetitive parallel structure shows the contrasts and confusions of the times (the French revolution). Its seesaw effect sets the tone for the book to come.

Repetition is also good for emphasis, especially in dialogue:

Sarah glared at him coldly. "I hate you. I have always hated you. I hate your constant whining and your petty, petty ways. I hate every second I have to look at your face, every hour I have to listen to your boorish voice. If hate was a tangible thing, all the ships in your fleet would sink under the weight of a single day of my loathing...and I have endured it for twenty-six years." She got up and straightened her dress. "Shall I bring in the tea now?"

Sarah's speech uses several types of parallelism. The first few sentences parallel each other; there's also the parallel structure in "every second...every hour." The word "hate" is repeated a number of times, as is "petty." Then, in what I hope is a nice contrast, the paragraph ends with a complete departure from repetition and parallelism, suggesting...I don't know what. But the very fact that it's a break from what's gone before gives it a feeling of significance.

You have to be in command of all a writer's tools. Repetition is one of those tools; so is elegant variation. Knowing when to use which is another thing that makes writing an art.

A few more comments about repetition: I try to avoid starting two successive sentences with the same word unless I'm deliberately creating parallelism. I also avoid starting two successive paragraphs with the same word. These aren't hard and fast rules, but I find them useful. They force me to vary my sentence structure, so I don't fall into plodding rhythms.

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Copyright © 2001, James Alan Gardner