Used intentionally in the right context, repetition can be a powerful tool to make an audience savor words, understand a point, or believe in a cause.
Read aloud the short passage from William Gass’ “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country?” What feelings about place and character are evoked by repetition and rhythm? How does Gass create this atmosphere so efficiently?
What do you learn about the bodyguard from the questions asked in Barthelme’s short story “Concerning the Bodyguard?”
Read aloud the excerpt from Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried.” Listen closely to rhythm, both in the repeated use of the word “carried” and in the use of long and short sentences?
These are the kinds of questions you can ask yourself when it comes to repetition in your own writing, and how the use of repetition, especially asking questions, can help you expand your understanding of character and place.
Exercise: Using repetition, take one of the examples as a model and write a passage about a character you are working on, or a setting, or to begin a new piece of writing.
Or, if you like something more structured, try one of Le Guin’s exercises. Structural Repetition:
Write a short narrative in which something is said or done and then something is said or done that echoes or repeats it, perhaps in a different context, or by different people, or on a different scale.
From “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William Gass, The Heart of the Heart of the Country
“For we’re always out of luck here. That’s just how it is—for instance in the winter. The sides of buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hair, eyes, window glass, the hawkers’ bills and touters’ posters, lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they’re gray, quite gray. Cars are gray. Boots, shoes, suits, hats, gloves are gray. Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are gray, everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.”
Salman Rushdie Reads Donald Barthelme’s “Concerning the Body Guard” from Forty Stories
excerpt from “The Things They Carried,” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 15 and 20 pounds, depend- ing upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, car- ried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few car- ried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots—2. 1 pounds— and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Laven- der carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress ban- dage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic pon- cho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.