Repetition as a literary device is present in almost every kind of writing, be it a novel, short story, poem, or essay that we’ve come to know and love. When it’s used effectively, we often don’t even realize it’s there. Repetition can be present in words, phrases, sounds, images, or themes. It’s what gives stories a sense of unity and persuades the reader of their message.
But hang on—isn’t repetitive writing a bad thing? Don’t we want our stories to be fresh and new all the time?
Poorly used repetition can absolutely drag down a piece of writing, while repetition used with intention and precision can elevate it to the next level. Let’s look at the repetition definition with some helpful examples, and how repetition works in a story to make it more powerful, memorable, and evocative. By the end of this article, you’ll have learned how to use repetition in a story like a pro.
What is repetition in writing?
In literary terms, repetition refers to a recurring element in a piece of writing. At the line level this might be a sound, word, or phrase; at the broader story level this might be an image, setting, or idea.
We see repetition used all the time in both poetry and classic literature, as well as famous speeches and persuasive arguments in politics. This is because repetition helps drive an idea into the reader or the listener’s mind. For example, this famous line from a speech by Bill Clinton in 1995:
“When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it.”
He uses repeated words like “talk,” “us,” and “stand” to encourage solidarity and courage in his listeners. The specific type of repetition he’s used here is called “symploce.” We’ll look at some more types of repetition you can use in a story later on in this article.
One of the other kinds of writing that repetition is most recognizable in is classic fairy tales. You’ll notice that there are always three wishes, three goats crossing the troll bridge, three chances to prove yourself to the fairy in disguise. These stories stay with us forever because of their use of repetition.
Why use repetition in a story?
In literature, repetition works to add emphasis to key ideas. In narration, this can help underline your central themes or enhance the mood of a story. In dialogue, repetition can reveal a lot about character.
For example, the famous children’s book series Madeline always opens with the same several lines:
In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines
lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.
In two straight lines they broke their bread
and brushed their teeth and went to bed.
The repeating words help emphasize the sense of order, discipline, and routine. Here the repetition also works to create rhythm and make the words easier for children to remember.
In dialogue, a character’s word choice can reveal their strengths, weaknesses, or the way they want to be perceived by the world around them. For example, stuttering is an example of unintentional repetition of words or sounds that can help define a character’s distinctive voice. A character might also repeatedly apologize when they’re uncertain, or repeatedly use certain words to sound more intellectual or sophisticated.
A famous example of a character’s repeated word choice is in the film The Princess Bride, in which one of the central villains (played by the iconic Wallace Shawn), repeatedly uses the word “inconceivable.” It becomes a trademark of his character and shows us how he wants to project himself to the world.
We’ll show you some more repetition examples in literature below.
Line-level repetition vs. structural repetition
Repetition can happen in a story in two different ways. Line-level repetition is when the same word, sound, or phrase is used to create emphatic effect. Structural repetition is when the same image, symbol, or literary device is repeated throughout the story to highlight its underlying themes.
We’ll look at a few ways to use line-level repetition through recurring words, vowel sounds, or consonant sounds, and how to use repetition on a broader scale to give depth to your story.
Anaphora, epistrophe, and epizeuxis
These three literary devices refer to ways the same words or successive clauses can be used in a piece of writing.
Anaphora is a literary device that uses repeated words or phrases at the beginning of a string of successive sentences. This means that each sentence will begin with the same word or phrase, creating a rhythmic effect and putting emphasis on a central idea.
A good example is the satirical poem “Litany,” by American poet Billy Collins:
You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.
Three sentences in a row begin with “you are,” which sets a comfortable rhythm for the poem and shows the reader what the poem is going to be about.
Epistrophe is the opposite of anaphora. Instead of repeating sections at the beginning of a sentence, you repeat sections of two or more words at the very end. Here’s an example from a play by William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice:
If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honour to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.
In this example of repetition, the speaker lands each sentence on “the ring,” putting emphasis on the importance of this pivotal plot device.
When anaphora and epistrophe are both used in the same sentence, it’s called symploce. Bill Clinton’s speech, which we looked at above, is an example of symploce.
Epizeuxis works like anaphora and epistrophe, but instead of clauses or phrases, it’s only one single word that’s repeated. This might be something like a character saying, “I would never lie to you. Never, never, never.” The repetition of the word “never” illustrates the importance of this concept to the character and how much they strive to get the idea across.
The most famous example of epizeuxis in literature is Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Bells,” where he uses repetition of a word to create a bell-like rhythm within the poem:
Yet the ear distinctly tells,
In the jangling,
And the wrangling.
How the danger sinks and swells,
By the sinking or the swelling in the anger of the bells—
Of the bells—
Of the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells—
In the clamor and the clangor of the bells!
Here, the repetition works for both emphasis and the sound we hear in our ears as we read it.
Alliteration, assonance, and consonance
These three literary devices take an even closer look at sentence mechanics. They refer to ways a repeating vowel sound or consonant sound can be used to create rhythm in a story or poem.
Alliteration means beginning a series of words or short phrases with the same initial letter or sound. Many of our classic children’s nursery rhymes rely on alliteration: “She sells seashells by the sea shore” uses a mixed alliteration of S sounds and Sh sounds. You’ll notice that alliteration is also popular in marketing; for instance, “Coca-Cola” or “Bed, Bath, and Beyond.” This is because alliteration makes things stick in our ear.
Here’s a literary example of alliteration from The Great Gatsby:
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
The same opening sounds over and over give the line a poetic quality and makes it stand out to the ear.
Assonance means using repeated vowel sounds. This can be anywhere within the line, and it gives the piece a sense of unity to the ear. Note that like alliteration, assonance refers to the sound and not necessarily the letter. For instance, “a peaceful sleep beneath a tree” contains repeating E sounds, even though they’re not all spelled the same way.
Here’s an example from Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Disquieting Muses”:
When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
In the first half she uses soft I sounds in “girls” and “blinking,” and then hard I sounds in “lights” and “fireflies.”
Consonance is the opposite of assonance; both refer to repetition of sounds, but this is the repetition of consonant sounds rather than vowels. Like assonance, consonance refers strictly to the sound in the ear rather than the letters in the eye.
Irish poet Seamus Heaney uses consonance in his poem “Blackberry Picking”:
The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.
I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair
He uses a repeating F consonant sound and hard T consonant sound that give the poem a sharp quality which matches the story being told. You can use these repeated vowels and consonants to emulate the mood of the piece.
You don’t need to memorize each of these literary devices to use them effectively in your story (although if you manage to causally drop “epizeuxis” into a sentence, your friends will be super impressed), but this gives you an idea of what mindful repetition is capable of and how you can use it in your work.
Repetition can be marvelously effective in creating powerful sentences and paragraphs. Another use for them is on a larger scale by repeating certain images or ideas within your story. When writers use a symbol multiple times throughout a narrative, it’s called a motif.
Other ways to use thematic repetition may be to include the same setting multiple times. For instance, the book Ladies’ Night at Finbar’s Hotel is a collection of short interlocking stories all set at the same hotel, but from different perspectives. You can explore ways to refer back to the same place several times throughout your story, giving it a deeper meaning for the reader each time.
Another great use for thematic repetition is if you’re trying to find a way to end your story. You can use repeating elements to bring it together and give it a sense of completion.
For instance, if your story opened with your main character coming back to their childhood home, you may choose to end your story by showing them walking away from it forever. The image from your story is now inverted to create a different meaning. Alternatively, you could show them returning to their childhood home after a short walk and deciding to stay there forever. This gives a repeating image from your story new depth.
Any time you want to enhance the emotion of your story, look for ways you can repeat images or ideas in new, powerful ways.
Effective examples of repetition in literature
As you can see, all these different types of repetition are tricks that writers can use to engage readers, create rhythm, and support the theme of your story. Let’s look at some repetition examples of how a few writers have used these techniques in their literary work, both in poetry and prose.
The Song of Hiawatha, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Should you ask me, whence these stories?
Whence these legends and traditions,
With the odors of the forest
With the dew and damp of meadows,
With the curling smoke of wigwams,
With the rushing of great rivers,
With their frequent repetitions,
And their wild reverberations
As of thunder in the mountains?
I should answer, I should tell you,
“From the forests and the prairies,
From the great lakes of the Northland,
From the land of the Ojibways,
From the land of the Dacotahs,
From the mountains, moors, and fen-lands
Where the heron, the Shuh-shuh-gah,
Feeds among the reeds and rushes.”
Longfellow’s Indiginous-inspired epic uses repetition to imitate the sound of a story sung around a campfire. In this opening stanza, he explains that he heard the tale he’s about to tell from tribes living in the woods and mountains. You can see how repetition is used by reading the full poem online here.
Art Matters, by Neil Gaiman
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do…
Make good art.
I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by a mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art.
Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art. Make it on the good days too.
Neil Gaiman’s memoir/self-help book/artistic manifesto champions the act of creating art even in the darkest of times. Writing “Make good art” over and over shows the reader that no matter what traumatic and potentially ridiculous challenges life throws at you, this is what truly matters. The repetitive question-and-answer format underlines the thematic idea that creation will always be the answer.
Fresh Water For Flowers, by Valérie Perrin
But he could be written to, his mail was being forwarded.
What could I write to him?
I’m crazy, I’m alone, I’m impossible, You believed me, and I did everything I could so you would.
I was so happy in your car.
I was so happy with you on my sofa.
I was so happy with you in my bed.
You are young. But I don’t think we care.
Valérie Perrin’s experimental novel uses repetition in creative ways to take us into the mind of the central character as she works to uncover her feelings. In this section, she repeats the name to create almost a pounding effect in her head; other re-used phrases, such as “I was so happy,” reveal the protagonist’s blooming new understanding.
Use repetition to create rhythm in your story
Language is pretty fascinating, and there’s a whole range of tools that you can use to enhance your story. With artful repetition you can persuade your reader of arguments or ideas, as well as create a feeling of coherence and unity from beginning to end.