MBM: Using Repetition To Improve Your Book, by A.L. Sowards

Welcome to the sixth day of March Book Madness. (If you’ve missed any days, make sure to catch up. Lots of good book info so far. The schedule is at the bottom of this post.)

Today, my friend A.L. (Amanda) Sowards is here talking about repetition and circularity in our books. It’s a cool concept, something I hadn’t really considered before, so I’m excited to have her.

Amanda was kind enough to do a post for last year’s March Book Madness about creating flawed but likable characters. That post continues to be one of my top posts on my blog. I’m thrilled she’s back giving us more writing tips. :) (See link for her last post at the bottom of this one.)


Why Repetition Can Make Your Book Better by A.L. Sowards

A. L. Sowards: 

If you were to make a list of things a book requires (plot, setting, characters, etc), circularity and repetition wouldn’t be on the list. But sometimes these techniques are exactly what you need to take your project and make it that much better.

So what are they, and how can they help your book?

Circularity

We’ll start with circularity. My favorite example of this comes from the movie How to Train Your Dragon. (It was a book before it was a movie, but according to the sample on Amazon, the book doesn’t start out exactly the same.)

In the opening scene, the narrator, a young Viking named Hiccup, introduces viewers to his village:

This is Berk. It’s twelve days north of hopeless and a few degrees south of freezing-to-death. It’s located solidly on the meridian of misery. My village: in a word, sturdy. It’s been here for seven generations but every single building is new. We have fishing, hunting, and a charming view of the sunsets. The only problems are the pests. You see, most places have mice or mosquitoes. We have dragons. Most people would leave. Not us. We’re Vikings. We have stubborness issues.

Then Hiccup has his adventures and the movie ends this way:

This is Berk. It snows nine months of the year and hails the other three. Any food that grows here is tough and tasteless. The people that grow here are even more so. The only upsides are the pets. While other places have ponies or parrots, we have dragons.

To get the full effect, you’ll probably have to watch the movie, but hopefully this gives you a hint of how circularity works.

Both scenes say similar things: Berk has some problems. Hiccup begins the story not liking his village. The cons of living in Berk are so big that the few pros like nice sunsets and good fishing hardly matter. Hiccup tries to fit in, but everyone sees him as a problem.

At the end of the movie, Hiccup is still different from most of the other Vikings, but he’s earned their respect and he’s happy. He’s found his place, and although the village still has some problems, they aren’t so important anymore—they just give the place character. Hiccup is content. The dragons are no longer pests, but pets.

Hiccup is no longer a zero, but a hero.

Circularity shows the reader (or the viewer) something very similar, usually near the beginning and then again during the end of the story. Because most things are the same, the reader is able to pinpoint the few things that are different—and those differences are usually in the characters and how they’ve changed throughout the story.

Circularity is a great way to highlight that change.

Hook

Other examples of this might include a workaholic character who is a slave to his phone or other electronic device. Perhaps in the beginning of your book, he’ll answer it anywhere: at dinner with his family, in the middle of an important discussion with his romantic interest, or when he should be comforting his best friend who just lost a parent.

During the story, perhaps your character learns what is most important in life, and toward the end, the phone rings during something important—and your character ignores it. (Or, like Robin Williams in the movie Hook, actually throws the phone out the window.)

The reader can instantly see how much your character has grown throughout the book by showing how he or she reacts differently to basically the same circumstance.

Or maybe your character loves to oil paint but doesn’t have a car and is scared of public transportation. Perhaps in the beginning of the story, she’s so scared of buses and metros and light rails that even though she just used up the last of her paint, she’d rather order more online and wait a few days than brave the bus to the store across town. During the course of your story, the character changes—becoming more courageous and willing to overcome her fears. In the end of your book, she runs out of paint again, but this time, she walks to the bus stop so she can get to the store and buy her paint.

Other possibilities might include:

  • A character visiting a tombstone, distraught in the beginning of your story, but at peace in the end
  • A mother losing her temper when a toddler makes a huge mess, then laughing when the same thing happens again
  • A guy afraid to call the girl of his dreams who finally manages to pick up the phone and dial

Circularity often refers to scenes that serve as bookends in a story, but you don’t have to limit yourself to the beginning and the end of a story to use this technique. Sometimes, you might want to repeat a scene three or four times. Or maybe it’s not the situation that’s the same, maybe it’s just the words.

I hesitate to use examples from my own writing, but when I use something I wrote, I’m not guessing at the author’s intentions, and I don’t have to worry about copyright infringement, so here we go.

In my novel Deadly Alliance (coming out in a few weeks), a character named Miloš is in love with a character named Marija. Every day he proposes to her, and it goes something like this:

Miloš came out of the house and walked toward her. “Hello, Marija.”

“Hello, Miloš.”

“I was thinking, Marija, that we should get married.”

Marija’s hands didn’t pause as they scrubbed out a shirt. “We can’t get married.”

“Why not?”

Marija wrung out the shirt, not bothering to look at him. “I’m taller than you.”

“Phst. Only by an inch. I will wear tall shoes and forget to comb my hair. No one will notice I’m so short.”

“I don’t love you, Miloš.”

Miloš stayed where he was for a few minutes. She knew he was there, but she didn’t meet his gaze. After a while, Miloš spoke again. “Perhaps tomorrow you will love me.”

It’s pretty much the same thing, multiple times. Miloš says: “I was thinking, Marija, that we should get married.” She offers an excuse of why they can’t. He brushes off the excuse and she still tells him “no.” Undeterred, Miloš says that maybe things will be different tomorrow. Yet even though it’s the same thing, the most common remark I heard from test readers (mine and the publisher’s) was how much they loved the dialog between Miloš and Marija, and they aren’t even the book’s main characters.

So why does it work (at least for test readers), even though it’s the same thing over and over again?

Because the chain of conversation is so similar, readers can pick up on the small differences. They can notice how Marija’s excuses change from problems with Miloš and problems with their circumstances to problems with her. And like Miloš, they can hope that at some point the answer will change.

Repetition

Repetition doesn’t have to involve an entire scene. It could be as simple as a phrase.

Can anyone who’s ever seen The Princess Bride hear “as you wish” and not remember Wesley? What of “hello, my name is Inigo Montoya; you killed my father; prepare to die?”

My Name Is Inigo Montoya

And even though our world is not populated by Jedis and Siths, most people understand what you mean when you say “may the force be with you.”

That’s the power of a phrase, repeated just often enough to make the viewer or reader smile whenever they hear it, because they recognize it, know it’s history, and know what it really means.

Hopefully this post has given you some ideas for your work in progress. Of course, if you decide to incorporate circularity or repetition into your story, be sure you don’t go overboard. 

How will you know if you’ve gone overboard? 

Hmm. Is anyone doing a post on the importance of editors and test readers?

A.L. Sowards

Bio:

A.L. Sowards is the author of WWII thrillers Espionage, Sworn Enemy, and Deadly Alliance. She’s also a mother of twins and loves history, books, and chocolate.

Previous March Book Madness Post: 2013, Creating Flawed by Likable Characters

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Her Books:

Books by AL Sowards

Connect with her:

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Rebecca’s thoughts:

I really love this concept. It’s one of those things that I’ve noticed before (like in How To Train Your Dragon), but not in a conscious way.

I keep thinking of more examples, and now I’m excited to go through my stuff and see how I can use this to my characters’ (and readers’) advantage.

Thanks again Amanda for another great post!

What about you? What’s your favorite example of circularity? Do you have a favorite line from a book or a movie? Comment here.

Make sure to tune in Tuesday for our next guest: Charity Bradford.

MBM

If you’re new to March Book Madness, it has nothing to do with basketball (sorry) and everything to do with books. March is National Reading Month, so March Book Madness gives me an excuse to discuss everything about writing, editing, and reading books with some amazing authors.

If you’ve missed any posts, here they are:

2014 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

2013 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

2012 MARCH BOOK MADNESS:

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Author: Rebecca Belliston @rlbelliston

Hopeless romantic and author of CITIZENS OF LOGAN POND, SADIE and AUGUSTINA. Music nerd and composer of RELIGIOUS and CLASSICAL-STYLE music. I live in Michigan with my husband and five kids.

16 thoughts on “MBM: Using Repetition To Improve Your Book, by A.L. Sowards”

  1. I love circularity, and your examples are great. It is nice to see through this relationship how a character has grown and changed since the last time the same situation happened.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love circularity and repetition in a story when done well. It’s like a familiar pair of slippers – comforting and familiar. And think of all the Internet memes you can make from them! LOL

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post and I’m thinking of ways to use this. Thank you.
    I like the concept of ‘leaning’ from While You Were Sleeping that gets repeated. It’s small but we instantly get it when it’s repeated.

    Liked by 1 person

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