Effective Repetition in Writing as Demonstrated by A Song of Ice and Fire

English professor and author Gavin Hurley shows how the use of effective repetition in writing can help readers have a smoother reading experience.
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English professor and author Gavin Hurley shows how the use of effective repetition in fantasy novels like A Song of Ice and Fire demonstrate two approaches of using repetition in writing of your own, no matter the style.

effective repetition in writing

Fantasy authors—like J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, or Robert Jordan—craft complex stories that intertwine numerous characters and plotlines. The stories are also set within fictional worlds with fictional geography and fictional histories. All of their novels include appendices as resources, equipped with glossaries, family trees, and/or maps of imaginary worlds.

Readers expect this type of intricate storytelling when they engage with fantasy novels. Yet, despite readers’ expectations, these intricate stories can be frustrating if they are not told well. Therefore, successful fantasy writers get ahead of this potential frustration and rhetorically adapt their texts. They convey complex stories in ways that artfully accommodate the audience.

These writers—and all effective storytellers and communicators—purposefully apply redundancies in some way. Specifically, they deliberately repeat particular information to optimize understanding. This strategy is not only reserved for fantasy or even fiction. It can rhetorically enhance any type of writing, including nonfiction, workplace writing, and digital writing.

Two tactical approaches can help us apply this strategy:

1.) A Subtle Approach 

Fantasy writers seem to all recognize that, without some help, readers will likely confuse one exotically named fictional character with another. So, authors find ways to consistently remind readers who characters are. They do this by repeating similar information about each character throughout their novels. For example, when George R.R. Martin mentions Lord Varys throughout A Song of Ice and Fire, he will often integrate additional information. He often includes that Varys’ nickname is “the Spider” and he is a eunuch. Martin makes this clear from the introduction of the character, but he regularly reminds readers throughout the book series as well. These reminders are choreographed by creative dialogue with other characters. For instance, members of House Lannister often refer to Varys as the “Spider” in conversation, and Tyrion constantly jokes with Varys about being a eunuch. These interactions help readers remember Varys’ distinct traits within a vast cast of disparate characters.

As an effective storyteller, Martin carefully massages this type of repetition into A Song of Ice and Fire. Since the reminders are so subtle, readers may not recognize that the details act as rhetorical redundancies of previously established information. From the redundancies, readers can more vividly recollect Varys’ character without the information clumsily interfering with the narrative itself. These reminders are delicate maneuvers for any author—specifically because they need to fly under the reader’s radar. After all, authors do not want to insult the reader’s intelligence—especially “fan intelligence” of avid fantasy readers—by telling them what they already know.

This repetition principle extends beyond genre fiction. We can apply it to writing nonfiction prose as well. Similar to the Varys example, if we explicitly unite several related terms of an important idea, then readers can link those words together toward a consummate understanding of the reference. For example, throughout this article, I repeat the terms “repeat/repetition,” “redundancy/redundancies,” and “remind/reminders.” If you notice, I use them interchangeably. They constitute a purposeful set of terms meant to assist the readability of this article. In this way, readers can unite the three terms into one shared meaning. If a reader is not familiar with “redundancies,” they will surely understand the term “repetition”; as such, whenever they read “redundancies,” they then associate it with “repetition.” Moreover, I consistently use the two terms interchangeably with a third term: “reminder.” Using these three terms synonymously allows readers to naturally associate the terms “redundancy” and “repetition” with the term “reminder.”

Overall, the repetition of three synonymous terms helps conceptually cohere the composition as a whole—and provides three options (rather than merely one) for reader comprehension. These options increase the quality of understanding and theoretically triple the probability that readers will understand the material at all. Simply put: repeating content using various terms can increase the odds of effectively communicating with others.

2.) A Transparent Approach to Repetition in Writing

The previous—and admittedly stealthy—tactic can be difficult to implement depending on the context and readership. Therefore, a more overt way to repeat terms may be to announce the repetition to the reader. This can be done through transparent lead-ins, such as the phrase “in other words.” After inserting the signal “in other words,” the writer can repeat the statement with more approachable language.

Consider this nonfiction example:

“What is deontology? Deontology demands that moral duties are justified by human rationality. In other words, it suggests that people’s reasoning obliges them to ethically follow particular laws.

After “in other words,” the writer literally rephrases the statement using “other words.” They slightly shift the reader’s angle of vision of the same exact material. This particular writer rearranges the structure of the sentence and also uses synonyms. “Rationality” becomes “reasoning;” “duty” becomes “obliges” and “laws; “human” becomes “people’s”; and “moral” becomes “ethically.”

Once the “in other words” flag is waved, the author can then effectively recycle any of those synonymous phrases throughout the rest of the text when referring to “deontology.” After all, the associations unify a family of terms—much like the associative set of “repetition” “redundancy” and “reminder” in this article that you are reading, and the associative set of “Varys,” “Spider,” and “eunuch” within George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.

In sum—

Repeating sets of terms can naturally remind readers of characters and concepts. Such redundancies can ensure that readers seldom have to retrace sentences that come before. Moreover, they prevent readers from constantly flipping through a novel or document for clarification. Instead, in-text redundancies console our readers before they have a chance to feel frustrated. As such, they help streamline the reading experience of our audience.

Don't let too much repetition get the better of you. Check out these tips from former WD editor Brian Klems for avoiding unnecessary repetition.

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