On repetition

Discussion in 'Writing' started by Taramoc, Nov 18, 2012.

  1. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    I recently finished reading two very different novels, 1Q84 by Murakami, and The Ice Trilogy, by Sorokin, and found myself thinking about how the two writers relies on repetition a great deal, even if in two completely different ways.

    Murakami is constantly letting the reader know how obsessed his characters are with their predicaments, giving us the same inner thoughts over and over again, sometimes in the same chapter or paragraph. At times it gets grotesque, really, to the point that Murakami has trouble keeping the chronology of events of his book straight, and it's forced to break the fourth wall, and talk to the reader directly to explain what happen when, destroying quite clumsily the suspension of disbelief.

    I know that he is one of the most successful and respected author alive, and I can see that (as I explain in more details in my Goodreads review: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/384517453), but I can't help thinking that this book could have been a lot better at a third of its length (600 instead of the 900 pages it runs now), reducing that constant repetition to a less jarring amount.

    Sorokin, on the other hand, constantly repeats the same plot point, over and over again and mostly in the same detailed manner, without seemingly being able to offer us more. It kind of make sense, in the overall structure of the novel, but it still gets boring pretty quickly. And when he finally gets to the point, the last part of the trilogy feels quite rushed and uninspired, and almost preposterous.

    Just like Murakami, though, even if not at the same level of brilliance, Sorokin has some magical stretches that shows why he is a very accomplished author in his own right, but at the end of the day the overall reading experience feels flatter than it could have been. Also, I can't help thinking that if an unknown author would have tried to sell any of those novels as their first work, he would have either failed, or had to edit them dramatically, under the direction of the editors assigned to them by their publishers.

    I know that repetition can be very effective if done properly (the style of the magnificent trilogy of James Ellroy on American History - American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand and Blood is a Rover comes to mind), but personally when I write, I consider it the worst of all evil. I go out of my way to avoid using the same term, or, God forbid, the same plot point, but reading these two successful novels makes me rethink a bit my stance.

    How do you feel about repetition? Something to avoid at all cost? Or that can be used with moderation? Or only if you can get away with it as a successful author, like in the two cases above?
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2012
  2. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson sf-icionado / horror-ator

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    It's approaching twenty years since I read it, but Catch 22 does the repetition thing to perfection (or to death, I guess, depending on whether you like it or not). For those who haven't read it, it's a WWII satire in which US air force officers are compelled to perform endless bombing raids over Italy with the possibility of completing their tours of duty forever dangled out of reach, effectively forcing them to keep doing the same damn thing until they get killed in action. The entire book plays on notions of repetition and frustration; it's the psychotic, butting his head against the wall, played for laughs and played out at some length, but while some readers find it alienating I think Heller very definitely hit the target he aimed for, and which he also built of course. It's bitter stuff, take Major Major Major Major for example, a character who was named "Major Major Major" by his father as a joke, before being promoted to the rank of Major by "an IBM machine with a sense of humor almost as keen as his father's". I liked the film too, but the book is great.

    On a different note, I'm chugging my way through Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312 at the moment and there have been a number of occasions in which he describes different locations in terms of black/white contrast; it seemed striking the first time, but with each repetition I just think that again, why that again? The narrative isn't repetitious otherwise, but there are some odd choices in the text as a whole that vaguely put me off; alongside the actual story are biographies of the colonisation of various stellar bodies (basically part of the narrative, so that's fine), plus numerous "Excerpt" chapters and "List" chapters. The Excerpts are truncated encyclopaedia or text book entries, riffing more or less clearly of the central theme, so that's fine I guess, while the Lists are, um, lists, of various things...

    I suspect I know why he did this, but something about it strikes me as an interesting exercise that may have gone on a bit too long, and might have been more use on a research level than contributing to the bulking out of a pretty long book. On the other hand, that's probably what the detractors say about Catch 22.

    EDIT: just bought myself an ecopy of C22. My paperback is in another country, that's my excuse.
     
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2012
  3. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    Noumenon, I agree Catch22 is a great book (incidentally I read it about 20 years ago as well), and it's a great example of a novel in which repetition is not only warranted but it's integral to the work.
     
  4. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Repetition is like any tool. It can be used well, ill, or in between.

    All the examples given sound like incompetence to me. Just because the rest of a book is great does not mean it is flawless.
     
  5. Andrew Leon Hudson

    Andrew Leon Hudson sf-icionado / horror-ator

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    Pffffft. Can't speak to the rest, but as far as Catch 22 goes I can't disagree enough.
     
  6. kongming

    kongming www.voxnewman.com

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    When I think of repetition, I don't think of what you're talking about. I don't know how I refer to it. It's probably actually called repetition but I've just never thought of it that way. But you're right, it's a fine line. Murakami is a middle-of-the-road writer. To see it done well, see Yukio Mishima. To see the point at which a writer took it a little too far see George RR Martin's latest and Tyrion constantly opining "Where do whores go to die?"

    The technique I refer to as repetition is more of a repetition of senses: sounds, sight, touches, tastes and those of words: their sounds and shapes and a repetition of vowels or consonants. I like to alternate between subtly working them in and using them like a blunt instrument.
     
  7. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    Assonance, consonance, and alliteration are good word- and sentence-level techniques, though in prose their function (borrowed from poetry) sometimes gets overdone very quickly. They're excellent, when well under control, for giving your writing an audible style -- its tenor, lilt, etc. Personally, I think they're best used sparingly.

    Litany and refrain are great tools as well at paragraph and chapter level, but, again, there's a line. Per the ASOIF example, a refrain can quickly become a drudge, or simply lazy. Tyrion's constant use of the question ending up washing out its value, IMO. It started to lose its specific relevance. But, used well, it's a powerful tool for characterization, theme, etc.

    Then there's the more psychological, character-driven thought process type of repetition you often get in more po-mo sort of fare (a la Murakami -- who I think has achieved that level of authorship where editors forget they have a job to do...). I don't know the best fancy name for it -- call it obsessive, meandering, or just plain broken record. CJ Cherryh's Cyteen and its sequel are two interesting examples. Cyteen repeats many things, but from different perspectives, each perspective being that of a super genius, and does it well. There're nuances exposed, revealing how subtle differences in interpretation and use to a motive shape experience. But then in Regenesis, Cherryh tries to redo her own style, but it gets to be a real slog. The subtlety just didn't come through.

    Then there was Eragon... *shudder* 50, maybe 100, pages of RPG gaming adventure and 800 pages of beat-you-on-the-head repetition.

    So yeah... Repetition can be good and bad, but all authors use it to some extent, in different ways, and with varying degrees of success in achieving their aim by using it. Sometimes it's as simple as reminding a character or reader of a past event, sometimes it's artistry.
     
  8. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Chris / Fung Koo, have you been working out? (Literarily)

    That post was so to-the-point, clear, and well-written ... I'm envious.
     
  9. Window Bar

    Window Bar We Read for Light

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    Good thread. It brings to mind a public speaking course in which I participated thirty years ago. The idea was: "Tell the audience what you're going to say, then say it, then tell them what you said." The dictum derives from the science of memory: Memories form via repetition.

    Stories, however, are not about memory. They're about vicarious experience, complete with its surprises... even complete with its forgettings. If the writer can keep his/her own mind within the moment, and tell/show just what the viewpoint character is thinking, then the story will have wings. Repetition, in my view, depends upon the character. There are individuals who stumble through life without learning a single lesson from experience. Such a character would be highly unlikely to dwell upon past fears and experiences. Contrarily, there are individuals who ruminate on every nuance of every experience... to a degree that the past cripples the present. These opposite character types would require very different constructions by the author.
     
  10. Laer Carroll

    Laer Carroll LaerCarroll.com

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    Literary techniques are like spices

    Good points, Zacharias / WB.

    Another point about this technique, as with most, is that they are like spices. Too much is as bad as too little.

    Also, every consumer has a different idea of what the correct balance is between the two extremes. We writers can only use our own taste as a guide, and carefully consider if we're letting our tastes over-rule our judgment. Knowing no matter what we decide we'll not satisfy everyone.

    But then we don't have to satisfy every reader. As Elizabeth Moon says, we only have to satisfy enough.
     
  11. Fung Koo

    Fung Koo >:|Angry Beaver|: <

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    In a strange twist of serendipity, I've been working on this very topic with my Grade 8s... it was fresh in my head :)
     
  12. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    Woah, I turn my head a few days, and this thread is in full swing. Nice!

    First of all, let me thank you, Fung Koo, for putting proper terminology to my initial rambling. I agree that all the sentence-level techniques you mention can be great if used properly. I also think that it’s harder to find poor usage of those from established authors, as if they employ them, they typically know what they are doing (If you haven't read the Ellroy trilogy I mentioned above, I definitively recommend as high point of creating a compelling rhythm with the use of all those tools).

    What I'm wondering about is the broken record, as you aptly put it. I understand that the author wants to really drive home the point that this character is obsessed with something, and as Window Bar says, it may be right for that particular character and his/her makeup, but I think there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. I'm not the character, after all, I'm the reader. I get that he/she is obsessed, but after you have told me five times in a chapter, if you keep repeating it, it only diminishes the impact of the obsession, as it becomes annoying and it undermines the very struggle you are trying to point out. I figured a world famous author would get that.

    I wonder if there is some kind of drive (possibly at an unconscious level) to produce a long book, with hundreds of pages, as a career next step (I'm thinking of Murakami, since all his previous books are significantly shorter), or because the genre the author write in has mostly big tomes (in Eragon's case), and so they meander to increase the word count.

    Kongming, thanks for the suggestion, I'll check out Mishima. Also, you bring up a good point on the repetition of sensory descriptors. I can see that working great as theme/mood setter, obviously as you say, if not overused.

    Laer, I definitively agree with Ms. Moon's statement, but I really cannot imagine anybody enjoying the level of broken record that at times Murakami imposes on the reader. That doesn't mean that I didn't enjoy the book on other levels (even if it took me a few tries to finish it), but I really don’t see any upside in that level of repetition, and I thought that an accomplished author like him would see that way too (or at least his editors, publishers, etc). Also, I hope you were referring to just my examples, as Catch22 is a masterpiece, no matter how you look at it ;)
     
  13. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    Well, I actually enjoyed that, believe it or not. To me, it didn't feel like repitition (even though it obviously is) so much as a very slow pace. This particular type of repetition is an iteration; a lot is kept constant, so you're supposed to keep track of minor changes until the existant elements no longer suffice and a new element is introduced. The repetition feeds back on itself and ends up changing. I've heard Murakami compared to Kafka a lot, but this is the first time I actually felt the similarity. (Kafka's use of repetition, I think, is very similar.)

    To get an example where repetition is just repetition and not iteration, look at Waiting for Godot. Nothing they say makes sense, and the structure is repeated once in total. Twice is enough, because by then you get that nothing will ever change. Iteration is different, in that there is no cut-off point, and little changes crop up through-out.

    Note that it's not discrete iteration (iteration in bit-sized units; e.g. Groundhog Day), but a constant flow where each element iterates on its own, but is also tied into the greater flow. That's a lot harder to write, and it worked for me.

    Another form of repetition might be accumulation: a little mention here, a little mention there, until you have the feeling that something is up. If you read 1Q84 as accumulation (rather than iteration) I can see how it can get tedious. The repetition isn't subtle; it's the little changes in the mood, the re-direction of the flow that's important, at least to the way I read it.

    Of course, I should now go into specifics and show - with the text - what I mean, but I'm actually talking from memory, and what I remember is more how I felt while reading than the actual text. And this sort of topic is hard to re-construct on a mere re-skimming (and I don't have the time or energy to do even that, to be honest). The point of the post is to show that there are people out there who liked the repetition aspect (me), and maybe give a little flavour of the "why" (though I'm not sure that part was actually helpful, since it's pretty abstract).
     
  14. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    Obviously, I stand corrected, Dawnstorm. It's good to get another perspective and don't worry, I'm not about to ask you textual examples of what you are saying. Maybe it was just a matter of reading 1Q84 with the right mindset, and I suspect that the fact that, with three small kids in the house, I don't have a lot of time to read, and so I'm probably not as patient as I should be.

    I'm curious to know how do you feel about Murakami speaking directly to the reader to explain what happens when, as I felt it was rather clunky, and frankly not necessary. A simple rearrangement of chapters and/or paragraphs would have solved the problem (assuming there was one in the first place).

    I don't recall having this problem with Kafka, but again I read it twenty years ago, when my life was vastly different. And about Waiting for Godot, I don't have a problem with that, as I see it in the same vein of Catch 22. Repetition is part of the very structure of the work and so it's part of what makes it great.
     
  15. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    It's possible. It's also possible that I'm just especially compatible with that mindset (your complaint is, as far as I can tell, a common one). I'm thinking of the anime romance Kimi ni Todoke, for example, that bored a lot of people and frustrated them with slow progress; I'm seeing the same use of repition at work here (except much less complex). It's possibly just taste.

    I don't have a clear memory of what you are talking about, more a vague memory of what you might refer to, so I can't really address this. I thought it was omniscient narration from the start, so I suppose it wouldn't have stood out to me. It's possible, though, that I just pushed it aside to enjoy the story more.

    About Kafka and Beckett: it's interesting to read the translations. Kafka comes across vastly different in German and English (at least the translations I read). English tends to simplify the syntax, and thus Kafka is a lot easier to read. Waiting for Godot, on the other hand, sounded pretty much the same in both English and German (I have a tri-lingual edition, but I don't speak French). I do wonder what gets lost in translation.
     
  16. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    Funny because I read Kafka and Godot in Italian back in the days, maybe I should read them in English again and see if I feel differently ;)

    Incidentally, I do like slow, especially in anime movies (for example I love Shinkai's 5 centimetres per second), so I may be ok with Kimi ni Todoke, but in film I think it's easier to deal with repetition. Movies like Pi or The Limey used it constantly and not for structural reasons and it works great.
     
  17. Dawnstorm

    Dawnstorm Master Obfuscator

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    Heh, I picked Kimi ni Todoke because it's the simplest and most obvious example of what I call "iteration": things don't seem to change, but there's a steady back-ground progress. 5 cm per second is slow in terms of mood, but it's not repetitive; rather, it's (as far as I recall) episodic (was three part original video animation in Japan, and is marketed as movie in the west [which explains its 3-part structure]). Kimi ni Todoke, in comparison, is a two season TV series; the first season has 25 episodes, the second season 12. The entire show ends with the first kiss (after 37 episodes). It was a manga first; for all I know that's still ongoing. The entire 37 episodes basically consists of the two main characters being embarrassed while looking at each other. The male lead has practically no development and is more an ideal fantasy than a real person (though, considering that, pretty well done). The plot is driven by the female lead's development, as she's coming out of her shell. I love the first season (and still like the second season, but it's executed with less care). A lot of people got bored with that approach and quit on the show (and many of those who still finished up still think the approach is its weakness). It's not that it's slow, it's that the repetition stands out. Personally, I like it at that. (It doesn't work as well during the second season, but that's probably more to do with the production values of the show; you can see the quality difference in the flashback scenes.)

    I feel 1Q84 was like that, too, but more complicated because there was more external development, and a more complex mash-up of themes.

    That's interesting. I'm curious about Pi; I've read the book, but haven't seen the film yet.

    ***

    Basically, I can think of three types of repetition:

    Variation: some element is repeated with a slight difference or in a different context. Waiting for Godot would fall into that category.

    Iteration: What's repeated is a process, and the end-result of the process is the condition of the next iteration. I think both 1Q84 and Kimi ni Todoke fall into that category, but also time-loop stories (such as Groundhog Day).

    Accumulation: The repetition signals something other than itself. Any sort of rhyme could serve as an example, here.

    Both iteration and accumulation involve variation, but variation can be an end in itself.

    Impromptu theory, not that well thought through.
     
  18. Taramoc

    Taramoc Author and Game Designer

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    It works for me Dawnstorm. Now thanks to you and Fung Koo I have some real terminology to refer to all of this.

    Thanks!