Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Art of Repetition

I mentioned in a recent blog post that repetition is bad. I'd like to clarify here that there are different types of repetition: Repeating Redundancy and Repeating Beauty.

refers to the types of repetition I speak of in the Trust blog post - pounding unnecessary information into your reader's head. For example, repeating dialogue tags when the dialogue said it clear enough, repeating a symbol or metaphor over and over just in case your reader "missed it", repeating specific key plot points in case your reader "missed it", etc.

Beauty refers to something I keep coming back to ever since I read a post by David King on Fractals. It clicked. I thought, repetition isn't always bad. In fact, I've been using the "fractal" idea in my work for a long time. Fractals are naturally beautiful and pleasing. What is a fractal? You can find information on fractals in this Wikipedia post. But to sum it up in David King's words:

A fractal is an irregular or fragmented shape, like a cloud or a coastline, into which you can zoom, almost without limit, dividing and subdividing it into smaller and smaller parts, each of which is a clone of the original whole.

I don't know about you, but this idea is completely fascinating to me. I mean, look at these pictures:

Repetition is everywhere. And I think it can take place in our writing, as well. In fact, I almost gave up on the first book I wrote. It was a complete mess. Irreparable in my opinion. Then a friend told me about the Snowflake Method. This popular outline method, although shunned by a lot of people who simply hate outlines, saved me. It's based on the idea of a fractal. A snowflake is fractal. You start out with a triangle and build and build and build until you get this beautiful, complicated looking snowflake.

It may look complicated, but in reality it's quite simple. Think of it as layers, as building over and over until all the smaller pieces resemble the whole. The idea behind the Snowflake Method shouldn't be shunned by anybody. Because I think it's the basis of any great work, whether or not you like outlining.

In essence, every sentence, chapter, and section of your book should contribute to the entire work in a similar way. For instance, I just picked a random quote from The Great Gatsby. I believe it clearly sums up the novel. Amazing.

When we pulled out into the winter night and the real snow, our snow, began to stretch out beside us and twinkle against the windows, and the dim lights of small Wisconsin stations moved by, a sharp wild brace came suddenly into the air. We drew in deep breaths of it as we walked back from dinner through the cold vestibules, unutterably aware of our identity with this country for one strange hour, before we melted indistinguishably into it again.

I hope this isn't intimidating. It's not meant to be. My point is that repetition doesn't have to be bad. One of the greatest things I believe a writer can do is sum up their book in one short sentence. Reveal the "whole" of your book - the whole tree so to speak. Then break it down and show the branches, the leaves, the veins on the leaves that astoundingly enough resemble the whole tree.

If you can't do this, do you really know what your book is about?

To me, it comes down to focus. Without it your story is weak, weak, weak! This idea is absolutely essential to me. And although I know many readers might skip over this post because it looks freakishly complicated and in-depth, the idea is simple. My first book is still a mess, but it makes sense in my head now. I know what I want it to be, and the basic "whole" is there. My second novel has been easier to write once I grasped this concept, and I know that the more books I write, the more this idea will make sense. Like creating any beautiful piece of art, it takes a lot of time and practice.

Do keep in mind, though, that this process often happens naturally if you have your focus in place. It's not something that you have to consciously think of every time you write a sentence. Thank goodness! Finding that focus is often the tricky part. Perhaps I can save that for a 15-part blog post...

~MDA (aka Glam)


  1. Does that mean there's a mathematical formula for good writing? Like a divine proportion of plot? That kind of math applies to all visual art, so it wouldn't surprise me. It's the reason roses are universally considered beautiful and that classical shapes (think Roman pottery vases) are classical.

  2. I could see that, a "divine proportion of plot." I think about my favorite novels and how they almost unfold from themselves.

    I'll have to check out that Snowflake Method again. I stumbled upon it once but wasn't really in the state of mind to learn from it.

    There is so much to learn about writing!

  3. It makes perfect sense to me. One of those "duh" things that you don't think about until someone points it out. :) Great post!!

  4. Great post! I hate reading repetitively redundant things. Beauty, though, is something I don't mind hearing about more than once, as long as it is introduced in a fresh way.

  5. Focus. Lady, you always seem to offer me one particularly important word to chew on while I let your post sink in. Thanks.

  6. As long as it's obvious the author's repeating something for a reason and not a lack of comprehension on how to write, I'm fine with it.

    Lynnette Labelle

  7. Michelle: You know, I doubt there's a mathematical formula for writing, but it seems like there could be! I would never be able to figure it out. I'm horrible with math. But math does apply to most everything doesn't it? Guess it won't be me who discovers this!

    Annie: I like how you use the word "unfold" - that fits how I view it. The Snowflake Method looks daunting, and it takes awhile, but it really helps you figure things out - even if you don't stick to the outline you create.

    Bonnie: Yeah, I never saw it either until I read David's post. Like I said, it just clicked.

    Mariah: I see what you're saying, but maybe I chose the wrong word here. I mean beauty as in letting the story's themes and ideas repeat themselves in a beautiful, natural way. Maybe that's what you're talking about too. Either way, it works!

    TereLiz: Glad that word offers something to chew on. "Focus" is probably the most important thing in writing effectively, in my opinion.

    Lynette: Same here. It's difficult to swallow repetition that makes you feel dumb!

  8. I love this idea of beauty and repetition working together. That's a concept that I have been interested in for a long time, and I tend to use it in my writing, sometimes consciously, sometimes not. Being a molecular biologist, this idea of fractals and small patterns working together to form larger patterns has always fascinated me. I love learning how cells can perform such complicated things by just relying on simple laws of physics and chemistry. I do think there's beauty in that. Nature is beautiful, and this idea touches on the idea of "copying" nature.

  9. When I took art and fashion design in high school, I was a huge realist. My teacher told me that my drawing was too tight; she made me work on painting flowers to loosen up my hand, which flower painting did.

    I think writing can be too tight and novels have become too stagnant in design by too much writing-rule following. The multimedia web has probably loosened up writing hands some, but I see nothing wrong with borrowing from the other arts--and I think that borrowing can make novels in particular more approachable.

    I love repetition, I use it a lot. With any technique, the technique must suit the particular work in question and the particular writer. Repetition is part of my voice, as I shoot for a certain rhythm, even a chorus at times, just like so many music scores and songs do. And maybe this is a big reason why more people (probably) listen to music than read novels: music seems like it's talking to humans. I question who too many novelists are speaking to, other than their own heads.

    I once blogged the short stories in my book's collection, and while penning one of them, I kept thinking of a particular biological structure. Once I'd published it, someone commented the story reminded her of fractals in nature. It turned out the structure I had been thinking of is also partly fractal.

    Sometimes no plans are the best-laid plans. I didn't intend a fractal content, but that story came out that way anyway. I think that after a time, much of writing becomes subconscious, becomes internalized once writers free themselves from overthinking writing in the way I used to overthink drawing.

    But fractal structures aren't the only structure in nature, nor should they be in writing. I must protest (lol) and say I will shun preconceived methods, and do not think any single method is the basis of any great work. Great works have their own unique selves. If there are too many commonalities between so-called great works, I question how great they really are. Greatness is unique, often unplanned, willy-nilly pulled by the universe's strings as the writer taps into the universe. Greatness is a rarity. I wish there were a formula for greatness, but I've yet to find one and don't know of anyone else who has either!

    I really cannot write in a rigid way. I think each work may demand a new process, so I follow what each particular story demands for the best execution possible.

    I want to caution: a novel doesn't have to be written by the snowflake method--Michelle, avoid locking yourself or anyone else into one way! That is not what creativity is about, in my opinion. A writer must write from Point A to Point Z; how the writer gets to Point Z may be largely irrelevant. She simply must GET THERE. I hope each writer will do so in her own way, or else even more books will come out sounding the same.

    "I know that the more books I write, the more this idea will make sense."

    --Don't assume that! For many writers, the more they write, the harder writing gets. What seemed clear yesterday is no longer clear today. The more you learn, the more knowledge you must apply to your writing. I've only felt more confused with every novel I've written because I've noticed more I don't like, could do better, etc., with each new work.

    There's no crafting pinnacle (so far in my experience); writing continues to be a frustrating grueling effort. I think it used to be easier--wish I could go back to then!

  10. Michelle: "To me, it comes down to focus." Yes! And to focus, we have to know what we're looking at, which (to me) means we have to know what our story is.

    First drafts are notoriously filled with repetitive gunk that has to be cleaned out. But after that, when we've figured out what our story is, we need to go back through and make everything refer to the story, reflect and refract and repeat the story and foreshadow the ending. To me this is less about repetition than it is about balance, but that's just likely a matter of terminology.

  11. F.P. That's pretty interesting about your story and how someone said it reminded them of fractals! Awesome!

    I don't believe I said anywhere that novels have to be written by the Snowflake Method... Did I say that anywhere because I don't think I did? I simply meant that it's a great way to look at writing a novel. It helped me out of a HUGE hole, and I still use aspects of it. I think the ideas behind can be beneficial to a lot of writers.

    I also will keep assuming that the more books I write, the more this idea of repetition will make sense to me, because it already has as I've written more and more. It's how I work best, anyway.

    I don't think fractals are an be all end all technique for writing. I do think, however, that most classical literature contains this element. This is, of course, my opinion. I also don't believe that all books will sound the same if a writer happens to apply some of this type of repetition to their work. How could it sound the same??? It's simply reinforcement and focus. Or as Scott puts it - BALANCE. That's not a technique I ever want to shun or avoid. I would never intentionally condone a method of writing that would make every book sound the same. The Snowflake Method doesn't do that. It's just a way to "get there" as you say. And as you say, it is often irrelevant how we get there.

    I also want to stress that I've never stuck to one method for writing a novel. In fact, for both books I've swung back and forth between different methods. I use what works for me at the time.

    As always, thanks for your comment! You always make me think things through better. :D

  12. Davin: I didn't even stop to think about how you would like fractals! But it makes sense. I love "copying" nature, as you say. It gives me a sense of completion and balance.

    Scott: I like your term of balance. That's what might have worked better, perhaps. But in the end, the idea is the same. It is so important to know what our story is. I used to think I knew, but then as I worked through it I realized I didn't. It's sometimes difficult to see if you're the type of writer that doesn't plan a lot. I know that you're like me and like to plan things out. But I usually can't plan things to the point of knowing everything. Much of it happens while I'm writing and I discover things. Do you do that as well?

  13. This is interesting, because I'm one to shy away from outlines. I find it too confining. But there has to be some order or the story won't go anywhere. So I'm curious, when you begin a work, do you sum up your project before you begin, or do you start with an idea and write to see where it goes. Because I find myself doing both.

  14. Amy: I usually just start writing after thinking my story through for a few months. Then as I get further into the book, and totally lost, I stop and do an outline. Sometimes it's some of the Snowflake outlines, sometimes it's my own. I always take a moment to stop and figure out all the role functions of the characters once the book is almost complete. That way as I edit and work things through the second time around I've got a definite map and vision of who the characters, where the story is going, and what the story IS.

    As F.P. says above, creativity really is about just discovering sometimes - without a road map. But I also believe that as we establish ourselves more into our writing, we do figure out what works the best, and whether we see it or not, we do follow certain ways of writing.

    I like the IDEAS behind the Snowflake Method more than I like the method itself.

  15. I never said you said novels had to be written that way--I was only cautioning against your or anyone else's becoming that way. To me it sounds like you've pushed that way so hard, it could become a crutch. What if you can't use that method for a particular work?

    Some stories may not work when written in that manner. For me, I always start from a story FIRST, then I think about the methods I could use. If you spend so much time thinking about writing methods, then you're more likely to write SUITING a method than write USING a method. There's a difference between the two.

    Whatever works for you or whoever, do it. But be aware that, yes, if you're going to write using a recipe technique, your execution will probably have a herdish feel. I think this is inescapable. Many written works do come out sounding the same, in my opinion, just maybe for varying reasons. I think slavishly following rules is one of those reasons; another is that just like most nonwriters seem to have lots in common personality-wise, so do most writers, and their works come from their personalities. Uniqueness is rare everywhere, at least from my viewpoint.

    "I do think, however, that most classical literature contains this element."

    --It may...and maybe that's another reason why I think most classics are mediocre writing. Only a small percentage are exceptional; probably the rest have been preserved by society mostly because they're old, because they're antiques. Not all expensive antique chairs are functional beautiful great chairs, they're simply old and still have survived so command a big price because of that survival.

  16. F.P. - Two things. Have you ever read House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski? That is a novel with a very different layout from most.

    And it's interesting what you said about music speaking to people. I often wish I could just write music because I think I could better get my feelings across better with music than in a story.

  17. F. P. Something that has always intrigued me is the idea that structure defines story. I'm not saying it has to, but in my experience I have found that it does. Having a structure, for me, forced me to write certain scenes to keep to that structure. (I'm using alternating time lines, so I wrote scenes to balance that out, for example.) The whole concept was new to me. When someone first mentioned it, I thought it didn't make any sense at all.

    So, in what you described, using story first, would you say that there is no structure or that the structure comes in later? And, if there is a structure, do you find it pulling on the story? In other words, I'm wondering if the two, structure and story can really be separated. And, maybe the more important question is: Does every story have a structure?

  18. Annie: I can see that - especially with ow you were so inspired to write your book with that song you shared with me!

    F.P. Lucky for me, I have no crutches for a way to write. Yay! I've only written two novels. I'm exploring things as I go. This is just one thing I'm exploring. So no crutches. Just dabbling here and there. I also always start with the story first. If I didn't, I'd never have finished two books. I'd still be staring at the methods and all those rules flying around.

  19. Annie and F.P., I also really like what you are saying about music. I had mentioned this several weeks ago, maybe months ago, but I've always tried to somehow adapt musical elements to my writing. I'd say I've failed, but I want to badly. The most important thing I'd like to steal from music is that feel of two melodies happening at the same time. When I posted on this, most everyone said that it was impossible. That is was two separate things. It may be. Only this last week did I feel like I started to understand how having two separate threads at the same time could work in writing. The words are linear, so it can't really be through the actual words, but it might work if the words resonate on two separate planes at once. The thought of that is exciting to me, but maybe I'm just dreaming.

  20. Davin- Oh my gosh, what an incredible thought to have a story written as two melodies happening at once. If/when you figure it out, please let me read it!

    The thing I wish I could capture from music is the feelings it gives. A song can really take me back to a place, often to where I first heard it. Or it can remind me of something, like a season, or a time period, like how it felt as a kid during summer vacation, for example.

    I'm the same way with smells, they really transport me. Like, it's still July but I'm getting a hint in the air of autumn, and it's like all at once I can sort of feel all the autumns I've ever experienced. And there's a lot of nostalgia. Does that make sense?

    I so wish I could write a story that conveys those feelings to a reader.

  21. Annie: I think all writers feel this deep down... those RAW emotions we feel. I LOVE smells, too! And music, like Davin and F.P. say. It's a wonderful idea to try and convey these things through writing. I think it's something we should all strive for. I think this is what "being honest" kind of means, don't you?

  22. Wow, there are a whole lot of ideas to chew on here.

    I haven't tried the snowflake method, but when I was outlining my last WIP I did look into it and thought it was interesting, for my next novel I'll definitely give it another look.

  23. Annie, I absolutely know what you mean. I'd love to be able to create something like that as well. For me, some books do that already, just like some songs do. I love that feeling. John Updike's writing does that to me, as do two Japanese writers, Yasunari Kawabata and Banana Yoshimoto. When I read even a paragraph of their work, I'm pulled back to when I first discovered them and it's more than a memory. It's very sensory. I think the music does that to me more strongly, which is interesting. Then again, maybe it makes sense. Listening to music is more passive to me. It pervades on its own whether you want it to or not. Reading has to be more active. You have to engage your own imagination to do it.

  24. Michelle, yes, it is probably super, real, true honesty I'm trying to convey in my writing. Of course, that is the hardest thing!

    Davin, I haven't read any of those authors, even Updike. They're going on my list right now.

  25. Kate: I think the Snowflake Method is a great help for new writers. But it does offer some pretty good direction for any writer, I think, if you're feeling a bit lost. It provides some stability to start from. And like the author of it says, it might not work for everybody. But worth a try if you want to try something new.

    Davin: I like what you say about music being more passive. I agree. What I love is listening to music WHILE I write. Somehow that always enhances the experience! I also have no doubt you'll be able to accomplish all you dream of and more in your writing. You have the talent, trust me!

  26. I love this post. And it all does boil down to that one sentence explanation, doesn't it?

    When we first talked about this, it terrified me. But now I can do it. And my one sentence is very good.

    As far as repetition goes, it has its place. And like your pictures a beautiful place. A fractal is section, a part. I'll read that post. It sounds very interesting.

    The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels. I'm glad to see it used in this way. Thanks for a thought provoking post Glam! :)

  27. *Applauding politely* Well said, well said. I think I could use a snowflake or two down here in Fl right now.

  28. Good Writing + Good Story = Published Book, Bestseller

    Bad Writing + Good Story = Publishable Book, chance at mainstream success because most people can't spot bad writing

    Good Writing + Bad Story = Publishable Book, modest success because most people can't spot good writing, but everyone knows when the story blows

    Bad Writing + Bad Story = Waste of paper and/or time.

    But wait, there's more!

    This isn't a formula for writing, per se, but it is a formula for calculating your luck at getting published:

    How do you know if you are lucky (or unlucky, as it may be)?

    Here are several equations to calculate the luck factor in getting published. They use the following variables:

    N= Good Luck
    X= Bad Luck
    D= Dumb Luck
    Q= Query
    A= Agent Preferences
    P= Publishing Industry Demands
    C= Contract

    So therefore, if Q=(A*P) then N should result, yielding C.

    However, if Q+P is not equal to A, then X. Also, if Q+A=C but is not equal to P, then X.

    Of course there may be variations on this logic, such as if Q<(A*P) but the result is C, then D, pure and simple.

    So you see, it's all very straightforward. N to all of you!

  29. Yes, Annie, I have heard of HOL--and, by the way, that was self-published originally! So why don't you try writing music--or maybe work out some unique way to combine the formats? Don't be afraid--be daring! Maybe you'll surprise yourself if you try something more out there, maybe you'll start walking a new writing path. Actually, the title of your novel has the word song in it, so maybe you're subconsciously telling yourself something :o).

    Davin, I think each particular story forces the structure it should be told in--and by "should" I mean the "best" structure the creator should use. You, the creator, could probably find more than one to tell a particular story, but some structures will be better than others. And probably only one unique best structure exists, though this is assuming the story itself has some uniqueness.

    I think many people have come up with great story ideas, but most of them have not executed those ideas in the best way possible. Great ideas are a dime a dozen; great executions are not. I'm really mostly about the execution.

    I think that as long as a story has a sequence of events, it has a structure, no matter how particular sequences may unfold. Though I also think a story that doesn't have a logical progression could also be considered structured; it's just more chaotically structured. I guess as long as there's an overall organization and not a random spewing of words from a random word generator, a structure probably exists.

    Articulating this stuff isn't easy for me as I really prefer looking at each story as its own individual complete universe. I shouldn't want or need anything outside the story to appreciate the story. This is the way I write--and like to read too. Everything tailored to the specific work in question, to that world, to that experience. I like writing and reading in a bubble.

  30. Davin, anytime I do something I think is quite different, I start out feeling frightened. Writing something in a different way is very hard because that way hasn't been done by others, at least not a lot like in recent times, so you've got no baseline comparison. You must lay down your own bricks, one by one, and hope you wind up with a functioning path others can easily use.

    No matter what you (impersonal) intend to write (or do in general in life), you really have no idea what the hell your writing will turn out to be. You've just got to DO IT. You can't accurately judge if it's possible or if it's been successful till the event has happened. But even if you try writing that two melody work and it doesn't wind up being what you wanted, what's the big deal?

    Do it, see what happens--that's my motto.

  31. F. P. Yes, I try things all the time. I have a lot of "burnt waffles" in my story file. :)

  32. lol--burnt waffles!

    And how could I have missed that--I see you mentioned Banana's work! I liked Goodbye Tsugumi so much, I must get to her others. Her writing has such a lightness yet makes the reader emotional; I think this is hard to do as reading light works can make me feel disconnected. Normally I prefer more heavy-handed melodrama.

    But I'd say she's one of the more unique writers writing today; her style is atypical. I wonder what she'd say about her writing methods? If I'm not mistaken, in an interview I read, she was very, very brief. She didn't give much away. Maybe she only wants to speak through her fiction. I can understand that desire....

  33. I love, love, love the Snowflake Method. It repeatedly (no pun intended) helps me with my writing. I'm so glad to meet another fan of it! (Although I already know you!)

  34. F.P., Finally, another Banana fan! That's very exciting for me. I pass her work along to others all the time. Kitchen and NP are probably my two favorites. But, I've been able to read Kitchen over and over again, whereas I haven't been able to get back into NP. I've read a little bit of her discussing her own work. But, you're right, there's not much. In what I read, though, she talked about constantly trying to make her work easier to read. She's complex, but it feels so simple. She's amazing. She's one of those writers that I have a very hard time dissecting, which I think is a high compliment.

  35. I wish I could read her work in the original Japanese, as discussing translations always seems difficult and inexact to me because they're not the original writer's work (I've always had this desire with Kafka's work--wish I knew German). I believe stuff gets lost in translation and possibly added too.

    But I'll assume there's a one-to-one correlation and Yoshimoto's had good translators, and I'll say that her easier-to-readness may be why I like her style. I do firmly believe in the "easy reading is hard writing" maxim; she probably works her butt off to get her writing clear sounding, conversational and light. And I don't mean light in a bad way.

    There seems to be this prejudice against lighter writing styles, that voices and stories must be loud and large, meaning lots of action, life and death scenarios, and a firm-and-loud sounding authorial voice. To me, those large stories are often the small ones because they've been done so much, there's now little room to add anything new. They have contracted, not expanded. They can no longer impress me much.

    I've always said you can see a grain of sand in the universe and a universe in a grain of sand. Show me a grain of sand's insides! Trying to write beyond that seems too ambitious, like real hubris.

  36. Robyn: I'm so happy to hear you love The Great Gatsby! It's wayyyy up there on my list of favorite books. I read it at least once a year.

    Karen: Yeah, I could some here too. It's supposed to be up to 110 this weekend where I'm going. Not looking forward to that heat!

    Rick: Very nice. N with your Q's!

    Laura: You are one of the first writers I know that likes it so much! It just makes sense, you know? It follows a logical order that clicks in my head and lays it all out for me to see. So great! Even if I don't do the whole thing, I use parts of it all the time.

  37. What a really good post! (I'm going to send the link to myself so I can read it several more times.)

    Repetition is especially powerful in good poetry too.

  38. I like the transformation of the triangle(s).

  39. Angie: I agree about the poetry. That's what I studied most in college, and it has certainly influenced my writing.

    Justus: So do I. I like visual stuff like that.


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