May 28, 2011

Word repetition can either work for or against a writer.  Seeing a name, noun, or verb (especially a passive word like “was”) can suck the life out of otherwise compelling prose.  So under what circumstances, does repetition enhance a story?  Consider the following passage from Richard Wright’s Native Son:

“He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was standing up strongly with contrite heart, holding his life in his hands, staring at it with a wondering question. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was pushing forward with his puny strength against a world too big and too strong for him. He lay on the cold floor sobbing; but really he was groping forward with fierce zeal into a welter of circumstances which he felt contained a water of mercy for the thirst of his heart and brain.”

Here Wright is essentially punctuating the complex feelings of Bigger through repetition of his physical state.  The rhythm of the words is in perfect harmony with the dire situation in which Bigger has found himself.   

Repetition can also be used to give voice to a character. Throughout Native Son, Bigger has to make some difficult and important decisions.  In these moments Wright often starts out Bigger’s internal thoughts with either “And yes” or “And no.”  It works because Wright uses the device consistently and the reader believes that this is how Bigger reasons through problems.  In essence, the repetition is consistent Bigger’s voice and enhances the characterization of the narrator’s personality.