The Power of Repetition

Gonna take all my money
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my nose
Gonna stick it up my fucking nose *
* from ‘Fucked by Rock’ – full lyrics here

If I had to explain the brilliance of the above lyrics by semi-self parodying UK hard rock group Zodiac Mindwarp, I’d put it down to repetition. The message – that he’s gonna snort all his money up his nose – is reinforced with three repetitions of the same line, then turbocharged by the addition of ‘fucking’ the fourth time round, for extra emphasis.

Of course repetition in music is nothing new. Choruses repeat, as do lines within choruses. Repetition is powerful – repetition with an added twist, even more so. What better way to make something stand out than have it change while everything else around it remains the same, again and again?

Repetition is common in storytelling too. The difference is, unlike the identical repetitions of musical choruses, or that found in numbers and mathematics, stories can only really use this second modality – each repetition bringing a new nuance or twist. Stories repeating identical segments wouldn’t work. You’d get films with the same scene looping like a damaged DVD, or novels with duplicate chunks of text as if caused by a major printing error.

Stories reflect real life. Real life never repeats exactly. No two occurrences are identical, no two mornings ever exactly the same – something is always different. There are examples of storytelling exploring this theme consciously – a well-known one being the film Groundhog Day. A literary example is the novel Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Unable to get this highly original, mould-breaking story past the gatekeepers of the UK publishing world (no doubt precisely because of these qualities) McCarthy eventually found a publisher in France. It tells the story of a man recovering from a serious accident, putting the £8.5 million compensation settlement to use trying to reconstruct a short scene from fragments of his memory in the hope that it will trigger the recollection of more lost memories. No expense is spared – he rents a large house, actors, costumes, even a project manager to ensure everything is in its right place.

With each increasingly feverish reconstruction, something isn’t quite right – a detail out of place here, an acting slip there and the whole scene is ruined, meaning he has to start all over again.

There’s a lot of truth in this. How many of us have tried to recreate a great experience we once had – for example, revisiting the same city only to be disappointed? At best the attempted recreation, even if enjoyable in a different way, just isn’t the same. Nothing can be recreated exactly.

Repetition also works well in comedy. One proponent who really understands this is Stewart Lee. It would take a better mind than me to explain how something not inherently funny at first becomes exponentially funnier after the fourth or fifth repetition – but it does. Lee knows this, and uses it again and again (and a-fucking-gain).

These are all examples of (self) conscious use of repetition, but I believe it isn’t always so deliberate – rather a device that emerges as a natural facet of storytelling. In my short story LM039, a narcissistic scientist tries to teach a lab monkey to speak. Each attempt has a different outcome, rarely the desired one. In Flap Trap, a pervert chases voyeuristic thrills on escalators with a mirror strapped to his shoe. No two outings are the same, despite the repetitive and Sisyphean nature of his chosen hobby.

In my short film Kickoff, the initial moment of quiet signifying the ‘calm before the storm’ as a protest heats up is repeated at the end, with the protagonist describing another short silence immediately before the pent-up passion erupts into violence – a ‘bookend’ effect whereby the story ends in the same way it begins.

Storytelling is filled with repetition. Repetition is more powerful even than the dramatic pause. Used together, they are doubly powerful.

Joseph Heller, Ernest Hemingway and Kurt Vonnegut are all writers known for using repetition.

I’m still looking for suitable homes for my two novels. This, as any writer aspiring to publication well knows, is an undertaking filled with repetition. The repeated rejection is banal, but at least no two rejections are exactly the same (even if your submissions are). I’m confident I’ll get there because I can stomach a lot of repetition. Who knows – maybe one day I’ll make money from writing. I could spend some of it supporting struggling writers. Or I could just stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my nose. Stick it up my fucking nose. But I won’t.

Article originally posted on Alistair Moore’s work includes Kickoff, a short film which won an award (UK Film Festival 2013 Best British Short), placed in the 2013 London Sundance top 5, and screened at numerous film festivals. You can see it here. He lives between London and Berlin, where he does most of his writing.

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