In an earlier post about the compositional qualities writing shares with musical scoring, I introduced the idea that writers must think about force and momentum, tempo and pacing, and not only the mix of components and voices, but when to best use them for maximum effect. Well, there’s something else that writers share with composers but don’t seem to understand as well, and that is the way repetition of a motif/riff or symbol or theme holds everything together.
What makes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 so timeless is not the whole, but how poignantly repetition interacts with the listener to render familiarity and recognition into reciprocal qualities. The repeated motif, in this case, is the part you hum. Sometimes its the only part of any song you can remember. Repetition does so not randomly or trivially, but with a significance that helps the composer’s message connect with the listener’s sensory impressions of the world. Through tone and timbre, key and pitch, Beethoven manipulates repetition to make us feel something impending and tempestuous, the fugue of power and fragility. In that familiar motif all listeners gather together from our remote, private experiences to stand on the same page as the composer, an invitation into the rest of his story, which somehow is (and becomes) our own story. It’s as though he taps into something on a quantum level that goes beyond culture and experience, revealing a moment where we can all recognize our commonality.
But notice: repetition is not static. Every time he plays with key or timbre, or any other element of composition, he is pulling us forward into narrative, letting repetition act as a guide into a symphonic landscape, gently providing cues about what’s going on around us.
Writers can use motival, symbolic, and thematic repetition for very specific pertinent details, and with purpose. Jack Torrance’s continually wiped mouth, Miss Haversham’s decaying wedding gown, Fabritius’ painting of a goldfinch, the gardens in Candide.
However, repetition just for the sake of hammering an image into a reader’s head is counterproductive. It can stand out like a tic or bad habit and can lend an impression of poor writing skills or lack of imagination. Each instance must come alive through changes in the mood, presentation, or placement to draw the reader, with the subtlety of a sixth sense, deeper into the story. The more unique and essential to the particular story (as opposed to storytelling in general ), and the more it keys into human experience by bridging the gap between the universal and the personal, the greater the chance of making an impact on the reader. The best writers make repeated themes, symbols, and motifs seem like such an organic part of the story that the absorbed reader will not consciously pick up on it, yet it is this device by which our emotional, psychological, and intellectual participation with the story has been most profoundly enriched.
Even if we have no desire to emulate the masters, even if we’re writing the most basic fanfic, the goal of every writer is to connect with the reader, or else what’s the point? The way repetition is used throughout narrative is just one of the many important tools writers have to help them succeed, and there are no better teachers than the best that storytelling has to offer.