How to Use Repetition in a Story

9 Jul
Matthew Salesses' story "In My War Novel" was a finalist at HTML Giant and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

Matthew Salesses’ story “In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, a journal that creates reading and writing communities using the tools of social media.

One of the greatest novels you’ll ever read is The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Many of the stories/chapters use repetition (the title story, “How to Tell a True War Story,” and “The Man I Killed” are good examples). Because the book is so good, thousands of admiring writers have probably tried to imitate its style, and almost all of them have found it impossible. But here’s a story that uses repetition successfully: “In My War Novel” by Matthew Salesses.

“In My War Novel” was a finalist at HTMLGIANT and appeared in Fictionaut, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story is built on two pieces of repetition. In the first, the narrator repeats the phrase, “In my war novel…” In the second, he keeps returning to an idea laid out early on: “These are the things I know about my wife” and “When my wife left me…” Both pieces cue the reader into the narrator’s obsessions—and in a story like this one, those obsessions are the story.

Here is an excerpt that states those obsessions clearly:

“The hell with those famous wars. I would write about the Korean War. I would write about the Korean War to show that I was Korean and also to rub it in people’s faces. Nobody knows anything about the Korean War except Koreans.

In the time before my wife left me she said I was 100% American. In fact I was 100% Korean, but then my mother didn’t want me anymore, so she left me at the orphanage. When I was 3 I was sent to America. So what does that make me?”

Many writers might avoid using repetition because it seems incompatible with plot. After all, how can a story move forward if it keeps repeating itself?

Matthew Salesses’ answer is to work within a loose plot structure. He lets us know from the opening two paragraphs that the narrator’s wife has left him but that they’re not divorced and that she’s kept his last name. The rest of the story essentially answers the questions any reader naturally asks: Why did she leave him? Why didn’t she divorce him? Why did she keep his name? These questions don’t have simple answers or answers. It’s difficult to look back at their marriage and point to a clean, linear progression of failure. Instead, there are bad periods and good periods, times when both parties are trying and times when they’ve become disconnected. As a result, the marriage plot of “In My War Novel” is ideal for a story using repetition. The pressure to trace a clear storyline isn’t as strong. And, when we reflect back on events, our thoughts tend to move in circles—and so a story about reflection lends itself to strategies of repetition.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s try using repetition, with “In My War Novel” serving as a model.

  1. Choose a basic plot to work within. Salesses uses the story of a failed marriage (in a way, it’s a version of the old star-crossed lovers plot). The key is to choose a plot that doesn’t require a step-by-step, chronological explanation. Possibilities include any story of failure or success (business, relationship, parenting) or any story that tries to explain a general circumstance in the present day by looking back over a vast time period (How I became rich, poor, sad, happy, imprisoned, outcast, exiled, embraced, or famous).
  2. Choose one or more obsessions for the narrator or character. Ideally, the obsession should tie in to the plotline. In Matthew Salesses’ story, the obsessions are central to that character: why did my wife leave me and why don’t I have a clear identity? In “The Man I Killed” by Tim O’Brien, the narrator keeps revisiting the wounds on the body of a man he killed. In “The Things They Carried,” also by Tim O’Brien, the story returns to the items carried by the soldiers and, ultimately, to those items’ emotional as well as physical meaning. In both those stories, the obsession is central to the characters’ situation. Their days are spent killing people and carrying stuff.
  3. Begin writing paragraphs that begin with some version of an obsession. Salesses tends to begin with variations on the phrases “When my wife left me…” and “In my war novel…” O’Brien, in “The Man I Killed,” often begins with the phrase “The man I killed…” Use the paragraphs to examine the obsession from as many different angles as possible. For instance, what would the character/narrator’s parents or wife or husband or kids or friends or coworkers or boss say about it? What does the obsession look like in private, in public, with particular people? What does the obsession look like during the morning/afternoon/evening/night?
  4. Write as many paragraphs as you can for each obsession.

It’s true that what you write will likely have no forward momentum. It won’t resemble a story. With a strategy like this one, revision becomes key (though, to be honest, it’s necessary for all stories). After you’ve exhausted your ideas (not just after a day but perhaps a few weeks or months of writing), you’ll need to go back and scramble the paragraphs into coherent sense. You’ll need to discover the story and, perhaps, add connecting tissue between the paragraphs. If you reread “In My War Story,” you’ll see those bits of tissue, paragraphs that don’t begin with either obsession.

Basically, you’re starting a story that may take a year or more to finish. That’s fine. It’s good. It means you’ll always have something to work on.

Have fun.

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3 Responses to “How to Use Repetition in a Story”

  1. wee1one July 31, 2013 at 8:02 p07 #

    I always write in a plot or chronological order and revise from there. I’m excited to try this more abstract approach and see what comes from it. The fact it will take a lot of heavy revision scares me a little but is probably just what I need to gain some new perspective

    • michaelnoll1 July 31, 2013 at 8:02 p07 #

      That’s great! But don’t be scared of revision. In some ways, I think it’s easier than the first draft. You’ve already got the words on the page. You’re just reorganizing them, cutting some, and adding some. It’s always the blank page that scares me.

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