Rhetoric: The Art of Repetition

Sometimes I think we as writers get so focused on the “who”, “what”, “where”, and “why” of story developing that we sometimes push aside the “how.” While telling a story with interesting characters and a well developed plot is awesome, telling it artfully is even better. How we tell a story affects its tone and mood and shapes our narrative voice, potentially taking it from a good story to a striking story.

So in that line of thought, I thought we’d look at some tools of rhetoric that can be used to flesh out the rough corners of writing. Particularly, let’s discuss seven types of repetition (plus examples!) that can be used to craft rhythm and emphasis (and therefore mood and voice) within your writing.

1. Anaphora

Random history question: do you know who is considered the first named author in world history? Enheduanna, the High Priestess of Sumeria who lived over 4000 years ago, is the one on whom that honor is bestowed. (Always happy to provide random useless info). In her hymn to the Sumerian goddess Inanna, Enheduanna displays one of the first written records of repetition:

Without YOU is no fate fixed / without YOU is no keen counsel arrived.”
—Enheduanna, “The Exaltation”

This is an example of anaphora, where one simply repeats the first words in successive sentences or clauses for a more dramatic emphasis. It makes a statement bold. It makes a song fervent. It makes a speech epic. Let’s set the scene: aliens are attacking Earth, and humanity is preparing for one last epic stand, an all-or-nothing battle; what can one say at such a crucial moment? [1:17]

We will not go quietly into the night!
We will not vanish without a fight!
We’re going to live on!
We’re going to survive!
Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
Independence Day (1996)

Anaphora adds a building rhythm to not only emphasize an idea but to inspire, motivate, and persuade. It can add building emotion. Look at how Charles Dickens uses anaphora in A Tale of Two Cities versus how Langston Hughes uses it in Let America Be America Again.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.”
—Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again

Dickens uses anaphora as a means to highlight the conflicting cultural phenomena of late 1700’s London and Paris, on which his Tale of Two Cities centers. Hughes, on the other hand, uses anaphora as a way to unite the lower classes and emphasize their mutual struggles in his poem about the fallacy of the American Dream. The anaphora in both is used intentionally to convey emotion and emphasis, thus setting a mood and tone with its rhythm.

As much as I love literature, it is definitely not the only source of amazing wordsmithing, and there is no one (I said NO ONE) as great a modern-day master of words as Eminem.  In his song “If I Had,” Eminem uses the word “tired” up to eighteen times in a row to create a lengthy anaphora, which not only emphasizes how tired he is of just about everything but also conveys a feeling in the lines themselves, forcing them to express the very exhaustion of their content. [0:44]

2. Epistrophe

The opposite of anaphora is called an epistrophe though why that name is used over its secondary and much more logical name of epiphora is beyond my understanding. Like its partner anaphora, epistrophe is used for emphasis, perhaps even more so as the emphasis favors the last words of a sentence or phrase. While the chorus of Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” is often used as an example of epistrophe, let’s go back some 400 years to the very first use of a ring-related epistrophe found in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Only Shakespeare, after all, could hold that weirdly specific accomplishment. In the play, Portia gives her husband Bassanio a ring to showcase his commitment to her, swearing her own loyalty to him so long as he never parts with the ring. She, of course, sets up a little test for her dear beloved husband. Also, expectedly, he fails. Thus, this conversation ensues:

Sweet Portia!
If you did know to whom I gave the ring,
If you did know for whom I gave the ring,
And would conceive for what I gave the ring,
And how unwillingly I left the ring,
When naught would be accepted but the ring,
You would abate the strength of your displeasure.

If you had known the virtue of the ring,
Or half her worthiness that gave the ring,
Or your own honor to contain the ring,
You would not then have parted with the ring.
What man is there so much unreasonable,
If you had pleased to have defended it
With any terms of zeal, wanted the modesty
To urge the thing held as a ceremony?
Nerissa teaches me what to believe:
I’ll die for ‘t but some woman had the ring!”
—William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act V Scene I

(See Shakespeare with Isi for some pretty awesome readings)

The epistrophe creates a rhythm to Shakespeare’s lines that draws added emphasis to the word “ring,” driving home its significance as a symbol of commitment almost like a hammer driving a nail into Bassanio’s metaphorical coffin. Likewise, in Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens uses epistrophe to emphasize his character Bella Wilfur’s disdain for her meager means.

“I hate to be poor, and we are degradingly poor, miserably poor, beastly poor.”
—Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

The emphasis created by epistrophe is so pointed that it’s often employed in the motivational speeches of politicians. See a couple of examples below as inspiration for your rousing battle speeches or courtly political stunts.

“And that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
—Ambraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address

“For no government is better than the men who compose it, and I want the best, and we need the best, and we deserve the best.”
—John F. Kennedy, Speech at Wittenberg College, Oct. 17, 1960

3. Symbloce

I know what you’re thinking: what happens if you have both anaphora and epistrophe in the same sentence? MADNESS! Just kidding, it’s called a symbloce.

With matching words at both the beginning and end of the sentence or phrase, there is double the emphasis, lending equal importance to both sets of words. The effect can be quite powerful. My favorite example is this beautiful line from the movie A Few Good Men (which I highly recommend, btw)[1:18]:

“You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall.”
A Few Good Men

The symbloce here instantly paints a picture of Colonel Jessup’s divided view of the “you” versus the “me.” His character has an obvious condescension for the American populace who go about their blissful lives ignorant of the protection he enforces compared to his elevated opinion of himself as some stalwart protector doing what needs to be done regardless of some morally questionable actions. Jack Nicholson really goes above and beyond in this role.

That is where the power of symbloce lies, in creating a balanced emphasis of contrasting ideas or statements. Likewise, in the prose “First They Came” by German pastor Martin Niemöller, symbloce is used to tie together the action of the Nazis during the Holocaust versus the inaction of the German populace in a powerful statement.

“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
—Martin Niemöller, “First They Came”

4. Epanalepsis

There’s also epanalepsis, where an initial part of a clause or sentence is repeated at the end of the clause or sentence. This differs from symbloce in that the same words are repeated at both the beginning and end of the sentence, rather than having two different sets of repeated words. It creates a different emphasis and rhythm, often to drive home a particular point or to be persuasive. Take the two examples below under consideration.

They went home and told their wives,
that never once in all their lives,
had they known a girl like me,
but…they went home.”
—Maya Angelou, “They Went Home”

Be patient till the last. Romans, countrymen, and lovers! Hear me for my cause, and be silent that you may hear. Believe me for mine honor, and have respect to mine honor that you may believe.”
—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Maya Angelou uses epanalepsis to drive home a point about the difference between fascination and commitment. Whereas Shakespeare uses it in Brutus’ speech as an attempt to persuade the Roman people of his honorable intentions in the murder of Julius Caesar. [0:47]

5. Antimetabole

An antimetabole is a type of double epanalepsis, where a set of words in one clause are repeated in the following clause but transposed. The easiest example would be the famous catchphrase “One for all, and all for one” from Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, but the words don’t necessarily have to be exact. Observe thusly:

“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
—Frederick Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future

“All crime is vulgar, just as all vulgarity is crime.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The point of this type of repetition is to build a set of reflective truths within a statement, employing emphasis to show how two seemingly different words or ideas are related to each other. The examples above both use antimetabole to make us consider and possibly reconsider perspectives on morality and criminality. The intent is often to draw subtle relationships that can represent more complex ideas.

6. Anadiplosis

Anadiplosis is repeating the last word of one line as the first word of the next line. It’s kind of like playing Word Chain but with actual words instead of letters. I’m going to dip back into cinematic examples for a moment and bring forth this exquisitely crafted line [0:37]:

“The general who became a slave. The slave who became a gladiator. The gladiator who defied an emperor.”
Gladiator (2000)

During this scene, Commodus could have easily used anaphora instead of anadiplosis and said, “You are the general who became a slave. You are the slave who became a gladiator. You are the gladiator who defied an Emperor.” But this completely changes the focus of the line. Now we’re focusing on the “you,” on Maximus instead of the transition that he went through. Not only is it out of character for the egomaniacal and envious Commodus, but it doesn’t add the build up of emphasis that we need to fully appreciate Maximus’ journey just before this final duel, this culminating moment of his story.

Like other forms of repetition, anadiplosis can also add a sense of rhythm, to beautify a line or add poetic or persuasive feel.

“While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.”
—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Raven”

“What I present here is what I remember of the letter, and what I remember of the letter I remember verbatim (including that awful French).”
Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov

7. Epizeuxis

While it may sound like some sort of flesh-eating bacteria or virus you might pick up from the tropics, epizeuxis is actually a type of repetition, specifically the repetition of the same word in succession. Yes, it does have a name. Sometimes I think the ancient Greeks really had nothing better to do than to sit around and think up names for things.


EUNICE [calling down from the door of her upper appartment]:
Quit that howling out there an’ go back to bed!

I want my baby down here. Stella, Stella!

She ain’t comin’ down so you quit! Or you’ll git th’ law on you!

—Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

This scene is easily the first example that comes to mind when considering epizeuxis. It’s such a powerful scene that every time I hear the name Stella I can’t help but reference Marlon Brando’s movie version in the most dramatic fashion my introverted self can muster. It’s a great illustration of the purpose of epizeuxis: to convey intense emotions like shock or indignation or incredible despair. The character is in such a state of emotional turmoil that they can only manage to utter a single word over and over. In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, when Macduff goes to wake King Duncan, only to find the beloved king dead, these are the distraught words he declares:

“Oh, horror, horror, horror!
Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!…”
—Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act II Scene III

Oh, the mighty emphasis, emphasis, emphasis! Obviously, this is not a type of repetition you’d use often, but it adds a nice punch in those emotional scenes if done properly. Or it can also be used for great comedic effect. Take for example:

Scotch, scotch, scotch, scotchy, scotchy, scotch.”
Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004)

Next time you’re watching Family Guy and Stewie says “mom” a million times, be sure to lean over and whisper to your partner (or your cat) in the most seductive way possible, “Epizeuxis.” They’ll love it, I promise.

In writing a novel, repetition can be useful if applied correctly and intentionally. You do want to avoid overuse of repetition. In fact, being careful not to fall into the habit of using the same adjectives and verbs over and over again in writing is essential to prevent your work from sounding too mundane. Writing at its best is using descriptive language with enough variation to provide entertainment and not bore your readers into thinking you have a meager scope of words in your arsenal. But repetition has its place, primarily in emphasis and effect, to spice up a scene or dialogue, to draw focus to similar or conflicting ideas, or to highlight deep emotion or complicated issues. Each type of repetition (regardless of whether you can pronounce it or not) lends its own unique rhythm and emphasis. Try reforming any of the examples I’ve listed above into different types of repetition, and it’ll likely change not just the cadence of the lines but even the meaning behind the words.

And that’s the take home point more so than learning the crazy terminology for these devices of rhetoric—that the way we use words, the places we use words, is fundamental to finding those oh-so special lines that can transform a scene into something momentous or comical or passionate. Finding rhythm in writing can help create a narrative voice that is distinctly yours, something that binds a novel together (I’d argue) more intimately than character or plot.

Write with repetition! Write with intention!

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