More likely than not, you have received commentary from your teacher, peer readers, and colleagues that you are sounding repetitive. Already said in your essay that the Romans conquered Carthage? You bet that someone’s going to circle this in red, because everyone loves to prove they have eagle eyes. Most writers, therefore, are taught that repetition is a bad thing. However, this is not always true. There are some moments where it can have great impact on your story.
There are three routes you can take when thinking about repeating phrases and ideas within your writing: comedy, dramatic effect, and reader participation. The last can easily be lumped into either of the first categories, but I’ll get to that in a minute.
I heard something interesting a long time ago that stated a full-circle joke always pulled the biggest laughs from a live audience. If a comedian uses something at the beginning of the joke, explains it, then says it again at the end—putting it into context—the audience reacted very well. For example, pay attention to the beginning and end of Michael McIntyre’s bit on London transport:
If you can’t watch it right now (although please do, it’s hilarious and perfectly true), he begins the joke by saying that everyone on the Tube keeps to themselves by reading, and this is simply the polite standard of the London Underground. He then goes on to give an anecdote about a desperate Tube rider who vaults into the carriage despite low odds of getting on, and after the harrowing misadventure, proceeds to pull out a book and read, as if nothing happened.
Similarly, in writing, bringing back a joke you’ve already established in a new context—such as with an applicable anecdote—your readers will find this more amusing than if you had just put the joke in once.
When I read, I pay attention to which words are used, and why. If I see too many repeated words on one page, I get grumpy. But when I notice that a phrase is being used again and again to explore theme or character, I get interested. One of my favorite examples of this comes from The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller. The phrase is simply:
“This, and this, and this.”
Pretty minimal, isn’t it? It’s used three times in the book: once in the beginning, once in the middle, and once at the end, and each time it means something different. “This” changes as the main character, Patroclus, gets older. First it means the assorted curios that he and his friend Achilles (yes, that Achilles) find as boys. Then, when they establish themselves as teenage lovers, “this” means the physical and emotional bond they are experiencing. Finally, when both are dead and Patroclus is waiting to have his ashes buried with Achilles, he tells Thetis of his memories with him, using “this” to tell her what has been the most important moments of his life.
In this way, the repeated phrase is powerful and evokes a lot of emotion, because we see it evolve as the main character does.
With both of the abovementioned tactics, you inspire the reader to pay closer attention to what you are writing; not just in terms of what words you choose, but how you use them for character and theme development, emotional impact, what have you. When the reader feels this connection, they are drawn deeper into the story.
I recently wrote a scene in which my protagonist is recollecting a mentor telling him—years earlier—that he should take study breaks, or else he won’t retain information. He has just left a grueling research session. As he walks home, a disturbance in the street distracts him, and when his participation in it is done, he thinks that this might as well have been his study break.
When the reader spots this, they go “aha!” or “I see what you did there.” This will make them feel smart—well, they are smart, or else they won’t be reading your work, right?—and establish a good connection between you through words.
Besides, the Romans are pretty awesome. Who doesn’t want to hear multiple times about how much ass they kicked?