Repetition in storytelling

The Edge of Tomorrow

Repetition is boring. Right? So, it follows that repetition has to be the enemy of great storytelling — but the opposite is true; properly used, great storytelling relies on the repetition of plot, character and location elements.

It’s standard practice for storytellers to repeat a story element to create tension, resonance, and to give visible form to the plot structure. Repetition works well when used like musical orchestration, to create rhythm, a chorus or melody — a recognisable motif. The motif gives the story emphasis, personality, and context. In Groundhog Day (1993) the main character relives the same day; stuck in what appears to be an endless karmic-loop. Each repeated looped cycle offers him the challenge of self-improvement — like a Zen Buddhist exercise — facilitating learning so that he may become the man he needs to be, to earn the love of the woman he desires, and to escape the loop. To accentuate the loop, each day begins with his alarm clock going off and the same message being read by the local radio news presenter. Every interaction in the loop gives him the opportunity to make each moment count, and to learn how to be less selfish and give back to the community. In the Science Fiction film The Edge of Tomorrow (2014) the main character continually dies and re-spawns back to life, into the same situation — a similar scenario to the looped-day in Groundhog Day_ (except that he is battling an alien invasion).

The location is another story element that can be accentuated, through repetition, to take on greater significance. In Cube (1997), the characters must survive a brutal, Rubik’s cube-like maze, and, while avoiding deadly traps, hope to discover a way out. The multiplicity of the cube-‘rooms’, all similar but slightly different, adds a mechanistic feel and a philosophical tone: how did the characters get in there; why are they in the cube; what lies outside of it? In Cube 2: Hypercube (2002) — due to time and space distortions, and parallel existence — a psychotically unbalanced character murders the same people again and again. The lack of meaning is accentuated by the senseless murder of the same characters. In The Matrix (1999) the central character wakes up from within a pod leaving one dimension for another: the fact that there are millions pods around him, with people still wired up inside them, accentuates the scale of the revelatory shock. The repetition of the pods creates a grand scale: sometimes in storytelling more is more. Again, in The Matrix Agent Smith seems invincible because of his absolute power, and his supreme knowledge of the Matrix, but he also possesses the terrifying and weirdly megalomaniac ability to replicate himself infinitely.

Dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks are story elements that provide an insight into a character’s emotional and mental state — their fears and desires — and are inserted into the story at specific intervals for dramatic affect. In Insomnia (2002), the story is framed, from the beginning, by an image of blood on a white fabric — the meaning of this only becomes clear in the later stages of the film. The Policeman also suffers from flashbacks relating to an accidental shooting, indicating his psychologically charged state of mind. The blood-soaked fabric and the flashbacks are emotional motifs that punctuate the story, creating empathy, and a desire to learn how the character will deal with his dilemma.

Carefully used, with increasingly raised stakes for the protagonist, repetition frames the story — each act or plot section (a repeated structural element in itself) can begin with, or climax at: a fight scene, a flashback, a motif, or take place within a specific location.

Stories begin ‘in balance’, and then something breaks that — a villain, a monster, or a catastrophic disaster — and after repeated attempts the hero finally succeeds in restoring the balance. Deeper analysis of a story’s plot structure usually reveals significant repetition. Properly handled, this enhances the drama, accentuating the coherence of the narrative and imbuing it with intrigue.