Repetition of key words and phrases in narrative and dialogue can make the reading experience laborious. There are times, however, when saying something more than once works beautifully. It’s time to talk about anaphora.
What is anaphora?
Anaphora is the deliberate repetition of words or phrases at the beginning of successive clauses for artistic effect. This literary device is often seen in poetic works and in speeches. It’s also common to see it in children’s books that have a rhyming element.
Anaphora – rhythm, emphasis and emotional back doors
First, repetition of words affects rhythm, which can evoke mood: monotony, boredom, excitement, frustration. Emotions transform a story from just words on a page to a reader experience. Plus, rhythmic writing is memorable and digestible, which helps your reader get under the skin of your novel.
Second, anaphora can be used for the purpose of emphasis. We notice repetition and, while it can jar when not used purposefully, deliberate repetition helps your character or narrator to drive a point home.
Third, anaphora is one of a range of tools that will help you keep your writing tight but emotionally rich. Repetition is used purposefully so that the reader understands what the character is feeling, but via a literary back door.
Anaphora and your fiction’s narrative
Reading isn’t just about ingesting words. It’s about experiencing a sense of place and mood. There are different ways in which a writer can help a reader engage with a character and their story.
1. You can tell them what a character’s feeling:
Melanie felt angry and bored. She’d been sitting in the jobcentre for forty-five minutes, had watched the same old faces passing back and forth, but as usual her name hadn’t been called.
2. You can show them what’s being felt with action beats:
Melanie scowled and tapped her fingers on the arm of the chair. The same old faces had passed back and forth but forty-five minutes had passed and no one had called her name.
3. You can nudge them by playing with the rhythmic structures, of which anaphora is one:
Forty-five minutes had passed. Melanie waited but no one had called her name. Same old faces, same old silence, same old story.
None is wrong or right but relying on only one could render your prose dull. Experimenting with different techniques can enrich your narrative.
Anaphora and your fiction’s dialogue
We often use anaphoric constructions in everyday speech, and the fiction writer seeking to mimic that naturally shouldn’t fear using them in dialogue. Here are some examples:
Note how the repetition adds emphasis and heightens the emotion.
Take example (1). The anaphora helps us to feel the character’s frustration and hurt. We don’t need an action beat or dialogue tag to tell us this. There’s no need for the narrator to interject with an explanation. We don’t even need to use italic to nudge the reader towards where the emphasis should be placed in our mind’s ear. The anaphoric speech does it all for us.
Here are examples of how the passage might look with extraneous information:
REDUNDANT ADVERBIAL DIALOGUE TAG
‘Every time you mention his name, every time you pick up that photograph, every time you recall some place you visited together, you’re telling me I’m second choice,’ said Ash, frustrated.
Ash felt frustrated and hurt. ‘Every time you mention his name, every time you pick up that photograph, every time you recall some place you visited together, you’re telling me I’m second choice.’
REDUNDANT ITALIC EMPHASIS
‘Every time you mention his name, every time you pick up that photograph, every time you recall some place you visited together, you’re telling me I’m second choice.’
Used purposefully, anaphora can help writers declutter their dialogue. Readers don’t just focus on the words in the conversation: they also do their own emotional imagining. That can be a more rewarding way of engaging with the story than being told what the character must be feeling.
Anaphora, memorability and overuse
Anaphoric constructions are rhythmic, which makes them memorable. That’s why politicians employ them in their speeches when they’re trying to rally the masses, and why children’s book authors use them to help young readers engage with their stories.
Look how Julia Donaldson uses it to gorgeous effect in The Magic Paintbrush:
Still, in a novel, that memorability can work against the writer. If you overuse deliberate repetition, it could become an irritant instead of an engagement device. Readers will view it as a writing pattern, not a writing tool.
As with any literary device, think about peppering rather than littering your prose with anaphora. That way, you maximize the impact. It becomes just one literary device among others that makes your prose interesting.
When repetition isn’t a literary device
Sometimes an author can get so carried away with writing that they don’t notice they’ve repeated words. This can make the prose clunky to read. After your first draft, revisit what you’ve written. You might even like to read it out loud or play it through an onboard narration tool on your computer.
Anaphora is deliberate repetition. It serves a purpose – to evoke emotion, drive emphasis, or nudge readers towards their own emotional imagining. If multiple uses of a word or phrase aren’t serving artistry, recast the sentence.
Jim sat in the big black leather office chair behind a large walnut-veneered office desk of the director’s office at PharmaCo HQ. It was his second home.
Jim sat in a large black leather chair behind a walnut-veneered desk. This was PharmaCo’s managing director’s office and Jim’s second home.
Jim sat at the desk in his office … the office that had been his second home for three years. The office where he’d sacked half the PharmaCo workforce just to keep the company afloat. The office that held enough sordid secrets to bury anyone who stood in his way.
Anaphora is one device among several that has a place in the novelist’s toolbox. I’m not advocating removing description or action beats – not at all. Rather, I’m suggesting you might like to experiment with anaphora here and there in your fiction.
If you enjoyed this post, check out my other articles on sentence-level mastery.
Louise Harnby is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader who specializes in working with independent authors of commercial fiction, particularly crime, thriller and mystery writers.
She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders (SfEP), a member of ACES, a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), and an Associate Member of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA).
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