Things I’ve Learned From Books I’ve Read Part 1: Fight Club (Repetition)

Disclaimer: all books discussed in this weekly column are absolutely wonderful and deserve to be read tens of thousands of times and studied by any and all individuals looking to be a writer.  This, however, doesn’t mean that I own these books or have any right to them at all, besides my owning a copy.  I don’t think I’m in the wrong, reproducing small parts of the books here, as it is for educational purposes.  However, if I’m wrong, or if you have any questions, comments, book suggestions for the column or book/idea recommendations, comment on at the bottom or e-mail me.

In Fight Club, written by Chuck Palahniuk, we follow a no-named protagonist and Tyler Durden as they create Fight Club and later, Project Mayhem, together.

Using repetition in stories can be good for the work in a couple of ways.  It can 1) repeat a certain idea, or sentence, which you can find below, or 2) use a phrase and make it mean more than it would if only used once.  There’s plenty of other ways to use repetition, but these are the easiest to cover, and that’s probably because they’re most effective, so these are the two I’m going to talk about.

The repetition that is used in music, as choruses and repeated patterns of sound, and poetry, does the same thing, but to use them in stories is slightly less overdone than in the other two forms.  Using repetition in stories is a fantastic way to create an ever evolving story.

Palahniuk does this brilliantly in Fight Club.

Early in the story, the protagonist talks about old magazine articles.

In the oldest magazines, there’s a series of articles where organs in the human body talk about themselves in the first person: I am Jane’s Uterus.

I am Joe’s Prostate.

The protagonist goes on to using this same line, with subtle differences to describe his mood.

When the character is angry:

I am Joe’s Grinding Teeth.

I am Joe’s Inflamed Flaring Nostrils.

When the character is told something he already thought he knew:

I am Joe’s Complete Lack of Surprise.

The phrase is used all the way to the end of the book.  The reason the phrase becomes so amazingly powerful is the fact that it’s used over and over again in new ways.  Very few times, using repetition, does the exact same phrase grow to become more powerful than it would be if used only once. 

That’s not to say it couldn’t be done, as I’ve seen it work (I’m pretty sure I’ve even made it work) but repeated phrases become immensely more powerful when used right.  An example of this used in Fight Club:

On a long enough timeline, everyone’s survival rate drops to zero.

This phrase is told when the author decides to insert the fact that everyone dies, anyone could die, even our hero, the protagonist with no name.  It’s used multiple times throughout the story, and it’s powerful every single time.

The one thing you don’t want to do with a repeated phrase is end up over using it.  In a short story, or in one chapter of a book, the most a phrase can be used over and over is three or four times, and if used anymore than that, it loses its potential power.  Using a phrase over and over in a story is supposed to be powerful.  It should only increase what you’re trying to say.  You never want to come off obnoxious.  If you want to insert a phrase, but you’ve already used it a couple of times, or if putting it in would make the total selection less powerful, the simple rule is to not use it.  But that’s easily fixed if you go back in your story and move things around.

If you ever feel like your reader is going to read your repeated phrase and say: why does the author keep putting that, or, man, that phrase is annoying, don’t use it.  Only use repetition when it helps.

Another strong phrase used in Fight Club:

                You aren’t your family.

                You aren’t your name.

The phrase is used when referring to members of Fight Club, when instead of trying to figure out who they are, they tell who they’re not.  Who they become when they enter Fight Club.

Here’s a challenge: write a 500-1000 short story using one or two repeated phrases.  It really is harder than it sounds.  Some blank beginning phrases to get you going:

                The fact is…

                The truth is…

                The best part about this is…

                The worst part about this is…

Once you find a good phrase to use and repeat in a story, by the end of it, you’ll be amazed at what you just did.  You’ll giggle to yourself; look how much of a genius I am.  My story is all neat and full of power.  You’ll be proud of yourself, and you’ll wonder why you never tried this before.

And me?  I’ll be Joe’s Complete Lack of Surprise.

Next week: Fight Club and time travel.


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