Hammer it Home: Repetition and Reinforcement in Stories

I was watching Aladdin with a stomach full of Thanksgiving goodness, light-hearted without the typical wall of criticism that accompanies a writer, and enjoyed the film immensely. If only I could flip that switch without copious saturated fats and the good drink, I’d be a happier human being.

What struck me watching the film were all the basic storytelling devices Disney uses so well in its stretches of greatness. Plant and payoff, duality, running gags, character establishment, and what I saw the best of, reinforcement.

There’s an oft repeated bit of advice for storytelling that has been watered down and chopped and screwed beyond much of its helpfulness: Don’t repeat yourself. I dislike this mantra for its narrowness and the negative effects it can have on a story.

If it wasn’t for repetition there wouldn’t be many catchy songs, motifs, or, yes, even the humble running gag. That’s maybe the best place to start. The running gag is a simple distillation of repeat anew. Take the classic spoof comedy Airplane. One of the most quotable gags in all of comedy is Leslie Nielsen’s character popping into the cockpit to tell the impromptu pilot and co-pilot of a passenger plane, “I just want to tell you both, good luck. We’re all counting on you.”

The first time this is said is as the plane gets ready for a desperate landing and is heartfelt juxtapose the goofball comedy. One of the writers stated they wanted the audience to care even a little bit about the people onboard the plane. Of course when the plane’s landing and the passengers are screaming and the shot is shaking erratically, Leslie Neilson’s character pops into the cockpit the same as he did before to utter his encouragement with the exact same delivery, seemingly oblivious to the danger they’re in. Then he does it again after the plane has landed safely and all the tension’s been let out of the scene.

Point being the repetition is used in moments with differing tones that contrast or compliment the line for comedic or heartfelt effect. We see the meaning shaped like water in a glass.

Aside from Bruce Lee metaphors, repetition in this facet can be useful for flipping a phrase in many more situations. Take an inspiring oath of loyalty for a feudal court that extenuates positive virtues not practiced by all who take it. Have the start of the story be lively, prosperous, easygoing then once the inciting incident has stripped the veneer and plunged the protagonists into a dark corner from where they must restore their livelihood, have someone repeat the loyalty oath. The lead-up to the scene, the present tone, and variably the response of those around will say a lot about the oath.

Do those around join in on the oath? Does someone point out all the hypocrisies of those who swore courage and ran, swore loyalty and betrayed, swore a moral high ground and used their administrative positions to embezzle? Do they create a new oath and is it better, more of a compromise, or just as full of platitudes as the last? The repetition leads to a new plot element and expounds character.

On expounding character, repetition can show the differences and similarities in characters by placing them in similar circumstances and giving them similar choices and obstacles to tackle. One character, poor, scruffy, resourceful, escapes imprisonment by swiping a scrap of metal from a guard’s belt which he bends into a lock pick then runs under cloak of dark while putting a hole in the other side of his tent and planting evidence leading his captors along the wrong trail. Another character, rich, eloquent, quick witted, uses his silver tongue and status to convince his captors of a prize for returning him to his home, plotting the exchange to ensure his safety while dooming his captors, rejecting their inputs through, not his logic, but the dissenting arguments of the other kidnappers.

As mentioned before, songs contain innumerous repetitious lines which are perhaps the most forgivable of any medium. Aladdin’s first song has this in spades constantly reiterating his poverty and noble thieving ways. The first few lines speak of him being ahead of the sword escalating to lawmen, doom, hitmen, and disaster. Most of the lines are just one or two words apart from each other but the key to their engagement is the escalation of consequence if Aladdin is caught. Repetition that ups the stakes.

As another tool in the writer’s belt, repetition can also be utilized with deductive reasoning for a myriad of purposes. Take a mystery. The detective seeks the bank robber by examining repeated clues before, during, and after the robberies. There’s always a fire across town that pulls police attention away from the target bank. There’s a poorly buffed out dent on the rear bumper of the car used in every robbery even though the license plates differ. The trail always goes cold within four miles of the bank robbed. What does the repetition reveal about the robber?

Take world building. The fall of the last three great empires were all sparked by invasions from the Sea Peoples to the East. What triggered all these invasions and can they be circumvented? Repetition as breadcrumbs.

Then there comes reinforcement which is just repetition plus. Aladdin is established as a noble thief with his first song which is simply him telling, not showing, that he has that trait. Immediately after the song concludes, he gives up his stolen bread to kids picking through garbage accepting hunger as a consequence of his positive nature. Then he protects the same kids from being attacked by a prince accepting public humiliation of his street rat lifestyle to be the helpful hand. As the story progresses he thieves a wish from the Genie then promises not to trick him in that fashion again sacrificing a wish later on.

Throughout the movie Aladdin’s noble qualities cost him more and more in differing ways that serve to reinforce his character. He doesn’t sacrifice a larger loaf of bread every day to the same kids (although metaphorically he does).

Don’t repeat yourself should really be altered to don’t repeat yourself without good reason. Like many pieces of writing advice, it has its value to the beginner but deserves to be broken and toyed with for practice.

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