One of the first things I look for in the first editorial pass of a script, is repetition—unwanted, accidental redundancy. Unintentionally repeating the same thing, either specifically (having the MC repeat an identical or nearly identical line) or generally (having two scenes that basically express the same thing) is a waste of comic real estate… comic blasphemy!
A true enemy of the comic writer…
Yet with one slight change, the enemy becomes a staunch ally.
The critical point of the rule above of course, is the “unwanted, accidental” bit. Deliberate repetition is a powerful and useful tool. Used correctly it can;
- Emphasize a particular element.
- Establish tone, mood and style.
- Establish a motif.
- Establish the familiar to create rapport with the reader.
- Establish the familiar to affect rhythm and pacing.
Repetition can be executed on any element in a comic: panel structure, camera angles, dialogue, mise en scène… anything.
With that grand approach in mind, let’s break down and explore a few of them.
Meaning through dialogue.
The other day I was watching Saving Private Ryan and noticed something interesting. Right at the scene where Tom Hanks finally tells Matt Damon, he’s lost his brothers and has to go home, the director cuts to a couple of other soldiers who literally repeat what Tom Hanks just said almost word for word.
Now paying attention with my writer goggles on, I suddenly realized just how many times somebody in that damn movie mentioned Ryan losing his brothers and needing to go home.
This repetition of dialogue (nearly identical lines in most cases) is a heavy hitter and delivers on a number of the points defined above. It clearly emphasizes a particular story element, but also creates and hammers home a motif throughout the entire story. You never go too long in that movie without being reminded why Hanks and his crew are putting themselves in harm’s way (Ryan’s role and the MC’s goal).
In this case, it also helps establish the tone, mood and style of the of the story, particularly by being a point of conflict among the MCs each time the dialogue is brought up.
Mood, Tone and Style.
On a more straight forward level, repetition of word choice can directly establish the mood, tone and style of a story. For example, Walter Simonson in Thor, “Up, tooth-Gansher! Up, tooth-Grinder. Take to the air and carry the lightning of your hooves amid our enemies.” Or “Mayhap in time the, agony will heal… And Mayhap, Thor, you will always bear the agony to remind you…”
The repetition of diction creates a regal, formal feel that separates Asgardians from your average human. Though this could certainly be captured without repetition, the reiteration draws emphasis and enforces the mood, tone and style throughout Simonson’s work.
Rapport with the Reader.
Repetition is a great way to showcase trademark character traits and build a rapport with the reader. This is especially relevant to the long term series.
“Bub” a fairly generic word. But by that one word alone, I bet you already know who I’m about to talk about… Wolverine, of course. It’s been repeated enough throughout his stories that we associate the word with him. When we read an issue and see it, it’s familiar.
This is the Wolverine we know, love and have come to expect… Where others reading for the first time might blow by it, we recognize it. An intimate little connection between writer and reader.
Show a panel with the lights out, a solid black frame with a single white SFX word “SNIKT” and everyone who’s read wolverine knows what just went down.
Establishing rapport with the reader, is also the home of repetitive gratuitous eye candy. Spawn perched atop a roof edge, his cape billowing out behind him, chains coiled. Spider-Man swinging towards the camera foot extended or leaning back against a 40th story window.
In case you didn’t realize it, when enough people repeat something enough times in a particular type or style of story… that’s when we get a convention of genre. Repetition done so often it transcends the individual story and becomes ingrained in the public consciousness.
Of course, not all repetition comes within dialogue or exposition. Like I said earlier, repetition can be applied to ANY element of a comic.
Familiar panel layouts.
Repeatedly falling back on a specific panel layout generates a familiarity where the eye no longer needs to decipher panel structure. The flow and movement of the panel sequence is instantly understood.
In these instances, the energy of such effort is re-directed to the art itself. Lots of comics work with familiar panel layouts. Alan Moore repeated the nine panel grid in Watchmen and had many five panel horizontal pages in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
It’s worth noting that repetition directly affects pacing. Generally speaking, the more familiar we are with something, the quicker we’ll move through it. So anytime you repeat an established panel layout, the pace is going to get a nudge.
Visual repetition often goes by another moniker… symbolism. A very large area of discussion which I happen to go into detail in the new Storycraft for Comics book.
In a nutshell, symbolism packs a tremendous amount of meaning in a limited space. While delivering a single symbolic panel can give a story punch, repeating a symbolic motif throughout an entire story can act as a sledgehammer—developing deep undercurrents, that capture all the elements of repetition defined above.
A final warning of repetition. Even when used deliberately, repetition can be a fickle ally.
By it’s very nature, drawing TOO MUCH attention sines a spotlight to the underlying mechanics of the story (and your writing). This spotlight can break the illusion of the story and jar the reader—remind him that he’s sitting somewhere reading a comic and not “in the adventure”. Pay attention when using repetition… step back and look at it from a wider perspective.
These are a few key points of repetition, but by no means an exhaustive list of examples. An industrial strength tool for your writing toolbox—just make sure it’s only used when intentional! ▪
About the Author —
Nick Macari is a full-time freelance story consultant, developmental editor and writer, working primarily in the independent gaming and comic markets. His first published comic appeared on shelves via Diamond in the late 90’s. Today you can find his comic work on comixology, amazon and in select stores around the U.S. Visit NickMacari.com for social media contacts and news on his latest releases.