I smell a repetition

I’ve been paying attention recently to how fiction authors build up a sensory picture through repetition (also mentioned here in the post about cohesion) and I remembered this wonderful example from the novel Perfume, by Patrick Süskind. Pages 1 and 2 feature a description of the city that introduces you to the focus on smell that pervades the book. This paragraph is very rhythmic and repetitive in structure. The repetition occurs at word, phrase, clause, sentence and paragraph level, but I just want to look here at word level, by seeing how many times the words ‘stench’ and ‘stank’ are used:

In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of mouldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlours stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber-pots. The stench of sulphur rose from the chimneys, the stench of caustic lyes from the tanneries, and from the slaughterhouses came the stench of congealed blood. People stank of sweat and unwashed clothes; from their mouths came the stench of rotting teeth, from their bellies that of onions, and from their bodies, if they were no longer very young, came the stench of rancid cheese and sour milk and tumourous disease. The rivers stank, the market-places stank, the churches stank, it stank beneath the bridges and in the palaces. The peasant stank as did the priest, the apprentice as did his master’s wife, the whole of the aristocracy stank, even the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion, and the Queen like an old goat, summer and winter. For in the eighteenth century there was nothing to hinder bacteria busy at decomposition, and so there was no human activity, either constructive or destructive, no manifestation of germinating or decaying life, that was not accompanied by stench.

stench: 7                  stank: 12                              TOTAL: 19

Even the usually frequent word ‘and’ occurs only 13 times; ‘of’ occurs 17 times – each of these grammatical ‘glue’ words still occur less often than ‘stench’ and ‘stank’.

The placement of all these ‘stench’ and ‘stank’s is not random: there is a mini-climax and resolution in this paragraph itself (a mini-version of the structure of the book), with the numbers building to a crescendo about three-quarters the way in: the actual climax is the phrase “the King himself stank, stank like a rank lion”. We traced a path that began in the streets, rose through the domestic and then industrial buildings, to the next level of animacy (animals), and so up to the people, and a return to the places they inhabit, from peasants to the King. Once we’re at the King, we are at the top, and as if to underscore his importance, he has two occurrences of the word: ‘stank’ finishes one clause and opens the next. The final rhyming hammer blow of ‘rank’ is like the final nail in the coffin: the matter is sealed. Then we ease off to the Queen (no ‘stank’) and directly back out from the specific to the general again, with a brief respite from that word, but not an escape, for the last word in the paragraph – as if to remind us that we cannot get it out of our noses – is the word we met right at the beginning: stench.

Another interesting thing about word choice in this paragraph is that only three words are used to describe smell, and one of them, ‘aroma’, is used only once. There is an obvious omission of the word ‘smell’. There are other words that could have been used and were not, strong words such as fetor, odour, foulness, malodour and reek. They would have built up the fabric of the piece and made it more three-dimensional than it is. By using just the two words, the author is saying that although there was social richness (from peasantry to the monarchs) and complexity of housing, of clothes, of linen, of food and of work, there was one extreme, non-gradable level of smell, which he describes with one verb (stank) and one noun (stench).

While this technique is not maintained throughout the book (you’d be wanting a whiff of smelling salts every few pages if it were), it serves to hook you in and let you know that you are going to get a rich, textured story, one that assaults your olfactory senses in the beginning, and, hopefully, seduces them by the end. This book did mine.

Textual cohesion

In another post I described the effects of choosing one word over another, and how such choices can evoke quite different scenarios and feelings. But authors think about more than the choice of one word over another; they look all the time for how to connect the ideas and keep reinforcing the feelings they’ve evoked in their readers. Over the course of a paragraph, or a few paragraphs or chapters you can use cohesive devices (such as repetition) to create coherence (so you can understand the piece).

One great example I found recently of how an idea is developed was in Philip Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It’s a fictional retelling of the story where two babies, twins, were born to Mary, and she named one Jesus and the other Christ. One section of the story has Christ witnessing Jesus’ baptism:

So John held him, and plunged him under the water and lifted him up again.

At that moment Christ saw a dove fly above them and settle in a tree. It might have been an omen. Christ wondered what it might mean, and imagined what a voice might say if it spoke from heaven and told him.

Then Christ goes home to Mary and tells her about what he saw:

‘It flew right over my head, Mother. And I thought I heard a voice speaking from heaven. It was the voice of God, and it was speaking to me – I’m sure of it.’

Soon afterwards, he goes into the desert to look for Jesus, and asks him if he has heard the word of God yet:

‘Why do you want to know?’

‘Because something happened when you were being baptised. I saw the heavens open up above you, and a dove came down and hovered above your head, and a voice said “This is my beloved son”.’

On the first reading of this, where there was a little more text between each of these events than I have provided here, I didn’t see the development in Christ’s mind from something he imagines might have been said, to something he thinks he hears, to his report of actually hearing a voice saying something. Only on the second reading did I pick up how clever Pullman had been – the character is not aware of this development, and at first neither was I.

The piece is cohesive because alongside the stepped development of one idea – from Christ imagining possible conversations to believing he has heard God saying something – there are also repeated elements that almost provide handrails to the steps: ‘a voice’ and ‘from heaven’ (‘the heavens’ in the final example) occur in each of the three sections, guiding the changes and supporting you as you follow the character through the three steps.

This technique is used to develop arguments in all kinds of writing. The better it is done, the more persuaded you are by the writer, and the harder it is to see how you were persuaded.

Owen, however …

Recently, I was seduced by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I haven’t before been drawn in to the whole Paris thing; much as I liked Amelie, it didn’t make me feel the urge to rush over there. Midnight, on the other hand, did. Perhaps it was partly the awful tourist characters who provided the example of ignorance that I knew I would never be. Cough, cough. Of course it was partly the cast: Marion Cotillard, Kathy Bates, Michael Sheen … am I forgetting anyone? Oh, yes, Owen Wilson. I had had the opportunity of seeing the movie the previous weekend and decided against it on the strength of Owen’s being the star. I’ve never really been a fan of his style; he seems to play the same character over again and no one seems to notice. He has all the range of an inchworm. There’s a line in Midnight in Paris where he’s trying to get Gertrude Stein to help him and he says, ‘I would like you to read my novel’; he delivers this with exactly the same level of excitement as he tells his fiancée (spoiler alert), ‘We’re probably not very well suited anyway.’ It’s all the same rhythm: a rise in the middle, a fall, another rise about 2/3 the height of the first and then flatline.

I see this in writing a lot. It happens in many structures, but because I’ve been editing research reports where people are often trying to convey complex arguments what I see is:

Here is a lovely statement about X; however, here’s a statement about Y. Now we have a new statement about Z; however, it’s not the same as this statement about Q.

There’s no problem with doing this; it’s just that when it’s overdone, it has the effect of lulling your reader to sleep as effectively as a long train journey across the Nullabor. You lose the force of your message in that even beat.

The fix is to work out:

  1. Do you really need to position those two ideas against each other?
  2. Can you use another contrasting conjunction such as ‘but’, ‘whereas’, ‘instead’ or ‘yet’. Too many of these, though, and you haven’t fixed the issue of the rhythm.
  3. Can you just use the semi-colon and have the two independent clauses stand so the reader has to infer the relationship between them?
  4. Can you separate the clauses so that they are two separate sentences (at least some of the time)? You could still use a contrasting conjunction, but perhaps use a phrase such as ‘On the other hand’ instead of a single word.
  5. Can you change one of the clauses so that the length is varied in one of them? Perhaps you can add some adjectival phrase, or take out part of one of the sentences.

Also, pay attention to what effect these fixes have on the words you use. You may find that forcing yourself to change things such as sentence length makes you change the vocabulary. That’s a good thing, as it also shows you the subtle shifts in meaning that can come from almost-synonymous words, as opposed to the fuddled, sleepy feeling that can come from almost-identical rhythms.