Monday, November 5, 2012

Let Me Repeat That Again

I have a series of three books by an author named Eve Heidi Bine-Stock. They're called How to Write a Children's Picture Book (there are 3 volumes) and they use several different children's books to teach good writing techniques.

Picture books and easy readers have a lot in common, although picture books typically use vocabulary and sentence structure that's far too complex for an easy reader. (Remember, adults read picture books to children while children try to read easy readers themselves.) Still, some of the techniques that make picture books so enjoyable can be used in an easy reader.

One of these things -- and one which Bine-Stock points out in several of her examples -- is repetition. Repetition helps a young reader learn new words by letting them see the same word several times. Frequent exposure equals better retention... or at least that's the theory. (It works when I'm trying to learn something new, anyway.)

But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things. Knowing the difference can make your book more readable.

Repetition is more than just saying the same thing over and over. For example, in that last paragraph I used a form of repetition intended to emphasize a difference. I wrote "But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things." Most of the words are the same, but one phrase contrasts with the other. See what I mean?

Many people think free verse poetry has no structure... but it does. The structure is built around repetition -- the repetition of a sound, a word, a phrase, or even a verse structure. You can do the same thing in an easy reader. Repetition creates a rhythm of its own, and the trick is often in using it without overusing it.

You can use a series of words linked by "ands" instead of commas. Depending on the words you link, you can slow a sentence down or make something seem more impressive. Or, to put it another way, you can make something seem to grow or shrink.

You can repeat words at the ends of successive sentences to create a sense of closure. You don't want to overdo this, but it can certainly help tie things together.

One method that Bine-Stock mentions comes from the book Harry the Dirty Dog, where Gene Zion does it a couple of times:
In fact, he changed from a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots.
He flip-flopped and he flop-flipped.
Again, you wouldn't want to overdo this, but it lends a certain playfulness to the story.

Lyle, Lyle< Crocodile coverThe book Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is built on all kinds of repetition. Many of them are simple parallel sentence constructions. In addition to the kinds of repetition listed already (and no, these aren't quotes from the book, just examples of how repetition works):
  • One character does the same thing as another character, so they're described with the same words (such as "Joe ate a cookie. Then Jane ate a cookie.")
  • Words at the beginning of one sentence are repeated at the end of another. ("The store? Why would I go to the store?")
  • One person asks a question, the other replies using the same words. ("Did you see a green elephant?" "No, I didn't see a green elephant.")
  • Repetitions can grow. (Think of The House that Jack Built.)
Now, none of these examples require repetition to make sense. You could say "Jack ate a cookie. So did Jane." In some cases that might work perfectly fine. Or you could say "The store? Why would I go there?" There's nothing wrong with that either.

But sometimes repetition adds to the story. Personally, I think repetition often adds to the humor of a book. How much you use is a personal choice, but a little repetition in the right place can make a story particularly memorable.

If you handle repetition correctly in your easy readers, your book is more likely to be read over and over -- or, if you get my meaning, repeatedly. And that's the kind of repetition you'd like to see.

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