The excellent online resource FilmmakerIQ.com brought this to my attention recently:
How many times does the chorus repeat in your favorite song? How many times have you listened to that chorus? Repetition in music isn’t just a feature of Western pop songs, either; it’s a global phenomenon. Why? Elizabeth Hellmuth Margulis walks us through the basic principles of the ‘exposure effect,’ detailing how repetition invites us into music as active participants, rather than passive listeners.
Here is the video lesson:
I’ve written songs since I was fourteen years old. Not terribly good ones apparently because I never had much success as a singer-songwriter, but certainly enough to understand the importance of song structure, refrains, repeating musical motifs, and so forth. The science in the video clip is interesting, especially the part about how repetition in a song can engender a sense of participation with a listener. As I was thinking about it, I believe this is true in stories and movies as well.
For example, this may help to explain why sequels and remakes are so popular. People like to see similar stories and characters repeat themselves in somewhat different ways.
If it’s true that the typical college senior will have read, heard or seen 10,000 stories in their lives, then that repetition might be one of the reasons why basic story form — Beginning, Middle, End or as screenwriters call it Three Act Structure — is almost an innate sensibility among people.
Repetition also comes into play with specific writing techniques:
Set Up and Payoff: Where a writer creates an open-ended scenario, then later returns to it and resolves it, such as the meaning of Rosebud in Citizen Kane.
Callback: A line of dialogue or gesture that is established, then later played out again such as “Here’s looking at you, kid” in Casablanca.
Runner: A line of dialogue or gesture that is repeated several times such as “I don’t know, it’s a mystery” in Shakespeare in Love, used four times by different characters.
Having done stand-up for two years, I experienced first-hand the value of repetition. When you do a callback, the laughs can be doubly strong because the line itself is funny in the context, but then the audience also recalls its first use, thus those who remember the original line get the second level of sell. And that is an example of active participation.
Similarly with a set up and payoff, we, as writers, invite a script reader or moviegoer to go back to the original scene, and now they can compare what they were feeling then, what they are feeling now, plus oftentimes being able to use that comparison to see how the story has changed and characters have transformed.
So repetition is a valuable feature in songs. It’s also important in screenwriting, TV, and any form of storytelling.