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How to Strengthen Your Book’s Thematic Motif Through Repetition

thematic motifOne of the easiest ways to drive home a point is through repetition. Sometimes, repetition in a novel can come across heavy-headed—to the point readers either grow bored or begin to feel manipulated. But what if you could mix the power of repetition with the effectiveness of subtlety?

This is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut teaches us to do in his revered anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt VonnegutThis strange novel is stripped down to stark essentials in a way that makes Vonnegut’s repetition of thematic motifs particularly striking. He repeats certain phrases and images throughout the book, with an almost poetic variation, using both the blatant repetition and the subtle reinforcement of theme to drive his motifs deep into the reader’s mind.

In particular, he repeatedly uses the phrases:

  • “Blue and ivory” to evoke cold.
  • “Mustard gas and roses” to describe foul smells.
  • “So it goes” to underline the tragedies referenced or described in the story.

Although Vonnegut perhaps repeats his phrases to the point he compromises his subtlety, his book is nonetheless a conspicuous example of how a few evocative and memorable phrasings, carefully repeated for emphasis, can take a thematic experience into deeper waters, forcing readers to look beyond the obvious to the message behind the motifs themselves.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there a symbolic motif in your work-in-progress that you could effectively repeat for emphasis? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. In my W.I.P I layer a theme by coming at it in different ways, through various relationships the MC has. Is this considered repetition?

    I also have two items, a red door and a blue scarf, that symbolise lost relationships the MC grieves. These are mentioned throughout the book with the same phrases, but no explanation after the first time we learn about them.

    I also agree that the theme reveals itself in the writing.

    My mother stopped writing because she was told “Only write if you have something to say.” She didn’t know what she had to say, so she didn’t write. I think if she had written more, she would have found out!

  2. Layering a theme can produce profound effects, especially if you’re able to vary and deepen the theme with each layer. In some respects, that’s exactly what Vonnegut was able to do with is repetition.

    I agree with both your mother and you: We write because we have something to say, but sometimes we also discover what we have to say as we write.

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