top of page

How to Effectively Use Parrhesia and Epizeuxis

By Don Daniels, The Rhetorical Oracle

These sound like a pair of characters themselves, don’t they?

Why not let give them a guest appearance in your current work? I promise, they won’t steal the thunder from any other character’s role. They may even just give that thunder some extra rumbling …

Parrhesia comes from a Greek word that means to speak plainly and truthfully, especially with undiplomatic bluntness, to someone in authority. It began as a rhetorical device in Euripides, but soon found its way into political discourse in Athenian democracy. I will focus exclusively on its use in literature. The character using it should ideally be doing so in the bluntest possible terms. An example might be a colonel telling a general, “That’s a stupid order, sir. You’re sending those men to their deaths. For nothing.”

Other examples might be an architect telling a building owner and the construction manager they can’t cut corners on safety measures: (As in, The Towering Inferno, which was adapted from two novels: The Tower and The Glass Inferno.).

Trying to genetically recreate and clone living, carnivorous dinosaurs. (Jurassic Park)

Military take-over of a peaceful planet for commercial development. (Avatar)

Advocating for a group of colonies to claim their independence, (Common Sense)

Parrhesia usually takes some setting up. An authority must first be set up to do something wicked, cruel, unwise. A character must be developed who will have the courage and the motivation. As such, it requires the parrhesiastic speaker to take a risk, and often suffer the consequences. You may have to sacrifice that character, but not always.

This is done in several of Shakespeare’s plays. Think of Kent in King Lear:

Royal Lear Whom I ever honoured as king, Lov’d as my father, as my master follow’d … This hideous rashness …”

Or, in Lord of The Rings, think of Gandalph confronting Theoden when he was under Saruman’s spell; Bilbo confronting Thorin when he was under the spell of dragon treasure, in The Hobbit.

This is also a feature many times in Star Trek, where the Captain (whichever captain it is) protests to an admiral or superior about a plan, although it’s often simply disobeying or stalling. An example was when Chief Martin Brody closed the beaches in Jaws, in defiance of Mayor Larry Vaughn’s insistence that Amity’s beaches remain open and that people go in the water.

It always provides the setting for a suspenseful and dramatic clash, if not a climax, as well as an anticlimactic denouement.

Epizeuxis and more.

Epizeuxis is simply the repetition of the same words in succession within a sentence. As a rule, direct repetition is something to be avoided. However, exceptions to this rule do exist. I covered a couple of them in an earlier article, with anaphora and epistrophe.

Dialogue is another such exception in general. Dialogue often makes permissible that which would not be permissible in narrative, including bad grammar, because people talk how they talk.

People do repeat themselves.

You can even have a character use that as an affectation, to identify that speaker. Some historical figures were famous for it, such as General Bernard Montgomery. Another character might exclaim, “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” upon discovering something horrific. Similar repetitions happen with such phrases as, “I’m sorry,” or “I didn’t mean it,” upon realizing that someone has been hurt.

A character can also repeat a line to answer, or refuse to answer, a question:

“I have no comment of any kind.”

“Can you at least acknowledge that your office is aware of—”

“I have no comment of any kind.”

“Has anyone in your office spoken to—”

“I have no comment of any kind.”

You might be wondering about the “and more” part.

The “more” is another technique that enhances an epizeuxis: crescendo! An ultra-powerful use the repetitive technique is to turn a phrase into a chant; into a mantra. This is a very powerful tool to use in crowd motivation, especially if the phrase is short. A three-syllable length seems to work best: “We will fight!” Or, “Block That Kick!” or “Strike Him Out!”

Longer chants that the character can say out loud, or internally, can be used to show the reader that the character is building strength and resolve. It can be a crescendo in loudness, the number of people saying it, or intensity.

From The Princess Bride:

“I am Inigo Montoya. Twenty years ago, you killed my father. Prepare to die.”

You will find many opportunities in fiction where a lone character speaks truth to power and it’s by repeating a goal, over and over, that the character gathers the strength and the resolve to do this.

You might even find that these will help you crush your way through the wall of writer’s blocks in your path …

I will finish that chapter today.

I will finish that chapter today.

I will finish that chapter TODAY!

108 views0 comments


bottom of page