Song of the Day: Fine Again by Seether
I had the pleasure recently to attend a workshop hosted by my ‘home’ Romance Writer’s of America© chapter Northwest Houston RWA featuring author and editor Alicia Rasley. Among the incredible advice she gave on strengthening a manuscript, she spoke of something I hadn’t been familiarized with – motifs.
Now, I had heard of themes and my head still aches over symbolism due in part to my sophomore year in high school and mining the imagery in The Great Gatsby. But I admit, my first thought was armchair doilies, toile wallpaper, and the awful geometric, Day-Glo T-shirt patterns of the 80’s. I shutter.
Turns out, I’m not too far off in my thinking.
Motifs are recurring elements that help develop the theme in fiction. This could be an image, person, concept, keyword, or pattern which reappears throughout the story. The motif unifies events, characters, and plot points at varying times, the connection linking something of symbolic relevance to different scenes and occasions. And it happens no less than three times. For the savvy reader, it can provide an ‘ah-ha’ moment, recognizing the motif coincides with a change either in the character or the plot.
Examples of motifs can be just about anything your crazy little mind can think up. Crime, celebrations, tragedies, births, weather, the elements (earth, wind, fire, water), science, music, phrases, battles, animals, contrasts, tears, illness, clothing, color, family, prophecies, secrets, failures, success, flowers, and the list goes on.
Often the motif is very subtle. Ever notice how the grand staircase in the movie Titanic recurs at specific points of the unfolding story? Jack greets Rose at the bottom of the staircase before their dinner in first class. Cal shoots his pistol at both Jack and Rose as they escape together down the steps. And the kicker, Rose joins Jack on the staircase after passing away, after living the full life he inspired her to live. Good grief, I need a hankie.
Other times, motifs are more noticeable, such as in It’s a Wonderful Life. Celebrations mark George Bailey’s despondent, bitter reflection on how his dreams of seeing the world had always been derailed by the needs of others. This bolsters the theme that George’s small town life had significant and positive impact on other people’s lives. Where’s my hankie, darn it?
Need another example? Let’s use Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the motifs in the play is light, or rather the avoidance of light. Blanche evaded direct light. She covered an exposed light bulb with a paper lantern in the apartment, avoided being seen in the daytime, and stuck to the shadows whenever possible, that is, until her suitor Mitch forced her to stand under a bright lamp post. One can argue that light represented Blanche’s youth and innocence and her intolerance of light meant she was losing her grasp on reality. The dim light represented her illicit past and fading beauty and her downward spiral from sanity.
After giving this motif thing some thought, I realized I had motifs woven into my stories. The phase of the moon plays a big role in my 2009 Golden Heart finalist manuscript Upon A Moonlit Sea, recurring at moments when there are shifts in character growth. In A Kiss in the Wind, my second novel, sunlight is a frequent device popping up in subtle yet integral scenes that seem to be representative of new beginnings. I’m certain once I begin edits, I will come across a motif or two in my current WIP.
I bet if you analyze your stories, you’ll discover you, too, have repetitious imagery, components and/or narratives. See if you can’t find a motif in your masterpiece.