Themes and Motifs
taking control of symbolism
Get out your notebook. This prompt is best done as an analogue activity. List your themes — the big abstract ideas behind your story — and then, get specific with motifs, the recurring images and elements that will instantiate your themes. Write down as many as you can, even if they are tentative. What might be your recurring places, situations, narrative objects (a park? a document? a parking lot? a gun? a one-on-one game of basketball? A funeral?). Dredge your mind and keep adding as more occurs to you. Is there a cat? Do people eat in this book? What about weather? Does the action happen in a few special locations? Is there travel, and if so by what means? Once you have a list, organize it a little. Maybe you can pair up things that go together or that contrast or conflict with each other. Now, rewrite your list as a column in the middle of a page (big paper or a two-page spread in a notebook might help here) and annotate the list on either side. On one side, show which characters connect to, inhabit or partake of which themes. If you have enough scenes sketched out to do it, start listing scenes beside the themes on the other side. (Or hang on to this and add them in as you write.) As you write new scenes, the list is there to jog your memory to keep your motifs going throughout your text.
Let's briefly consider a few motifs from a classic text, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and think about how they are used as structural elements. In such a big book, there are many, but we can easily put down parties and battles, courtship and marriage, and betrayals and commitments. (In War and Peace, much comes in pairs...) Many parts (and all four of the volumes) begin with either a party or a battle. The liaisons keep forming and shifting and reforming throughout, almost creating a braid form. Likewise with betrayals.
In The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead, one my my favorite motifs is tea. It comes up right at the beginning, in Chapter 1, section 1: "As Henny sat before her teacup and the steam rose from it and the treacherous foam gathered, uncollectible round its edge, the thousand storms of her confined life would rise up before her, thinner illusions on the steam." A small circle of froth — called "money on your tea" by her son Saul — breaks up before she can sip it, portending that she won't get any money, and indeed Henny's financial predicament only worsens as the story unfolds. Henny drinks countless cups of tea throughout the book, often served to her by her stepdaughter Louisa, and this first cup starts it all and foretells everything about her eventual fate, from penury to treachery, as clearly as anything in the book. You couldn't predict exactly what happens from any of the tea breaks Henny takes, but in retrospect, having read the ending, one sees how the tea consistently foreshadowed the outcome.
As you move toward a full or subsequent draft of your manuscript, no matter how many pages in you are, take control of your themes and motifs. Extend them, if they don't feel like they pervade your text in its entirety — or get rid of them, if they seem simplistic, repetitive or unnecessary. Deploy those you keep with deliberation and full awareness, and with sufficient regularity to give rise to patterns. Your reader will feel guided and connected as themes recur with whatever sort of rhythm you have chosen. You will have added meaning and structure and made the text more satisfying.
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