Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Writers' Wednesday - Using Motifs

Today Fiona Harper tells us about one of the writing tricks she learned while wearing legwarmers : using motifs.

When I went to university I studied contemporary dance as part of my honours degree. My favourite subject, and definitely the one where I got the highest marks, was choreography. I've always thought that I brought some of the techniques from my dance training into my writing, but have always found it hard to vocalise exactly what. Recently I've been able to pinpoint a few of these, and the one that jumped out the most was using motifs.

The OED defines motif as "a single or repeated image forming a design" and "a dominant or recurrent theme in an artistic, musical, or literary work." Even though I love watching dance, I find it really easy to switch off if the choreography lacks structure. If all the audience gets is one move after another, always changing, always different, it can become a bit dizzying - a bit like stream of consciousness writing that can ramble on without really saying anything concrete.

In dance, a motif would be a movement image, for example, a step, a particular arm movement, or a shape. When choreographing, I would come back to the same movement again and again - but never in exactly the same way so it was familiar and fresh at the same time. The idea was to add to and develop the movement motif. This stops the audience getting that feeling of 'new information overload'. When they recognise the movement they think, "I recognise this. I understand this," and it brings a sense of completion and structure.

Almost subconsciously I found I was using the same technique in my writing. Sometimes it would be a phrase that became important. In my current release, Invitation To The Boss's Ball, my heroine sells vintage clothes on a market stall. Right away I knew I wanted tap into this and use the idea of her feeling "second hand" to deepen her emotional conflict. This idea and phrase (or variations on it - you don't want to get too repetitive!) appear again and again through out the book. Even my hero, Cameron, has a conflict based on a different aspect of this theme. This sense of recognition is what draws Cameron and Alice together, even while the same core issues push them apart.

Visual images also make great motifs, and I find they usually symbolise something important for one of my main characters. In Invitation To The Boss's Ball it was Alice's fabulous vintage shoes. They came to represent Alice's self-worth, and are important to the story line because they are tied up with Alice learning to find her 'inner princess'. (It's a modern-day Cinderella story, if you haven't already guessed that!)

At the beginning of the book she's drawn to the shoes, and that's because, underneath her Plain-Jane exterior, she longs to be the kind of woman men fight for. But she can't quite bring herself to wear the shoes, feeling she isn't worthy of them.

By the middle of the book, Alice is ready to wear her vintage, glass-heeled shoes. However, I'm not sure she would put them on if she hadn't been pushed into it. She's attending a glamorous ball and she uses them to bolster her confidence, to help her feel gorgeous. But all the changes are happening on the outside. She may make the hero's jaw drop at this point, but inside she's still the skinny, ginger-haired girl who feels about as sexy as an ironing board.

By the time Alice and Cameron reach their Black Moment, Alice's shoes are broken - echoing the state of their relationship. She even wails about this, crying about how she's going to be shoeless for the rest of her life, and how she's never going to find another pair like it rest if her life, as a confused Cameron looks on. She's not really talking about the shoes here but, being a man, Cameron just doesn't get this. (Let's face it - when do men ever get shoes?)

I won't give away what happens to the shoes at the end of the book, but I will tell you that Alice really doesn't need them to make her feel like a princess by then - the knowledge has made it's way to the inside, and she's ready to meet her prince as an equal. (Aww!)

I don't often plan out the images and motifs I use; they just appear as the story unfolds. Some ideas fall by the wayside; some become crucial to the whole book. I keep an eye out for images and ideas as I write, often scribbling them on a post-it note and sticking it to the shelves above my desk. I'll use it later if I suddenly have a brainwave of how it can add depth and emotion to what I'm writing. But the golden rules still applies: doing the same thing is boring and repetitive. Somehow the motif has to gain depth and complexity.

Motifs are particularly useful for foreshadowing and pay-off at key emotional moments in the story. Think about "Sleepless In Seattle" - all through the film the characters talk of how if feels to find the person you are destined to be with. Annie's mother talks of it as "magic", and sets up the idea that a person will feel it instantly they take their soul mate's hand. By the time we reach the final scene, and Sam's fingers close around Annie's, nothing needs to be said. No dialogue or explanation is needed. The audience instantly knows there's "magic". Great use of foreshadowing and pay-off! (This is also my cue to reach for the box of tissues and make attractive sniffing noises.)

So, what images, ideas, phrases and themes are crying out to be woven into your latest wip? Whay unexpected motifs have added depth to your stories?

Fiona’s latest release is Invitation To The Boss's Ball, on sale now in bookshops and at eHarlequin and Mills&Boon.

In this modern-day Cinderella story, plain Alice's world is turned upside down when she's askes to organise tycoon Cameron Hunter's charity ball...

She finds herself spending a magical night dancing in his arms, even though she knows that everything will be back to normal on Monday morning. But for now, she's going to enjoy every second...


  1. Thought provoking post, Fiona, thanks! You have got me inspired about a bit of my WIP I was stuck on...

  2. Thanks, Carol! You never know what's going to spark an idea, do you?