Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Writer’s Wednesday with Carolyne Aarsen

Today on Writer's Wednesday, Carolyne Aarsen talks about incorporating symbolism and motifs into her recent story, Healing the Doctor's Heart

Symbolism. Motifs. Imagery.
For most of my writing life these words have haunted me. I studied them in stories in English and learned about their significance as we took apart Shakespeare and classic novels and writers. When I started writing I knew my stories would be richer if I incorporated some of these elements. But I never seemed to figure out how. There are always so many balls to juggle when writing a book and every time I would go to another workshop at another conference I would come away with one more ball to throw in the air. Character arc, story structure, theme, plot, motivation, conflict, setting . . . . too many things to keep my eye on, to keep moving. To throw a motif or imagery into the chaos always seemed too complicated and crazy making. So, for the most part, I avoided it. But, as I said, the concept haunted me. Is one deliberate about this? Or do we allow for the 'boys in the basement' as Stephen King calls them, to take over and hope for a magical, Aha?

Then, as I was writing my recently released book, Healing the Doctor's Heart the idea still shimmered on the horizon. Just try, it urged me. Try to bring in something that you can use. Look for it and be aware.

My story I was working on was a romance. I knew I wanted a bride not-quite-left at the altar as my heroine. The brother of the cowardly groom delivered the message to the future bride at her apartment as she was trying on her wedding dress. Fairly powerful and it created an immediate negative connection to the brother. I was going to have the bride toss out the dress, erase the memory, but as she held the dress in one hand, garbage bag in the other I sensed her hesitation. I know to a non-writer this sounds positively hokey and surreal. But any writer knows that our characters are very real and inhabit a special world that is separated from this world by a thin computer screen. Every time we sit down in front of this computer, we dive into that world. And our characters talk to us.

Shannon was talking to me. She didn't want to get rid of the dress. At first I thought it was because she was going to get all sentimental on me which wasn't like her. But no, she needed to keep it as a reminder of the perfidy of men. I said, okay. Keep it. I didn't think more of it, until she had to move in with her grandmother. Then the hero, the brother who delivered the fateful news, happens to come along just as she is picking up a box. The bottom falls out and so does the dress. He picks it up and wonders why she still has it. 

And that's when I felt the faintest tingling. The dress represented the brokenness of her past. Her shame and she wanted to keep that reminder because she didn't want to go through that again. To him it shows that she is still sentimental about his brother and represents an obstacle. The dress is now gaining some power. I heard violins, I heard trumpets. I had a blinding realization. Motif! I knew I had to work it deeper into the story and use it but be careful not to abuse it. I kept it in mind and allowed the dress to make a few more tantalizing appearances and then, one last manifestation toward the end of the story, but this time it symbolizes the growth of the heroine.

Overall, this was easier to do than I thought. But I believe it was, in part, because after 35 books I have a better handle on the other elements. I know to some of you this comes more naturally, but I'm a slow learner. However, I'm hoping to try the motif angle again and be aware of opportunities to use an image, an object, an idea and make it represent something in the theme of the story. It might not come as organically as this one did, but now that I've done it, I'm willing to try it again.

So what about you? What motifs have you discovered in stories you like? In stories you have written? Have they come to you or were you deliberate about it?

To find out more about Carolyne and her books, visit her website at or her blog


  1. What a great post - thank you. I am currently revising a story in which a bird (very specific kind, about which I originally knew nothing but have now become a mini-expert!) appears twice and is mentioned by an important secondary character several times as well. I'm still not quite sure what it means, but the scenes in which it's there are by far the strongest and I know I have to dig deeper & play around a bit to see if I can figure it out. Maybe after another 35 books I'll get there (ha ha.) Cheers, Louise

  2. It's one of my favourite people on the blog today! Hi Carolyne!

    I like symbolism and I'm a big fan of the Rule of Three and it's a great way to show character growth. A lot of times I don't "get it" though until the end when I realize something has significance, and then I can go back and weave it in earlier spots.

    I think though, when done well, it really adds resonance to a book. It's the extra little touch that makes a story richer and more layered. I think after a while, some of this becomes instinctive as we go on. But like you, I find there is so much to remember that it's nearly paralyzing, so I usually just sit down and start and let it grow organically. :-)

    Not always the most efficient process, but it's the one that keeps me most sane. LOL!

    Great post!