Motif is easier than theme, and even less necessary. This is one that you can really ignore if you feel like it. But it's also a fun thing to play with if you like. It's something that I focus on a lot more in some books than in others, but it ends up creeping in most of the time anyway, and I bet it does in your stuff, too, more often than you might know.
The definition of a motif is really simple. It's a reoccurring element in a story that serves to tie parts of the story together. Cool?
A really obvious example of motifing (made that word up) is something like what I did in THESE HUMANS ALL SUCK, the manuscript that has been gently laid to rest. I did a lot with colors, particularly with the color blue.
If something was blue, you could pretty much bet that it was important. I didn't hit you over the head with it, I'd just casually mention that it was blue and move on. If you weren't looking for it, you probably wouldn't have noticed that blue was important. But it was there if you felt like it.
A more common example is a line or phrase that's repeated in the story. This is one I use A LOT. A character will say a line of dialogue early in the story that gets echoed in different ways--in the main character's thought process, in his own dialogue, something like that. And it immediately brings the reader back to the first time it was used.
Using your motif is like cross-referencing one part of your book to another. This is very much an English class element. If an AP English kid ever writes a paper on your book, there's a good chance he'll go in looking for motif. I'm not saying you should write your book with that goal or anything, but it's a good way to think of motif. It's something that works on an analysis level. If it's something that's very blatantly part of the story, it's probably too obvious.
I have weather as a motif in #magicgayfish. The mentions of the ocean are all in there to echo Rudy's emotional state. He projects his emotions onto the ocean (which is called a pathetic fallacy, if you're a fan of even more fancy terms). So if you were to go through and write down the different ways the ocean is described throughout the book, you would actually have written down Rudy's exact emotional arc through the book. Which is pretty cool, I think, and definitely not something I did unintentionally.
Almost done, but I want to do a quick reminder; I'm not writing The Great American Novel over here. I'm not writing anything that I could see a class analyzing in English. So this isn't something that you need to be writing literary fiction in order to worry about. Some of my YA books trend towards the more literary, and others towards more commercial, but they all have theme, motif, and allusions weaved into them, the same way they have plot and character and all that good stuff you're already used to thinking about.
Are these things I'm talking about comparable to plot and character in terms of importance? Well, it depends on the book you're writing, but almost definitely not. This is veering too closely to the literary/commercial debate for my taste (and I'm so, so sick of this debate) but just keep in mind that I'm not suggesting you stop writing dynamic, hooky plots and start writing stories of impotent old men staring out to the horizon or whatever. Write what you want. Be aware of your options.
Even my killing zombies with spatulas book has themes and motifs. And probably allusions, I can't remember. I'll talk about those next.
Monday, September 27, 2010