When writing a story, there are so many things to keep track of. From the eye color of your main characters, to their family history and the nuances of their personal relationships. Being a writer is like playing God in so many ways – which may be one of the reasons I so enjoy building new worlds, dreaming up new people and creating conflict. But some of the more technical pieces of writing can be quite difficult to grasp on to. Namely, creating themes, symbols, and motifs in your story.
Quick definition sidebar:
Theme – What our story means. How it relates to reality and life in general. (Writer’s DigestWriter’s Digest)
Symbol – Something that stands for, represents, or denotes something else; esp. a material object representing or taken to represent something immaterial or abstract, as a being, idea, quality, or condition; a representative or typical figure, sign, or token. (OED)
Motif – Any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood. (Wiki)
I regularly get questions about my tactics for producing a rich text that has theme, motif and symbolism throughout. So, today I thought I would share some ideas on how you can build out these elements in your own work. Spoiler? It’s not all war games and strategy.
- Think back to your English class days. If you’re a writer, this is probably just preaching to the choir as I would expect that you likely relished English class. Regardless, remember how you worked as a reader and picked up on nuances in other people’s work. Use this as a way to start thinking about your own fiction.
- Talk out your story with someone. I’ve found talking through the story to be incredibly helpful in a number of ways. The give and take gets your brain ticking and sometimes things just pop into your head. Example: I was talking through NightWind with my boyfriend the other day and throughout the course of our conversation, I discovered that my main character is an artisan turned warrior. Her regiment relies on bows and arrows and in her former life, she was apprenticed to a potter. Now, hands will play a big role in the story. there will be lots of references and descriptions of her drawing the bow back and a hearkening back to the muscles she would have gained from kneading the clay. There will also be a hard/soft duplicity that comes through too.
- Let your characters tell you. It’s true that you must listen to your characters. No matter how much I plot, my stories always twist in a different direction because my characters led me along a different path than I originally expected. As you write and get to know your characters, things that matter to them will rise to the surface and likely repeat throughout their tale.
- It won’t necessarily happen in the first draft. The pyramids weren’t built in a day (your daily cliché. You’re welcome!). But seriously. In your first draft, you’re supposed to be getting words on paper. Usually, the richness of a story doesn’t form or come through until I start going back through a draft and adding it in. By the end of draft one, I know my characters better and I know where they are headed. Then, I can go back and plan and even pull out some of those accidental jewels of awesomeness and make them purposeful!
- Sometimes things happen unnoticed by the author. Truly. Many times I have been on a merry lark, carving away at word counts and been caught completely unaware of parallels that pop up. Then, when I notice them, I purposefully start using them more, so that the happy accident becomes a symbol or theme in the tale. In my forthcoming novel, Withered World, this happened.
Do you have tips? Please feel free to share them in the comments!