Question of the Month

copyright 2005 by Alicia Rasley

New questions below!

Ask me anything.... about writing, that is. It's all I know.

All theme, all the time.

Want some old questions? Click here for an archive.

Q uestion:
How does one develop a theme when starting a novel (i.e. brainstorm ideas or thoughts?), and/or how does one "find" the theme once they've written the novel?

A nswer:

I think here you need to think about your own writing process and what
you start with.  Me, I can't imagine figuring out the theme until after I
write a first draft, or at least plot the whole book.  But other people
actually start with theme and refine if they need to.

It kind of depends. :)  For example, you might actually have a point you
want to make to the world.  Something I'm always saying (really-- I said
it today at lunch!) is that "love is an action, not a feeling".  That's a
good romance theme, if I do say so myself.  And it's something lovers
should realize, and let's say I want to write a book that proves that--
that proves that just feeling love isn't enough, you have to ACT love
too. (I'm thinking of those horrid people on the Jerry Springer show, the
ones who confess to cheating and lying and sit there emotionally abusing
their spouse in front of millions, and say, "But I love him/her!"  They
might FEEL love, but they don't act it.)

So I might break that proposition down.  (I used to do this with my college students-- that is, take your thesis statement and break it into parts.  "Blindness in Oedipus is a motif that .... signifies the various ways... that humans deceive themselves."  You have to show each part of that, that blindness is indeed a motif, that there are various ways it
signifies, that what it signifies is....)

I take this proposition and see there are two major parts. Love IS an action. Love is NOT a feeling.  I might modify that right quick that it's not JUST a feeling; otherwise, if love is all action, then a frozen-hearted Mother Theresa is the heroine of my book (though actually, that could be interesting...).  So there are three parts: Love is a feeling. Love is not just a feeling. Love is an action.

Now how would I prove all parts of that in a story?  If I want to show the inadequacy of love as a feeling, I might start out with a heroine who loves feeling-wise but doesn't yet understand that, say, hopeless longing and idealized passion and gazing at photographs of the beloved isn't all there is. In fact, I might start with something like a young woman in love with a celebrity, or in love with someone she met long ago and hasn't seen since, or in love with an old flame.  That is, show that this form of love requires nothing but feeling of her: Love is a feeling. You want to show the "before" picture-- that is, where the theme begins, which is usually related (within the same issue) but less refined or
sophisticated than the theme will turn out to be.

And then I might show that becoming a reality-- she meets the celebrity, or the old flame comes back.  Or just to get that connection/disconnection between action and feeling going, I might make her meet the celeb or old flame through some action of her own, like going where she knows he hangs out.  And for awhile, just to reel her in, love feels like a wonderful feeling-- the reflected glory, the renewed passion.

Then we might show that love is NOT just a feeling.  Something happens that demands something more than feeling from her.  Say his celebrity vanishes. Maybe he's a brilliant young politician running for higher office, and something comes back to haunt him and ruin his chances, whether it's a scandal he's peripherally involved in, or some family member's disaster, or some vote he made on principal but enraged some voters.  And suddenly he's not such a big glittery winner anymore, and he needs support and sympathy from her.

Or the idealized former flame turns out not to be what she remembers--
maybe he's been burned out and is no longer that courageous cop, or maybe
the dynamic dude she remembers never really existed-- he was always kind
of nerdy but she never saw that before.  And she has to decide either to
love the Him that really exists, or create a new ideal and go love that.

And finally, then, we come to the conclusion, what we're aiming at. She's called upon or challenged to act with love, whether it's standing up for him or helping him with some nerdy thing or helping him solve some case even though it puts her at risk since he no longer has the protection of the badge.  Or maybe she has to trust him, or make him trust her.  But at any rate, the plot events challenge her to DO love, not just FEEL love. This should be -hard- for her. If it's easy to do love, then the theme isn't very important, is it? It doesn't say much at all.  So I might come up with some conflict for her near the end that makes her choose between love and something else she wants. Or he might need her in precisely the way that's painful for her (like maybe he needs her to accept something she'd never before accept, like that sometimes her Knight has tarnished armor).  But at the end, then, I'd want to show the affirmation of that Love is an Action theme-- some resolution where love being an action is reinforced by a final plot event-- not the two of them gazing lovingly at each other, but maybe her getting up at 3 am to take him to the airport (which I had to do Wednesday for the husband, and I sure hope he got the resonance of that theme, cuz it sure hurt!).

Remember the concept of "dialectic" (which if you represent it
graphically looks weirdly like DNA, a double helix):  You take a thesis--
something believed-- and then present the antithesis-- an alternate or
opposing belief, and together they form a synthesis, something that
didn't exist until the argument or debate created it.  So you have Love
is a feeling/ love is not a feeling... love is an action.  The synthesis
isn't just a combination of the thesis and antithesis, but something new
that is understood only because we worked through the two alternatives.

That might be how you brainstorm a plot out of a theme-- break it into
pieces, whether it's elements of the proposition, or a thesis and an
antithesis leading to a synthesis.  Then see how you can develop plot
events to prove each part, and then draw it all together by the end.

Now if like most romance writers and start with character and/or plot,
you probably will have only a vague notion of the theme -- that is, the
plot events and character journeys are going to determine the theme
rather than vice versa.  You'll probably have a draft or a good part of a
draft or a whole synopsis before you get really very far into determining
theme. One thing to keep in mind here is that you don't actually invent a
theme this way, rather you discover the one your story creates.

But how do you discover it? Bring in the virgin reader, maybe, to tell
you what you've written. :)  Or outline the plot and character arcs and
see what the message is, what that all says.  I'm one of those who can't
see the forest for the trees, or the trees for the forest-- it's hard for
me to look at the whole and see what the parts create.  So I usually have
to do a quick outline, or a synopsis, and see what the events and the
journey in skeletal form lead to.  It's seldom exactly what I want to
say-- it's a bit vague or too conventional or just not quite right. But
that's what all I've got leads to.  So it won't be enough to come up with
a new theme-- I also have to go back and fix the story so that now,
fixed, it leads to that theme.

I'll also be on the lookout for motifs that evolved more or less
naturally, and consider how I can refine them or amplify them with one
more occurrence, say.  The motifs should not only connect somehow with
the theme, but should also be integrated in the plot, remember. They
shouldn't stand out blaring "motif!" but should be so well-integrated the
reader picks it up without having it shoved at her.

But whichever direction you start out with-- the theme or the plot/characters-- eventually they have to work together!


Q uestion:

My problem:  I wrote a book from an outline...kinda...and saw the
outline drifting away on a southerly current while the book went in
another direction.  Instead of stopping writing, I kept going (I wanted to
write the next one more than I wanted to write this one) and finished it.
Now I have 550 pages that look like a hatrack making babies with a Christmas
tree. After staring at it from a distance for some time I think I've just
got my theme wrong.  It's not about what I planned for it to be about, in
a big way.

My questions:  Do you have suggestions for figuring out what your
theme is when the crossbred little sausage is already done?  In my shoes,
would you slide it under the bed and start something else, or try to fix
A nswer:

Well, I think you need to put it aside for a couple weeks and then read it with a fresher perspective.  I'm a firm believer in getting analytical after you finish a draft, so here's your chance to put all those left-brained skills to work.

You say that the theme is "Wrong" and isn't what you planned for it to be.

So...  think about what theme you were sort of aiming at. Do you still like it?  Do you want to try to revise the book to match that, or save the theme for another book, or what?

Look at what the actual draft actually leads to thematically.  There is a theme there, even if it's not coherent or plausible-- any finished draft is going to have at least a vestigial theme.  What does the draft try (if not well) to say?
Do you like that? Would you like it if you refined it somewhat? That is, is the problem with it just that it's too vague or too cliched (easily fixable problems) or is the real  theme something that makes  your stomach turn? (Like maybe "women should be barefoot and pregnant," which
I kind of decides was Notting Hill's theme. :)

Sometimes the fix is easy-- a matter of taking out a scene or re-ordering the sequence.  Now I tend to write scenes out of sequence a lot (for example, I've just gone from page 290 to page 380, just to write whatever needs to be written most in my head), so I'm pretty comfortable with
moving scenes or events around.  But even if  you start with page one and never deviate after that, you have to recognize that you might not naturally assemble scenes or events in the most dramatically and thematically satisfying order.  Again, this requires probably listing
events, not just reading the draft-- you need to see the events, not the wonderful prose. Then speculate about things like motivation-- will this decision be more motivated if I take this later event and move it earlier? Or is this event here more properly effect than cause?  Why we
do things is very important to theme, so making sure the events are in the right cause-effect order can make a difference in theme.

For example, I'm working with a very old murder that no one realized back then was murder.  The current police chief (who is/was connected romantically with the victim's sister) has to figure out that the death was suspicious and decide to investigate. So I need a good reason for him to wonder about the death and get out the old file and look at the photographs and see something that tells him this is murder.  I don't want a theme "murder will out", that is, I don't want this idea that somehow a murder will inevitably come out, that murderers cannot keep it
inside because of guilt or fear or whatever. This murderer has gotten away with it for 18  years, and he's going to continue to get away with it if he has anything to say about it.  What I want is a theme more along the lines of "families must decide to reveal the secrets that they've
been keeping", that is, that there must be a -choice- to reveal secrets and investigate mysteries, because humans and families are much more likely to keep secrets and avoid finding out the truth. (IMHO. :)

So I want to make sure that the police chief arrives at his decision not Just Because and not because the murderer spasmodically does something suspicious, but because the chief notices something weird going on in the family.

So my question has been-- when do I put this part about the revelation of who Theresa (the dead woman's adopted sister) really is, who her parents really are?  Is it a cause of him investigating Cathy's death, or is it an effect? Does it come before or after?  Theme helps me decide. If I think -families-, not outsiders, should decide to reveal their own secrets, then I want to show the family, or some member of it, making a move towards revealing the secret of Theresa's birth.  So I think I want Theresa to start looking into her birth, trying to find out who her parents are, FIRST.  And she comes to the police chief not to ask about Cathy's death (which at this point no one thinks is suspicious) but to see if anyone in her birth family has a criminal record.  That sets up a chain of events that makes the chief realize that there might be something weird about this "accidental" death.  And part of that is because he realizes Theresa's family has so many secrets-- maybe this is one of them. And he realizes that when he realizes that they've been lying to Theresa all along.

Cause and effect-- that's one of the elements of theme. In a romance, it matters to "what love means in this story" whether the hero finds out about the heroine's deception before or after he confesses his love-- and what he does then. Either sequence can work, but each drives towards a different them. One might have to do with trust, and the other might focus on forgiveness.  It also will matter whether she chooses to tell him the truth, or she is forced to tell him, or if he discovers by accident, or if he discovers because he's become suspicious.  Too often we leave events in this order because we wrote them that way. And too often we settle for less than a causal connection because it feels okay.

But if your story isn't working, if the theme is off, then analyze. Work out scenarios in your head. "If he finds out by accident, how will he confront her?  But what if something she says gets him suspicious... how will that change things"  It won't destroy what you've got, but it will
help you enhance it.

As to whether you should ditch the book or not, well, I hate to ditch a finished book.  Is it worth submitting even if you think it's kind of off? I mean, the editor doesn't know what  your original vision was, and so won't know if it falls short of that.  Does the book hang together, or
can you make it hang together?  If so, if it won't take much work, you might try sending it around, as long as you don't think that it's so bad that an editor will think, "I never want to see anything from HER again!"
:)  What the heck, maybe you're wrong about how wrong it is.

Then again, you might want to put it away, write the next book, and then go back with more experience and distance.

But I have to say, sometimes books are fatally flawed and you never figure out why or you never figure out what went wrong or how to fix it.
It's as hard to write a bad book sometimes as it is to write a good book.
That's why I try never to say something cynical when a good writer comes up with a clunker.  She probably didn't "phone it in". She might have tried as hard as she could to make this book work, but something in the original conception or the central execution simply can't be made right.  It's hard to know when you're working on the book, however, so you might
need some distance.



Q uestion:

- How do you make sure that theme and plot events match up?

- What if you don't like the theme your story is leading to?

A nswer:

There was this utterly mindblowing answer I wrote but it got lost in the
email crash. So everyone has to agree that it was mindblowing. :) You
know how whenever you lose something you wrote, it was brilliant?

Anyway, I seem to remember that I'd said that often when theme is off, whether it's that it doesn't match the plot well or it's awful, it's because it is too close to the writer.  Every one of us has some issue that we aren't really objective about, like, oh, siblings (you can ALWAYS tell when an author has a lot of resentment against a sibling :), parents', spouses' former spouses, former spouses' current spouses, race, religion, death, trust, sex, etc.

Now this doesn't mean we can't write about these issues-- sometimes great
writing comes when you tackle such issues.  And sometimes when the theme
goes awry, it makes for really interesting fiction.  For example, Jenny
Crusie talks about all these 19th C books, especially Anna Karenina and
Madame Bovary, where women have great sex and then die. What's that
saying except that great sex is lethal to women? And I did my master's
thesis on the strange tendency in Poe stories for fiancees and wives to
end up buried alive.  Poe was definitely sending out signals that wanting
a man to make love to you ends up entombing you in his crazed fear-lust.

Interesting fiction-- hey, we're talking classics here.  But you can't necessarily expect that when you tackle some issue of great importance to you. What you can often expect is... lying. Not consciously... but often what happens is your sub-conscious is at war with your conscious, and you state chirpy themes like "Motherhood is the pinnacle of the female experience!" (conscious) when the plot events say, "Living with three toddlers is like living in an insane asylum without any drugs or doctors" (subconscious).  Or "Your sister is like a best friend who looks like you!" when the plot events say, "No one knows where your weak points are and is as good at exploiting them as your sister."  And "Heroes are strong and protective" when the plot events say, "Heroes are controlling and almost psychopathically jealous."

So if you are thinking that theme and plot events don't fit, or that the
"real theme" shown by the plot events is unappealing, consider that it
might be the issue that you're addressing is setting off some serious
personal conflict. That doesn't mean you can write about this, but rather
you have to be that much more honest and analytical with yourself.  What
do you really mean to say?  That chirpy thing, or something darker and
more complex?  I suspect you're unlikely to write very convincingly in a
chirpy manner about an issue of great importance to you.

For example, the history of Southern literature is replete with examples of great authors simply avoiding the issue of race and slavery (the way Gone with the Wind really does), or writing about it only in subconsciously subterranean ways (as does Cold Mountain, which sort of
posits that some white Confederate soldier was the -real- victim of Southern brutality-- but notice that much of the punishment Inman receives is that which was actually visited upon slaves, especially those who tried to escape).

Now before I manage to offend everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line, let me say I believe this because I grew up in Virginia, and my time there spanned that tumultuous period from secregation to civil rights.  I know whereof I speak, plus I studied Southern History with the great black historian John Hope Franklin and read everything William Faulkner wrote (he being one of the few southern writers who addressed, however weirdly, race and slavery and what one set of southerners did to another set).  And it is -fascinating- how adroitly Southern literature avoids addressing the most important issue of the south.  (Maybe of the nation.)

Why? Lots of subterranean reasons, lots of internal conflict.  So it comes out in these weird ways-- Faulkner's hero finding that he has black slave ancestors.  Charles Frasier's hero
getting chained and a nice white family getting tortured and slaughtered by "the Home Guard".  He's really talking about the experience of blacks in the pre-war period, but even 150 years later, that's not something that generally gets addressed openly by southern white writers.  (Southern blacks tackle it more openly.)  It makes for amazing reading,
but it sure shows that conflict bursting forth.  The incoherence is intriguing in itself... but I suspect that denial has to be awfully deep to allow for the author's and culture's conflicts to manifest in great fiction.

More often, it manifests as incoherent, "off" fiction.  So if you know this issue is particularly fraught or sensitive for you, go ahead and write about it... but see if you can find a real theme in there, not the one you're consciously planning.

So watch for scenes and events that are in obvious conflict with the theme you say you want.  Whether you change the theme or the plot events, I think, depends on which is truer, which is better.

Let's say you have a theme coming out that you don't like. What do you do? I'd say that usually this is because of one event or scene which is so extreme in some way that it throws everything else off, including the theme, but also usually character logic.

For example, let's say you're writing a book where the heroine is there when her fiance has to deal with his rebellious son. He's just gotten custody of the kid when the ex-wife died.  Now there's a reason why we tend to show our heroes interacting with children, because one reason for a courtship is to give the woman time to determine if this guy will make
a good father for her kids.  But you don't want, probably, to show the hero being perfectly perfect with this kid, saying and doing the right thing automatically, because that just isn't believable.  But if maybe you got some father issues or spouse's former spouse issues (or a
teenager of your own!), you might come up with a scene that doesn't just show dad losing it, but losing it in an ugly way-- and the heroine getting off on it.

There are some things that really hit a reader hard in the wrong way.  Eileen Dreyer jokes about the difference between romance and mystery readers-- that romance readers won't forgive you if you kill a kid, while mystery readers won't forgive  if you kill a cat.  Now you should write what's RIGHT, what's true.  Of course. But keep in mind not just the single scene, but the totality of what it means in the story. (Remember, theme is about adding in all up-- not a single story element, but one extreme event can cast into doubt everything else.)  Somewhere buried in each of us is probably a child that fears the loss or absence of a
parent's love. Some of us, unfortunately, have actually experienced that-- those who have been abandoned by a parent who leaves and doesn't come back.  Whether it's a fear or an actuality, we mostly know this, and it doesn't end with age.  So just as certain issues really strike home with you as a writer, there are certain things that are going to really
hit hard to a reader.  Make sure  you want to hit that particular way.

So hero is getting righteously mad because the son stays out too late or is defiant or talks crudely to the heroine.   Teenagers can be horrible.  But when Dad loses it and says, very coldly, that the son is just like his mother, that the only reason Hero married the mother was because she trapped him with a pregnancy, that hero never loved her and would have
been glad when she died except it meant he got stuck with the kid....
Whoa.  I can just about guarantee you that our reader is cringing and hearing those words and thinking, "No love?"

That's bad enough, but if we have the heroine witnessing this and thinking with relief, "Oh, he never loved the ex-wife!  Oh, good! He loves me more!", then the reader can be forgiven for thinking the theme is "bad fathers make for good lovers."  Because he's being a bad father,
and the heroine is rewarding him for it with gratitude.  Ooops. That's probably not exactly what we meant, huh?

But you know, the last thing you want to do is castrate the conflict. I mean, we want to have real conflict and high stakes, right?  But is the scene -true-? Would a man we want the reader to respect and admire and consider worthy of great love really do that?

So how can we keep the conflict but take off the worst edges that throw the whole book out of whack?

I suggest starting with the horribleness and cutting it short. The reader will figure it out without having to hate. :)  For example, say hero -thinks- these terrible things, but doesn't say them out loud, and the kid slams out, or gets sent to his room, or whatever. And the hero then
tells the heroine what he was about to say, confesses it to her, understanding how very near he was to saying the unforgiveable.  And instead of her cheering because he didn't love his ex, maybe she tries to understand why he's so angry-- "You feel guilty, don't you, because you
didn't love his mother."  Lots of conflict, lots of tension, but we're there with the hero, still identifying with him rather than shrinking from him. And the theme might end up something like "a man who understands himself will make a good lover".

So just consider, if your theme and plot don't mesh, or  your events are heading to some theme you don't like-- where are the events that are "wrong"?  Get analytical here.  Outline the plot. Have a friend read it.  Play reader yourself for awhile.  Something is wrong, and you need to diagnose this. Often the fix is far easier than you imagined. I remember
one critique partner's book where a few nasty adjectives led to a rather ugly theme (something like "if a woman doesn't want sex, she's just repressing").  Truly, the fix was taking out the adjectives the hero used to describe her, just adjectives.  We just went through and circled words that gave the wrong impression, and that was about all it took.


Q uestion:
Do the themes of people's books tend to reflect the themes of their real lives?

Is there any reason to nudge your book's theme toward or away from the themes of your life? For example, does echoing a theme from your own life strengthen your book and make it more resonant for the reader, or does it alienate the reader because the book becomes more intensely personal?

A nswer:

I pretty much addressed this earlier, but I want to reiterate that this
is one of those high-risk/high-potential-benefit areas.  It's like having
a strong voice. It's easier to sell with a conventional voice, or by
going with themes that are less volatile. But with a strong voice or a
deeply personal theme, who knows-- you might get an editor who totally
falls in love with it.

What I suggest, just as I suggest with a strong voice, is to fix what
doesn't help. That is, don't strip away the power, but find what merely
annoys the reader without adding, and that's likely to be in there too.

For example, let's say that you're writing about an issue of real
importance to you, like how childhood trauma interferes with trust in
adulthood, and you know about this because it's happened to you.  First
I'd suggest coming up with a main character who is, in some important
particular, Not Like You.  Like if you're a woman, try giving the trust
issues and childhood trauma to the hero. Just by being male, he'll handle
it differently than you will, and it might give you a little difference.

Or make the trauma something different than you experienced.  Maybe you were emotionally abused by a mentally ill mother, and you change it slightly to emotionally abused by an alcoholic mother.

Then try to stay true to that, rather than your own experience, when you craft scenes. Use
your experience as research, not as gospel.  Be willing to veer away from your own experience, because so often real life experience is sort of weird and anomalous, or it just doesn't make for a great story.  Like say when you were 18 you married a wonderful guy who taught you how to trust-- I mean, that's wonderful, and inspiring, but if you start writing
about it, you'll likely find that there just isn't enough conflict.  It'll seem like (even if it's not true) that the resolution came too easy, and the theme ends up something you don't want, like "A good husband can make you trust again." Might be true, but it makes it sound like trusting is all a matter of finding the right guy.

So don't get wedded to your own experience.  Put yourself in the character -- who is not you, but  you must become him/her for just a little while to understand who he/she is.  And go with a theme that you believe is true in some powerful way-- but make sure that the story as a
whole proves that.  The theme has to be true to you, or it'll ring false--  "Children are resilient!" might be true in general, but does it -feel- true to  you?  Or is there a caveat there?  Like "children are resilient, but they can only be bent so far before they break" or "...
but even the healthiest will suffer from childhood trauma."

The reader will respond to the power if your theme is true and the events prove it, and if you're not just wallowing in self-pity. (That's what memoirs are for. :) If you're exploring an issue, not just telling your own experience, then look for a real theme to come out of that, not what you wish were true in your own life, or what bitter experience has made you believe. The book is a universe of its own, and the theme has to fit that more than "real life", because it's not real life that's inside the book, but a character's journey through a fictional life.

The most common trouble spot in a book, by the way, where the theme goes awry if you have issues with it, is in the very end-- the climax and/or resolution.

Let me give a bad example. I'm married to an attorney and all-too-acquainted with a fairly common "theme" among attorneys-- many are very cynical and believe that the justice system is unlikely to do justice.  So their life or professional theme might be, "Justice -will
not- be done," or "Everyone's corrupt when you get down to it."  Okay, so let's say one of them goes off and writes a legal thriller.  And at the center is some lawyer who takes a case no one else wants, etc.  I can't tell you how many times I've read a legal thriller with a theme like "One
incorruptible man can make a difference" and the whole story goes to prove that, and then there's this final scene, completely un-setup, where the uncorruptible man runs off with all the money.  Or the attorney deliberately cheats. It's expressing not the theme of the book but the
author's distrust of it-- the final scene has another theme, one which isn't proved by the book as a whole but actually contradicts the other theme.  It's like the cynicism was held at bay till the very end, but then... Kablooey!

So look to the ending if you think that the theme might have gotten away from you because of some internal issue of your own.  That's likely where a new, competing theme will be introduced.


Q uestion:

Mushing together a lot of questions about motifs:

- How can you use motifs (recurring images or ideas) to help
unite theme to plot?

Regarding motif; do you use motif in every book, or does it vary
according to what you think is necessary/needed per the book? In your
opinion, how much volume of, and how subtle might motif appear in the novel?

Can you give us a few examples of motif and theme of your own, and
how you arrived at them?

Would you talk a little about how much use of a motif can be too much? I assume it's when
the reader says "oh, she's used a reference to X again." (Now that I am a
more experienced reader and a beginner writer, I remember some books in
that category.) I know it's hard to give a rule of thumb with something
this subtle, but it's hard to recognize when we reach that point in our
own writing. Off the top of your head, can you identify any books with
really use of a motif?

A nswer:
A motif is a recurrent pattern, image, concept, even keyword, which has
some plot, character, and/or symbolic resonance.  (Preferably all those
Now of course we all remember 10th grade English class and having to explain why snow is a symbol of death in Joyce's story The Dead, etc.   That's fine.  But we're popular fiction writers.  We have to be more subtle than literary fiction writers.  :)  We are more connected to the "earth" of our stories, to the actual practical realities of everyday life.  So our symbols, our motifs, have to fit in, not stick out.  They become part of that weave of coherence in our story tapestry, that the reader notices and records subconsciously.  (Editors are more likely to
notice consciously, and appreciate it!)
A motif doesn't have to be fancy.  It's generally going to be connected to some concern or issue of the characters.  For instance, in my last book, I used cars as a motif.  The heroine had a 15-year-old son undergoing driver's ed, and he was obsessed with cars.  So he notices
cars all the time, and she has started doing that too, just because he's always pointing them out.   And (as actually happens) the cars kind of represent who the characters are.  Meggie drives what she calls the typical soccer mom van, only it's five years old and scrungy because her divorce didn't leave her enough money to replace it.  The hero, an MD, drives a Jag, and this shows he's a bit different (and classier :) than other MDs because they all drive Mercedes and BMWs.  (Okay, so I gave him MY dream car. <G>)
A secondary character, a wealthy software entrepreneur who takes a sort of ridiculous fancy to Meggie, tries to sort of woo her (and her son) with rides in his Lamborghini (which ends
up getting destroyed in the end by the bad guy).   There's a militia-man farmer with a shotgun and a shiny new pickup, and the heroine bribes her son to write thank-you notes by promising that she'd help him buy a car when he turns 16.  (What can I say?  She's a pushover!)  And a major plot point (though hidden-- it's a Clue :) happens when a character trades in
an expensive car for a less expensive one.
None of this, I hope, sticks out, because it fits in with the teenaged boy's car obsession.  And this is the sort of town where everyone has a car, no public transit, and so what you drive does say something about who you are. It's the kind of detail that's easy to throw in there, just
because the characters are going to be getting into cars occasionally.
It's all tied in to the actual story-- the heroine gets a ride home one stormy night in the hero's jag, the rich software guy is driving drunk in the Lamborghini  when he's almost killed, etc.  So it's a subtle weave, but one that kind of represents the class differences in this town and the materialism of some of the residents.  And it fits in some with the theme of starting anew, making progress, moving on, after a divorce.
Another motif is water.  The town is set on a river, and the history of its prosperity has to do with that access to water.  The heroine lives on the river and is always concerned with the possibility of flooding (I live on a river, so...), and the mystery plot kind of turns on an aspect
of this whole flood thing.  There are two major storms in the book (and of course, there's that symbolic thing of the pressure of the plot exploding in a storm), and during each there's an attempted murder.
I'm sure there are others snuck in there-- software is one, a kind of weird one, but this is a software-rich town. (And I have a free-lance job writing software manuals, so it's also reflecting my own experience.) At any rate, the motifs help to unify the story, to connect character and plot, and to give the reader that pleasurable feeling of "familiar
difference".  (I think of this as the pleasure of coming across something you recognize, and yet it's a little different this time, so there's not only that pleasure of recognition -- I know that song!-- but the pleasure of the new-- but I've never heard Ray Charles sing it before!  Popular fiction, with its recurrent themes and plot structures, plays around a lot with this
reader-response technique.)
It also helps to explore the difference between characters.  Okay, it might not mean much to you, but I -knew- in my soul that Mike was going to be The One for Meggie, even though Will was much richer and in some ways nicer, because, well, Mike drove that understated, elegant, dangerous Jaguar, and Will went for the ostentatious Lamborghini.  :0
So what do you do with motifs?  Well, I think the one suggestion that helped me was that once you figure it out, see how much otherwise extraneous detail you can make more coherent using one of the motifs.  In any book, there'll be a thousand of little choices you make, things that don't really matter very much and are just put in there to create a life
and a world.  See if you can connect some of these "throwaway" choices to
the motifs you've identified.
For example, I was going to have the heroine be a CPA, and I did keep that, but now instead of just having an accounting firm, she has a small-business consulting service where she works with setting up business systems for those crazy young software/Web entrepreneurs.  That makes it more plausible that she'd end up hanging around with Will, the
software zillionaire.
I was going to have Will be a victim of attempted murder, but it was just going to be that someone shot at him.  It got much more vital and vivid when I put him in that fancy car and shoved him over the cliff. :)
You can also use a motif as a way to individualize the story or setting. When my heroine was heading for the police station to report a crime, I envisioned her walking up the steps to the precinct house from Hill Street Blues.  You know, grungy, 19th century building, cracked linoleum, etc.  But then I forced my mind away from that seductive cliche and realized that this was pretty much a new town, where the population has doubled because of... software companies.  The police wouldn't be in an old building.  They'd be in a new, gleaming building, filled with high-tech equipment donated by the software guys who kind of see the police department as just another video game.  I even have her comment on the difference between her expectations of what a police dept should look like, and this Philip-Johnson designed tribute to high-tech law enforcement.  This isn't the clicheed police station-- it's "real"
because it's unique to this story, and I found my way to that unique station through the software motif.
You can also use the terminology associated with this motif to enliven your narrative.  If there's a water motif, the heroine might be "drowning in debt".  Keep this subtle-- a little goes a long way.
Someone spoke about "The rule of three". Well, three is a magic number. You know, two is a coincidence, but three is a pattern.  The reader is trained to notice anything that happens three times.  So motifs almost always have at least three occurences, because otherwise the reader might not notice.  How do you keep it from getting too obvious?  Well, think of
how you do it with keywords.  You might use the word "bike" in one sentence, and "bicycle" in another, and "riding" in a third. They all are linked together, but it's not annoyingly repetitive.  Similarly, with motifs use images or ideas of the same -type-.  For example, a famous
example is Blindness in Oedipus the King, and if you've ever taught that in some English class, you'll recognize that as one of the most common essay topics. :)  Blindness shows up (at least) three times, but each time differently.  Oedipus is blind to his own history as the child of the man he ends up killing.  Blindness as a character trait is a common enough use of the term that I can imagine readers groaning, "Is that guy blind or what?" Now that's early in the story.  Next he consult the blind seer Tiresias. (Tiresias shows up constantly in Greek myths, and he's almost always blind.)  T is -really- blind, so it's very concrete.  There's also that irony that he sees the truth but he's blind.  Finally Oedipus learns the truth, and so is no longer psychically blind, but he's so anguished he takes his wife's brooches and blinds himself, because those eyes didn't tell him the truth when they worked.  So now there's an
-action- relating to blindness-- he blinds himself.
Now this works because, given the conventions of the Greek tragedy, it's all fairly plausible within the plot, that Oedipus would be blind to his history (because his parents made sure to keep it secret), that they'd consult Tiresias because everyone always consulted him-- he's like the Dr. Phil of Greece. :) And yeah, blinding yourself is extreme, but the wife had just committed suicide, and he sees her body, so given how overwrought everyone is at that point, it's not so unlikely.  But it also works with the theme.  Now everyone from Aristotle down has weighed in on what the theme of Oedipus is (and, btw, this is one of the most tightly
plotted "detective novels" of all time, so I'd suggest everyone read it), but interestingly enough, most of the themes have to do with not knowing the truth, being ignorant of one's fate, avoiding the truth... in other words, blindness.
Oedipus actually has lots of motifs-- sterility/birth, irregular families, doubles (like there are two shepherds, and two sets of parents, and two visits to Delphi, etc).  This makes sense because Oedipus would be performed (it was a play, I mean), and the more "connectors" the
audience got, the easier it was for them to keep some intricate plotting straight.
As long as it's integrated in the plot and anchored in this world of the story and shows up in different variations, I don't think it will stick out too much.  If it's an object, however, it's good to make it be something that -fits-, something that works with the character and plot.

Think of Mulan and the motif of the doll.  That works just fine because a little girl would have a doll, and it's going to always be connected whenever there are little girls around.  And thematically it works to stress Mulan's gender in a subtle way, and also to remind us
that she's kind of lost her childhood.
Just think of having one incidence of the motif be something action-oriented (like Oedipus blinding himself, or the setting in Wizard of Oz changing from black and white to color), to make sure it's tied to the plot.
Are there motifs in every book? Probably, because it's a very human way to make connections. Even if you don't put them there, they'll show up.  Think about motifs that show up in real life, when no one is planning anything.  For example, clothes = love.  You know a guy really loves you when he lets you wear his favorite sweater or his letter jacket.  I still
remember my mom saying the first Christmas with my dad, she knitted him argyle socks (the first and last time she ever knitted!).  What's that say but "I want to keep you warm?"  And think about going through your late mother's closets to sort out clothes to give to Goodwill. What's the one item you can't give away? That blouse that has her perfume still on
it?  We make motifs in everyday life, because objects and actions and images have symbolic and emotional weight.  Those will show up in your stories.  I really think the trick is to find them and then make sure you have three occurrences. :)
What are some common motifs?  Well, there are so many it's hard to name them, and as you can see from the above, you might have several in one book.
Some ones I remember:
Colors or black-and-white (think Pleasantville, or for that matter, Wizard of Oz, which is where Pleasantville stole the transformation from b&w to color that was so visually exciting).  Colors might work in a book where the main character is an artist or fashion designer.  I'd probably
have the character interested in color, and set it during the spring when there are so many flowers of different colors, and maybe the underlying theme would be something about becoming more colorful.
Light and dark-- this is so common I think we all instinctively use it.  Some scenes we have at night, and then there will be a burst of lightning, or someone drives up and their brights are on, and the light blinds the characters, or reveals something hidden and secret... and
there's that psychological correspondence towards truth and lie and secret.
Water (see mine above-- very common)== drowning, sweat, thirst, boiling, floods, Noah's ark, boats, swimming, ocean.
Religious motifs-- Dean Koontz's Strange Highways uses this to great effect.  The protagonist sinned many years ago, and has returned to the scene of the crime, having blocked all memory of the experience.  He is in a town in Pennsylvania, over one of those coalmine fires, and the fire has broken out from underground and shoots up to engulf houses.  (There
really are such towns!)  Okay, so it's not so subtle-- that's obviously HELL. :)  And he does go overboard, maybe, like there are twelve people left in the town (the apostles).  But it was fun to track those motifs.  Other religious motifs-- crosses, revelation, confession, penance, etc.
Marriage/courtship motifs-- Jane Austen has a great one in Pride and Prejudice.  The book is structured around a series of marriage proposals.
The first one, Mr. Collins can't get the oldest Bennett daughter to marry him, so he promptly asks Lizzie, and it's clear that he doesn't care what wife  he ends up with, as long as he ends up with one-- a generic proposal.  (He ends up proposing to a woman just as cynical as
he, and they get married.)
Then Darcy makes an impassioned but insulting proposal ("I can't imagine why I love you, considering how far beneath me you are, but I'm in lust with you, and I must have  you!") and she turns him down.
Then the flashy young soldier almost proposes to her, and later runs off without proposing marriage with her flightly little sister... the actual marriage proposal comes much later, when their uncle pays him to marry the now-disgraced Lydia-- that is, it's a business proposal.  When Darcy finally figures out how to couch a real proposal, he wins his lady, only in a very funny way-- he poses the question hypothetically first... "If I were to ask you..." <G>

Other marriage motifs might be dates, weddings, divorce (like the heroine
is a divorce lawyer, and the book is studded with her horror stories
about her clients), etc.
Money!  Austen uses this too-- everyone in Pride and Prejudice knows how much everyone else makes, and they gossip about the lady who has to HIRE a carriage rather than own her own, and Darcy is automatically the most eligible man in the village because he has "10,000 pounds a year and a house in Town!", and the uncle is a lower-class sort but helpful because
he knows how to drive a hard bargain with young abductors of girls.
Games, bets, contests-- like on the TV show Ed, where Ed pwns a bowling alley, and he and his best friend are constantly betting each other $10 that the other will do something stupid.
You can probably come up with a million more.  And you probably already have them in your story right now-- you just want to emphasize them, and see if you can connect them to the larger theme.
For example, the theme of my software-town book was "Gamble!"  That connects with the software/money motif-- the heroine didn't gamble on Will's company years earlier, when they were all poor, and now he's a zillionaire and she's scrambling to pay the mortgage.  It also connects to the flood motif, because building a house on a river is a gamble, etc.
You can even build a book around a motif.  Alicia Silverstone is now doing a TV program that has a divorce attorney working on the side as a matchmaker, and the matches she makes are the centers of each episode.
There's a mystery series that has as a motif the recipes tried out by the caterer-sleuth.  Think of a book that has a heroine who studied opera in college, but never quite made it, but she uses the plots of some opera as an epigraph for each chapter, and each opera sort of summarizes a bad experience she has with a guy.  (Chicklit, for some reason, is very fond
of motif-organized plots. :)
Here are some motifs that friends of mine contributed when I asked:
Sacrifice (mother is always saying how she sacrificed her ballet career for daughter, daughter sacrifices her weekend to help at the homeless shelter, hero sacrifices his favorite coat so heroine won't get her dress muddy...)
Being stuck (the car is wedged between two others so she can't open the door, she lives in a little town and has sick elderly parents and can't get out, she gets locked into the bank vault, etc.)
Wild and free vs. enclosed and safe (bird in a cage, heroine in a protective family, etc)
Birds (in a cage, flying free, nightingale singing at night)
Dispossession (father lost his business to bigger company, heroine gets evicted from her house, oldest daughter feels dispossessed when new baby is born...)
Food/deprivation/starvation (I'm reading a book now where the hero is constantly going to restaurants and lovingly selecting the perfect meal, and it has NOTHING to do with the story, but I'm thinking the author was on a diet when he wrote it!)
Celebrity or anonymity (she reads People magazine, he wears dark glasses and a cap to hide his identity, mother has an autograph album of famous people)
Contests/games.  She's a coach.  She's secretly competing with her brother. One more instance and you have a motif. :) Like maybe she and the hero have some bet about something, or they're racing to find the brother.  Or they arm-wrestle for some thing, or they play poker to pass the time...
High school/teenagers.  Maybe he's allergic to teenagers, and she loves them.  Maybe he hated high school.  See if you can use her job in some way.  Like she's very hip and knows all the latest slang, and he calls her an overgrown adolescent, and she calls him prematurely middle-aged.
Shoes-- same thing-- she wears cool shoes, and he wears J.Edgar Hoover-era wingtips. <G>  Maybe whenever she gets stressed, she buys shoes, though I don't know if she can do that on a teacher's salary!  Maybe she just goes SHOPPING for shoes, and never buys any.  You know, I get this shoe catalog in the mail, and I look through it for all the 3-inch stilettos that really totally fit in with my lifestyle, and I circle them, and put the catalog away and tell myself that I'll buy them tomorrow... and then I go put on my Easy Spirit running shoes. <G>
Open fields. She plays lacrosse or whatever it is. Maybe one reason she's a coach is she can't stand being confined, and on their road trip she's always trying to get out of the enclosed spaces and find some nice big open space, and that reflects her secret desire to break free of the enclosing expectations.  I was just reading a thriller (Meltzer's Zero Game) where one young Congressional staffer had Anselm Adams posters on his office wall, all those soaring open spaces, and he thinks about how important nature is to him-- and yet here he is in an office in a big city, completely trapped in concrete. The motif of open/enclosed shows up
throughout the story (a character is trapped in an elevator, etc).


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