Thursday, June 23, 2011

Themes, Symbols and Motifs

            When I was in high school and college, I took courses in which I analyzed books, plays and poems for hidden meaning, themes, symbols and motifs.  The instructors wanted to teach me to write with meaning in mind and not necessarily for the purpose of the story.  It kind of ruined the experience for me.  I hated doing that and was never very good at it.  I just soaked in the obvious and went on my way or wrote about how the message of the story related to my personal experiences.  I found it difficult to pull out anything that wasn’t totally apparent.  Perhaps that’s because I’m a WYSIWYG, a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of girl.  No smoke and mirrors here.  
When I started writing my novel, I never intended or even imagined there was any kind of theme or repetitive symbol or motif that held special meaning.  I wasn’t looking to leave behind a message or an impression of artistic rectitude or morality.   I just had a story to tell and I told it.  It started with a premise, a question I wanted to answer:  Could a genuinely good man be driven to do something truly evil and somehow find his way back to the man he used to be?   I even wrote a post about how I analyzed my own work for a theme.  (You can read it here, if you’d like.)
While this post has become one of my most popular and widely read, I think I might have been a little premature.  Yes, my book does deal with issues of forgiveness, or how the inability to do so turns the protagonist’s life upside down.  But because I’ve had to read through it so many times while editing and revising, I found themes and symbols I never really intended. 
Primarily, my novel deals with how the protagonist, Skylar Karras, deals with his inability to change.  He believes himself to be genuinely good, a moral man who follows every rule.  He doesn’t bend and his relationships with his brother and wife suffer when he won’t accept how they’ve changed even though they’ve done so because of decisions he’s made.  They are forced to work around the law instead of within it.  Then something earth shattering happens. 
When his wife’s life is disrupted by the crimes a stranger, she asks for Sky’s assistance, but he refuses to help and begs her to be patient while the authorities handle her case.  But she ignores his plea, takes matters into her own hands and winds up dead.  Sky can’t accept his role in her death and falls into a tailspin of depression, macerating his grief in alcohol instead of dealing with it.  His grief turns to rage and from there he follows a path of vengeance.  When Sky drunkenly mistakes the wrong woman for the stranger who’s responsible for his wife’s death, his eyes are finally made clear and he sees just how far he has fallen from the man he used to be.
The rest of the novel is the journey he takes to save his victim, to protect her and keep her out of the hands of those he’s negotiated a vindictive deal with.  In order to save his own soul, he must save the woman whose life he has derailed, as well as his brother, who’s used as leverage to force Skylar’s hand into completing their deal.  But he can’t save them all.  So how does he choose between the life of his brother, the woman he has condemned, and his own salvation?   That’s the crux of the story.  How does this man, who has always believed himself to be inherently good, make this decision?
Early on in my writing and later in my revisions, I inadvertently used two symbols or motifs: The San Francisco fog and a mirror.  Both represent Sky’s inability to see the man he was and the one he has become.  When he’s in jail near the end and looks into a mirror, he says he can no longer recognize the man he has become and that he can’t afford to lose one more part of who he used to be.  I also used the mirror in a very brief prologue, kind of bookending the story.  I had no idea I was playing with symbolism.  It just sort of happened.  And I think that’s how it should be.  Accidental.  Unintentional.
Don’t get me wrong.  Every writer writes a story to show how the main character has learned and evolved, but it shouldn’t be overt in its machinations.  One of my earliest critique partners was a college student, an English and creative writing major.  I remember her telling me how she tried to use flowers and the color yellow as symbols throughout her story.  I didn’t even remember either one so it didn’t make an impression on me at all.  Perhaps that’s because she was trying instead of just letting it happen of its own volition.  I think themes and symbols should attach themselves to a character in a tangible way, not to the story in a vague manner.  If you fully flesh out your characters and how their individual stories thread together into the plot, themes and symbols will organically appear, almost like magic. 
So have you ever written something and had a theme reveal itself instead of writing around one?  Or have motifs suddenly appeared where you never intended?                           


Laila Knight said...

I was terrible at that subject...couldn't understand what poets were talking about. Why couldn't they just speak plainly. Shakespeare was forced upon me, and now I love him.

Inner turmoil, that's good. I like the symbolism. (Like in that movie "the Sixth Sense", each time they were around dead people, they tossed in something red. I didn't get it till it was explained to me.

I just go with the flow when I write so can't say I've planned out symbolism. Now I'll be keeping my eyes open for it when I'm editing. :)

Joylene Butler said...

I'm always amazed when a reviewer or reader finds some hidden theme in my stories that I had no idea exited. I think I wrote 3 manuscripts before I noticed my continual child-parent theme. To be honest, and why not -- I actually pretend once that I knew exactly what I was doing when a reader asked me about the symbolism I used. LOL. I know, shame on me.

Great post, Nancy!

Lisa R. said...

Great post! I think symbolism is always stronger and more impactful when it arises naturally rather than when an author tries to force it into the story. Also one of the things I love about your story is how Skylar is broken down basically to nothing and rises again, finds his way again, builds himself back up again. I think his story is as much about redemption as forgiveness.

Cheryl said...

Hi Nancy and thanks for following me. Can't find you on my list but perhaps you are doing ti anon. This is an interesting post. I often don't seem to get symbolism, but it doesn't necessarily detract for the enjoyment. I think good fiction leaves room for the reader to interpret and bring in their own symbols.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I don't use symbolism or anything, but I guess the theme of we were not meant to be alone and to trust others appears in my writing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. I found this in my own writing as well. Just wasn't really attuned to it until after I read your words here.