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Marginal Notes

Managing a Motif

"Beneath the whole story, the subtle, imaginative reader may perhaps find a pregnant allegory, intended to illustrate the mystery of human life." 1852 review of Moby Dick

I'm a big fan of walling off your fictional world from anything that doesn't arise from the story itself. Anything that might call readers' attention to the fact that they're reading, from weird verbs of speech to an eccentric writer's voice that doesn't belong to any particular character to excessive omniscient narration -- I tend to edit those things out. The main purpose of writing is to let readers lose themselves in your fictional world. Anything that risks breaking that spell needs to go.

Except . . .

Sometimes you can get away with weaving something into your story that transcends your fictional world. These might be allegories -- characters or places or objects that mean something larger than they are, like the great white whale. They may be motifs -- recurring elements that, taken together, emphasize some underlying theme or tie together different plot threads. You can sometimes even get away with more direct intrusions into your fictional world -- I recently edited a wonderful magic realism novel in which the author wrote himself into the story as one of the characters. There is a risk that these elements will undermine the suspension of disbelief. But handled right, they can make your story linger in memory long after the plot and characters are forgotten.

Understand, I'm not talking about allegories or motifs that are part of the fictional world. Characters sometime realize that something in their lives has a larger meaning, and linked themes sometimes keep showing up for reasons rooted in the story. I'm talking about things that don't belong to any particular character. Ahab never thought of Moby Dick as an allegory.

Ruth and I recently binged the PBS version of Galsworthy's Forsyte Saga. Through it all Robin Hill, a revolutionary modern house, runs as a theme whose meaning evolves over the course of the story. For those of you unfamiliar with the Forsytes, the house is originally built by Soames, the brittle and grasping lawyer, who sees it solely as a prized possession. Soames also sees his new wife, Irene, as a possession. Irene sees Robin Hill as an expression of the artistic vision of its architect, Phillip Bosinney, so much so that she falls in love with him, even though he is engaged to Soames' niece, June. These two understandings of the house collide when Soames tries to destroy Bosinney's artistic reputation by suing him for cost overruns, a thread that ends with Bosinney's death in a London fog. (One of the reasons Robin Hill was built was to provide an escape from the dirt and fog of London.)

Later, the home is bought by Old Jolyon, Soames' Uncle and father of Young Jolyon, June's father, who was estranged from the family after he abandoned his wife and daughter to live with the woman he loved. Old Jolyon makes a home there for June, who sees the house as a way of being in touch with Bosinney. Eventually, Young Jolyon, by then married to Irene, inherits it and makes a warm comfortable sanctuary there. The house eventually becomes the source of healing between two branches of the family. In the end, after Young Jolyon's death, Irene brings the story of the house full circle by putting it up for sale, saying it was only a possession, after all.

Robin Hill is an overreaching motif because no one character really thinks about what the house means to the other characters. Many of them (Soames especially) are not aware what it means to them. Yet the house's meaning constantly transforms, depending on who lives there, so that it becomes a canvas on which they paint their lives. We know this was deliberate on Galsworthy's part because he put a tremendous amount of thought into the house. After his death, full architectural elevations that he drew of it were found among his papers.

Of course, the danger of including some larger allegory or motif in your story is that you'll undermine readers' suspension of disbelief. One way to avoid this is to make allegories or motifs subtle enough that they don't jump out and demand attention. They shape your readers' experience of the story but never feel self-conscious. In the days before it became the first sentence in every Cliff Notes version of Moby Dick, it took a subtle and imaginative reader to spot the Great White Whale's allegorical potential. But to make allegories and motifs that are rooted outside your fictional world even more subtle, you need to make that world more compelling on its own terms.

One of my current clients has kindly given me permission to talk about his novel, which is what inspired this article. It's tells the story of a psychiatrist, Charlie, trying to help an incredibly gifted pianist, Rupert, who has regular hallucinations -- out of body experiences, light flowing through his fingers, faces distorting around him, darkness oozing up and covering him. Charlie feels an obligation to cure Rupert chemically but can't bring himself to do it and himself seeks help from a brilliant colleague, Baxter. The story is, at heart, an exploration of the hard science behind the links between genius and madness.

The story is also structured as a piano sonata, with various sections labeled "Exposition," Development/Transformation," and "Recapitulation." Also, nearly every description begins with the quality of the light in the setting, and characters often return to light as the scenes progress. Light forms a motif that threads through the entire narrative, including the book's title, Light Sonata.

Neither of these features interferes with enjoyment of the story, though, since they both enhance the storytelling even though they are not part of the fictional world. They're imposed from outside, but they still fit. The sonata structure is an effective way for the story to unfold. There's nothing artificial or affected about Rupert's distress at his hallucinations and Charlie's conflict over treatment -- both feel very real. And while most people don't normally notice light as soon as they enter a room, it is on the minds of enough of the characters -- Rupert and Charlie in particular -- that it doesn't feel entirely unnatural.

As I say, it is hard to insert things into your story that don't arise from the story itself. But if you do it subtly enough, these allegories and themes and motifs can make your story mean more for your readers and linger in their imaginations long after the excitement of your plot or the sympathy with your characters has gone.