one powerful motif


Sherry Thomas appears on all my recommendation lists, and the one word I come back to again and again to describe her writing is “charming”. It’s woefully inadequate. There’s an ineffable quality to Sherry’s writing – it’s unlike anyone else, utterly unique. Beginning one of her novels is always, for me, like being told a fairytale as a child. A magical set of characters who draw you into a world that is lit up from the inside.

Her stories are pure emotion. Her heroes feel deeply, sympathetically human, even when they are supernaturally gorgeous, titled, clever, what-have-you. Her heroines are often not as young as they used to be (which is true of everyone of course *g*) and are suffused with a kind of nostalgia for all that has passed in exchange for hard-won wisdom and maturity.

It’s incredibly exciting for me to have Sherry on the blog – and I feel like her post makes a chip in understanding what gives her writing that quality I simply cannot name.



When I received Anna’s invitation to participate in the celebration of her blog’s face-lift by contributing an article, I asked her if there is anything she’d like me to write about. And this was her reply:

There is something specific I keep coming back to when I think about your writing, and I hope it’s something you feel you can easily write about. Even though Ravishing the Heiress was an emotional read in all sorts of ways, what stuck with me was Alice [the dormouse]. It was very straightforward imagery – Alice stood in for Fitz’s first love. But that didn’t make it any less powerful, or wonderful to read. I think its charm and power was probably IN its simplicity – and in how deeply you followed through on it, down to the taxidermied mouse representing Fitz’s mistaken feelings. (I would never have thought a boy soliloquising to his dead mouse could make me cry, but it did!) 

So I’d love to hear you talk about how that part of the story came about – did you plan it that way, or did it happen of its own accord? How does imagery enrich a story, and how do you pull forward parts of your story to represent the larger, deeper and altogether more complex emotional story?

It is something of a two-part subject. But as it so happens, last month I wrote about the first half of it, the deployment of strong details to evoke strong emotions, at Writers in the Storm.

If you have time, I recommend you read that post first. But if you don’t, here is the short takeaway: You can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions. It’s not the detail themselves that matter, but the world, the history, the characters you build around it. And you enter that state of emotions via the exactitude and specificity of details.

For example, Anna, in her request, had mentioned Alice the dormouse, from my book Ravishing the Heiress. Why was there a dormouse in the story? Well, when I started writing Ravishing the Heiress, I’d just finished the first full draft of The Burning Sky, my young adult fantasy, a reverse-Harry Potter story about adolescent mages plotting to overthrow the dark lord from a muggle school. The muggle school in question happens to be Eton College—yes, of course there is a girl passing herself off as a boy—and so I’d read quite a bit about the school and the life of the students during the 1880s.

And one of the things I’d learned was that there were hawkers who catered specifically to the student population at Eton, and at least one of whom sold dormice as pets. So why not have the hero’s beloved—the one he doesn’t get to marry—give him a dormouse as a present, and as a symbol of their passionate feelings for each other?

It’s not a bad detail. And it’s certainly an emotional one. But just as I never bother with a detail unless I can connect it to the larger emotions of the story, once I have such a detail, I’m never content with using it only once.

Years ago, when the great Judith Ivory was still actively writing, I went to Dallas to listen to her speak at a conference. During her workshop, she mentioned a story. When the hero and the heroine first meet, she is wearing the scarf. They would be separated for much of the book, so whenever the author wants to remind the readers that the hero is still very much in love with the heroine, she’d have him either have his eyes caught by a flash of something red while he’s walking down the street and whip around to see who is the wearer or have him take out the scarf from where it is stored to look at it.

I very rarely remember specific writing advice, but the way Ms. Ivory explained the scarf just made so much sense. You pick your meaningful detail—anything will do. Now you work consciously at it, weaving it into the fabric of the story and repeating it at crucial moments. And voila, suddenly you have a lovely emotional refrain that runs through your narrative.

For example, in Skyfall, [beginning possible spoiler] the latest Bond flick, the first time Bond and M meet face to face, he notices an ugly dog figurine on her desk. In the middle of the movie, the dog appears again, the only thing to survive her office after an attack. With these meaningful repetitions, the ugly dog figurine comes to stand for M. So that by the end of the movie, when the dog figurine is given to Bond, he understands the significance of the gesture and so do we the moviegoers. [End possible spoiler.]

Another example. In my book His at Night, the heroine is a young lady who lives under a tyrannical uncle. On the third round of revisions, still largely dissatisfied with the book, I decided the story needed far deeper emotions. And lo, I see that in the beginning of the book, my heroine is reading a travelogue about Capri, dreaming of being there and being free.

Why Capri? Because for a different book, I’d looked up Capri and had some research material lying around.

So in itself, Capri doesn’t have any significance. But I decided to make it significant to my character. Every time she is particularly lonely or upset, she reaches for the guidebook and imagines herself upon the island’s rocky shores. Capri, in other words, comes to stand for all her hopes and dreams.

When the hero has a nightmare, she cradles him and tells him about her Capri, about what keeps her nightmares at bay. And eventually, when the hero messes up—don’t they always—and needs to beg for her forgiveness, he finds that book on Capri she loves so much, memorizes the entire section, and recites it back to her, to let her know that he might have acted like a jackass, but he does understand her hopes and dreams and they are infinitely important to him.

So just to recap, pick something, anything that is significant to one or both of your lead characters. What makes it important to readers is the iteration.

(A slight corollary: We all know that the amount of real estate a character or an event receives in a book more or less correlates to their importance. What is sometimes left unsaid is that if any element is important to a story, it should be introduced early on. That is particularly true when you are trying to create a motif. Whatever details/symbols you plan to use, introduce them early. So that you have time to develop them, to make your readers understand their significance.)

And of course, my hearty congratulations to Anna, for the fabulous new look of this blog.

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat for an accidental housewife e-reader cover.

Comments 12 Responses

  1. Laura Vivanco

    “You can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions. It’s not the detail themselves that matter, but the world, the history, the characters you build around it. ”

    I don’t think this is wholly true. I mean, an author can pick just about anything, but the thing picked may well have certain connotations for the reader already and/or may not seem historically or psychologically plausible. Of course, the connotations are likely to vary from one reader to the next, as are their ideas about what’s plausible, but if you have a dormouse in a story, I’m likely to think (a) of the tea party in Alice in Wonderland and (b) the fact that the Romans thought stuffed dormice were a tasty delicacy and (c) that dormice, as their name indicates, are sleepy creatures (which is presumably why Lewis Caroll shows his falling asleep).

    Similarly a red scarf might suggest courage, aggression, sexuality, or the proximity of Christmas whereas a yellow one would probably not immediately bring to mind any of those associations.

    I’m not saying that a writer can’t change a reader’s perception or create new associations, but I think it would probably help if the writer was aware of them in the first place.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      This is an interesting take on it. As a writer, I like the idea that you can pick anything (and objects do tend to arrive in a character’s hand without fore-planning!), but it’s true there’s another level to explore.

      My CP and I were talking recently about a character carrying around something with no value whatsoever. It’s a slight quirk, but no one really remarks on it – until you try to take it away from the character and realise they will do anything to stop you. The contrast between an object with no worth and their emotional attachment has a world of story behind it.

      1. Laura Vivanco

        As a writer, I like the idea that you can pick anything (and objects do tend to arrive in a character’s hand without fore-planning!)

        I’m a literary critic and I’m pretty much incapable of writing fiction that’s any good. I think it’s partly a lack of the right kind of imagination and partly the result of seeing symbolism, themes, etc everywhere far too explicitly so I’d probably feel more comfortable writing allegories or satire/parodies than original fiction.

        I tend to think that even when the author thinks that something’s arrived “without fore-planning” there may be a whole lot of associations which guide those choices. For example, Cara McKenna recently posted here that “The more snow, the more callous or cagey the woman, my subconscious seems to have decided.” As was discussed in the comments to that post, there are lots of cultural reasons why this should be. Some associations are embedded in common usage (e.g. in this case it might be relevant that in English it’s not uncommon to refer to people as being “cold-hearted” or “warm-hearted”, “hot-blooded” and “cold-blooded”).

        1. anna cowan Post author

          When objects “just appear”, rather than being consciously chosen, I agree that the subconscious is likely at work. Some of the most magical moments in writing a book are when you uncover a common thread you stitched into your prose without realising.

    2. Sherry Thomas

      I think there is almost no detail that I can pick that won’t be the exact wrong thing for one or more readers. So given that, I pretty much have the freedom to choose what appeals to me, provided it is not egregiously anachronistic. (This, of course, comes from someone who once dared to use the madeleine to break open a character’s remembrance of things past.)

  2. Kaetrin

    Fascinating post into the mind of a writer! I hadn’t realised how manipulative you have to be some times (and I mean that in the nicest possible way). As a reader, I don’t really think about how these things appear but it is clear you do! 🙂

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I loved this glimpse into the mechanics of Sherry’s emotional books, too. It’s pretty encouraging to know it’s not all just alchemy :-). (Or if it is, it’s the kind with many long nights spent figuring out equations.)

    2. Sherry Thomas

      Perhaps it is manipulative, but I will excuse myself by confessing I don’t have the readers on my mind when I perform such manipulations, only myself. By hook or by crook, I want to give myself an emotional experience. 🙂

      1. Kaetrin

        Manipulation is good on occasion! 🙂 I guess I just hadn’t given any thought to how deliberate you have to be some times. I have some impractical idea that it just “flows”. LOL

        1. Sherry Thomas

          LOL, I wish it just flows for me. I’m sure it does for some writers at least some of the time–heck, even for me it does some of the time–but what just gushes out rarely passes muster without some significant re-structuring.

          I actually never think of such things as theme and motifs and whatnot when I write, but only about the placement of information, given that everything is new information to the reader, how do I organize it so that not only is there clarity and cogency, but emotional resonance. And that information, in the correct order, will on their own, yield themes and motifs.

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