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Create Powerful Emotions with Repetition and Motifs

Repetitions and Motifs

Repetitions and MotifsWhy do some scenes feel powerful and others do not? Why do some stories make us cry and others, just as skillfully told, leave us indifferent? Why do some books and games draw us in so strongly?

David Farland, in his Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing has the answer: because some events or experiences in the story are alike to what we ourselves have experienced and been moved by. Of course, different readers will react differently. If you ate a cheese-and-baloney sandwich when you found out that your beloved kitten had been run over by a bulldozer, you might cry at the thought of baloney, while I may not[note]I always cry at the though of baloney, especially in politics.[/note]. Different people have different experiences.

But what if there was a way to create these sorts of emotions within the story itself, regardless of who the reader is?

Creating Internal Resonance through Motifs

Note: the quotes in this post are taken from David Farland’s Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing, part of the :Million Dollar Writing Series:. David (also writing as Dave Wolverton) is a New York Times Bestselling author and writing teacher, having instructed writers such as Brandon Sanderson, Stephenie Meyer, Brandon Mull, and James Dashner. Here’s David:

Internal resonance occurs when a writer sets up a motif to a story, and deepens the readers’ emotions by playing upon that motif.

A bit high-brow, but simple enough to understand once you wrap you head around it (which, to be honest, it took me about a year to do – it seems too simple to actually work). When you decide that, say, loneliness is going to be a motif in your story, you may begin with the hero being along in his house, listening to the silence. Then, maybe he needs to roam an empty lingerie store at night[note]So your hero’s a creep…[/note] and feels bad about being alone. Then he finds a group of friends but, at a crucial moment, needs to leave them to go into the woods and retrieve the Magic Moonshine. And then, right at the end, he finds his friends again and they validate his loneliness: “Hey, you’ve got us, we’ll always be by your side.”

Here’s an example from Dave:

Tolkien writes a story about loss by having Frodo face loss again and again, each time in circumstances that are more and more distressing. […] Frodo Baggins is hesitant to leave the Shire when he was supposed to, for he doesn’t really want to lose his home, Bag End. Yet he puts it up for sale and makes a big show of leaving, spending many a night to walk its trails in the starlight and say his goodbyes.

This almost does him in, for he is nearly captured by the Nine Dark Riders. Yet he finds refuge from them in the home of Farmer Maggot, and reluctantly says goodbye to a new-found friend. Then again, the same type of action is repeated in the home of Tom Bombadil. And once again he finds solace and friendship in Rivendell, and is forced to leave.

Frodo then finds friendship among his traveling companions, but Gandalf is torn from the party in the Mines of Moria, and once again Frodo is forced to flee with his life in danger. In Lothlorien Frodo takes refuge, and like a man who has been jilted by his lover, he offers his ring to Galadriel. But all too soon he realizes that in order to keep her safe, he has to leave Lothlorien.

Indeed, he decides to leave everyone behind at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, and races off even as the Orcs attack his friends. […] At least seven times in one novel, Frodo is forced to escape from places of comfort and refuge.

And he leaves behind his refuge a couple more times in the succeeding novels. Tolkien is of course setting us up for the very end of the novel, that moment where Frodo must sail off into the Grey Havens, leaving behind the world that he loved so dearly, the world that he saved.

David Farland, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing

Motifs in Actions

Each successive repetition of the theme/motif (BTW, motif is just a fancy word for something that’s repeated) shows more of the hero’s troubles so that, when we finally see the resolution of those troubles, we feel more of the hero’s joy/relief/ease/happiness.

[bctt tweet=”Anything, repeated correctly, will strike a chord of recognition in the reader.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

But the motif doesn’t need to be emotional. Anything, repeated correctly, will strike a chord of recognition in the reader. Here’s Dave:

In a “chase story,” we may have a character seeking to elude capture, such as in the movie The Fugitive. Each capture attempt becomes more involved and more likely to succeed. So as a writer, when plotting the novel, we simply know that the next major try/fail cycle in the story will revolve around and attempted capture, an attempt that deepens and broadens the conflict.

David Farland, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing

Motifs in Descriptions

The motif can be anything, really. A sight, a sound, a memory, a particular dress. As long as it’s repeated in such a way that the reader recognizes it, it will reinforce itself. Here’s Dave, talking about the Mines of Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring:

The group must walk along the edge of a still pool, where the only sound is the occasional sound of dripping water. The very solitude of the place sets them all on edge.

One of the Hobbits throws a rock, and moments later the group is attacked by the “watcher” of the lake. They escape the monster and make it into the Mines of Moria, only to have the door blocked with boulders behind them. Inside the mine, Frodo cannot sleep that night for the dripping sound of water. (Note the repetition of a single spooky element, made unsettling by the attack of the watcher.)

A few nights later, that dripping sound is replaced by the distant sound of a hammer going, tink, tink, clank, tink. Suddenly, Frodo realizes that he’s not alone, and soon he sees the glowing eyes of Gollum in the cave. Finally, as they near the exit, the “plink” of water, the “tink” of a hammer, is suddenly replaced by the sound of drums in the deep—huge thunderous sounds that roll through the cavern, roaring “Doom! Doom! Doom!” Here, the internal resonance is simply a repeated sound, one that grows louder, more unsettling, and more menacing with each repetition.

David Farland, Drawing on the Power of Resonance in Writing

Motifs in Non-Narrative Games

I’m going to jump ship for a moment here and talk about repetition in games. Most games have some form of repetition, if nothing else then in the different actions a player may perform. But a lot of classic games have an escalating difficulty in performing certain actions.

For example, in the Mario games, jumping on top of monster is a motif. It starts out very simply, with just one monster coming toward you in the first segment of the first world, only to escalate with multiple monsters and multiple levels later. This, of course is a way of teaching the player, an in-game tutorial. But it’s also a way to reinforce what the player may expect.

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization cardsThe same way you get a motif of production in Through the Ages, a 4X, engine building boardgame. There you acquire technologies, but unlike a tech-tree in, say :Civilization:, the technologies each have a miniature tree of their own: Bronze translates into Iron, which translates into Coal, which translates into Oil. Each step is better than the previous one.

Mechanically those parts could have been anything. For example, Iron could have been called Improved Shipping, and Oil could have been called Industrialization. But by giving them all the motif of “Natural Resources” they stick together thematically, and their function is much more intuitive for the player.

The Neuroscience of Motifs

Motifs rely on a very simple fact: that what is repeated is learned. The human mind has a very limited capacity to keep things in memory, something discovered in the late 19th century by German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus:

One needs but to say that, in the case of an unfamiliar sequence of syllables, only about seven can be grasped in one act, but that with frequent repetition and gradually increasing familiarity with the series this capacity of consciousness may be increased.

Looking at it this way, motifs are repetitions, and as repetitions they are a way of learning. In effect, motifs teach the reader/player/consumer what to expect, and the more a motif is repeated, the more the reader learns to expect it.

[bctt tweet=”In writing, motifs are a way of teaching the reader what to expect.” username=”FilipWiltgren”]

There’s a different mechanism at play here as well, the brains ability to squirt dopamines when it recognizes something. Simply experiencing something that we recognize is rewarding in itself. It’s a feeling of “hey, this feels familiar”, a feeling that is accompanied by some feel-good chemicals released by our brain-stem (this, BTW, is part of the basis of psychological addiction: the brain’s ability to reward itself for repeating patterns).

This is also where the “rule of three” in writing comes from. The rule of threes simply states that if you have a situation with an outcome, and a second, similar, situation with a similar outcome, then the audience will expect that the outcome of the third, similar, situation will be the same. Which it won’t, because that’s where we stick it to the reader and – haha, made you look.

Creating Motifs

OK, so much for theory. How do you actively use motifs?

It’s pretty simple, actually. If you’re an outline writer, someone who works out what will happen before you start writing, then do your outline. Then go through it and see if you can spot some things that are a bit unique for your setting/plot/characters. If you’ve got more than three occurrences of such a thing, congratulations, you’ve spontaneously created a motif. If not, see if you can’t find something that’s interesting, then duplicate it in other places of the story.

For example, say that you have a big, cheerful house full of people in one scene. Maybe you can insert a similar, big cheerful house in another scene. Or have the heroes return to the same house. Just stress how big and cheerful it is. How happy everyone is. How they smile at each other, how the love hangs in the air in exactly the way a brick doesn’t[note]That’s a quote.[/note]. Now you’ve got a motif.

But that’s only part of the technique. You need to use your motif as well.

That’s where you drop the heroes into the house, except now it’s no longer cheerful. Now everyone is sad. Or dead. Or turned into tax-accountant zombies. Whatever strikes your fancy – the effect is going to be much stronger because the reader will expect the happy-cuddly Brady bunch, and will get Winston Churchill as a zombie[note]Please write that. I’d love Winnie as a zombie.[/note]. Congratulations, you’ve created an expectation and then ripped it to shreds. Your readers are properly abhorred (in a good way, of course).

If you’d just have let them stumble upon the zombie Churchill, you may have gotten a laugh, but you won’t have gotten as much emotion as having one thing transform into another. That’s because there’s no resonance from a one-time event.

Motifs for Pantsers

If you’re a pantser (that’s “discovery writer” to you, Mr. Outlining-addict), then you’ll need to do all of your motif writing after the fact. Unless you’re brilliant and can drop it in on the fly (which I can’t but wish that I could).

So you’ve written your first draft, and you do the same as the outliner: go through it and find the cool things that you can repeat. Then go back an insert them.

Of course, if you’re a bit lazy, like me, and don’t want to redo a whole story because you’ve though of a particular detail, then just drop in the detail. Here’s multi-award winning SF-writer Algis Budrys:

If you want the cavalry at the end, you have to have the character wave at a friend in a cavalry patrol in the beginning, or else the totally unforeshadowed arrival of the cavalry will (A) jar and (B) make your hero look ineffectual.

Just a single detail, waving to a friend in the cavalry, sets up the expectation of the cavalry later in the story. The same way you can foreshadow motifs: if you want a cheerful house, remind the hero of his happy childhood, or stories told around the kitchen table, or have him see a happy family through the window (this is the hero longing for a cheerful house, sets it up nicely for a payoff when he gets that in the end).

Drop in a few sentences in a few places. You don’t need to write entire new sub-plots to highlight the motif, tack it on to an existing character or setting. Just make sure to repeat it a few times, and, if you’re relying on a sentence here and there instead of complete scenes, repeat it a few more times because your reader might have missed a small clue. So hammer it in, oh so gently, and hope the message strikes home.

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