Friday 1 June 2018

Highlighting The Heart of Your Story with Motifs

By Kathryn Evans

Motifs, metaphors, whatever you want to call them, those little beats in your story help highlight the heart of what you're trying to say. First though....


Why Does A Story Need A Heart?

A heart sets rhythm and it pulses life.  It's also why your story matters.   If you're writing for children, it will matter so much that it's probably the thing you'll talk about when you take your book into schools. It's what you hope your reader will take away from your story. Your story needs a heart, because without it,  the experience of reading is ultimately empty.

Take Wonder by R. J Palacio. On the surface, that's a story about a little boy with a badly disfigured face - but the heart of the story is actually about how other people respond to him. It's about society's acceptance, or not, of what's normal.

Or Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.  The surface story is about a woman who doesn't know how to make friends so lives a very structured life to 'just get through'. But the heart of that story is about loneliness, about how most of us are afraid of it and stay away,  fearing it may be contagious, without ever asking why someone behaves the way they do. The heart of the story is about the danger of isolation and the joy of friendship.

In Wonder, we care about August, not because he has a damaged face, but because of the way he interacts with people, because of they way they respond to him.  We care about Eleanor because we begin to  understand why she is the way she is and how that feels. Both of these books will change the way the reader looks at the world, will make the reader think about the heart of the story - acceptance and loneliness.

Using Themes and Motifs.

In Wonder, Auggie has a space helmet that he loves to wear.   It's about hiding his face but it's also about showing his adventurous spirit, the image he wants to project to the world - if it was a balaclava it would give an entirely different message. It was given to him by his sister's friend, a friend the sister thinks has betrayed her, but the connection of the helmet shows us this is not that case. His Dad gets rid of it, not because wearing the helmet looks weird, but because he wants to see Auggies face, a face he loves no matter what.  That helmet crops up  frequently, highlighting, explaining,  connecting. It's a perfect example of a motif used to demonstrate a theme,  its regular appearance pulses though the book

In Eleanor Oliphant,  there are a number of motifs. Alcohol is one - 2 bottles of vodka every weekend and then, when things get really dire, more. But it's also there as an offering to take to a party - a half drunk bottle , a bridge between Eleanor's old life and the new one that is beginning to flourish. Eleanor hasn't quite made it across the divide at that stage, so the bottle is only half full.

Clothing is also a motif, an appropriate one in some ways, it's the mask we use to represent us.  Not just the clothes we wear, but the clothes we dress our surroundings in - as Eleanor moves in confidence to a more connected human being, she changes what she wears and also changes the decor in her flat.

 The motif  that really effected me in Eleanor Oliphant, was physical contact - no one touches Eleanor. When she first goes to the hairdresser, a step into the new world, it's very sensual. When she has a bikini wax, the intimate contact is painful but welcome.  The lack of touch in her life is significant and highlighted by her developing relationship with Raymond,  who gently breaks through the boundaries with hugs. Real life hugs. Hugs are the antidote to loneliness. This is a scientific fact. It changed the way I behave, I now make sure I give my father-in-law a big old hug every time I see him.


Finding the Heart of Your Story.

Motifs are a technical way of highlighting the heart of your story, but what if you don't know what it is? It isn't always obvious, often we think we're writing a story about one thing, and it turns out there's something else going on altogether - you know, like when your characters do something entirely unexpected, when your subconcious takes hold and flips the story in a different direction - it's the same magic at work.

For ages, I thought  my new book was  about  how we build a family around us after we lose our own - and it is kind of about that, but it's a story set in two time zones and I didn't understand why I'd done that, why it mattered. It was only in editing the story that I realised having a story across decades, allows me to explore our perceptions of things like beauty and what's considered to be acceptable behaviour and how that effects people.

If you are struggling to find the heart of your story, take a look at the turning point in a significant character's emotional arc. There'll be something there that they change their mind about that leads to the satisfying conclusion of the story.

In Wonder,  Auggie and Jack get attacked on camp but Amos and other school children, who've previously been horrible to them, defend them, they see Auggie as one of them, not just a weird looking kid.  This moment is about acceptance. There's another  heartbeat when Auggie wins a medal at school and accepts it in front of everyone, no longer hiding, but fully emerged.

In Eleanor Oliphant, Eleanor admits to herself that the mother that dominates her life is only alive in her imagination. This is a point where she accepts the past has made her life a misery but that she can let it go and and have a better life, that she deserves a better life. There is no physical connection with the mother, but there is with Raymond, her friend, and her newly acquired cat.

Look at your story with different eyes, where are the turning points, what do they mean? Are they reflected through the story? Identify the heart of your story and then keep it in mind all the way through- have a whole editorial pass, just for this. It'll be worth it, I promise.


 Kathryn Evans is the award winning author of More of MeA gripping thriller with a sinister sci-fi edge, exploring family, identity and sacrifice. She loves faffing about on social media: find her  on Facebook and Instagram @kathrynevansauthor and tweeting @KathrynEvansInk.  


  1. Thank you, Kathy. And I can't wait for the new book. When's it out?

  2. Wow, this is a wonderful article and concept. I think I know how to apply this to my novel (and just when I'm writing my final draft too - excellent timing). Thank you.


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