“Surfacing motifs”

December 6th, 2012 by

Whereas a talisman is a physical object that takes on symbolic or emotional meaning, motifs are distinct in relation to screenplays in that they are more conceptual in nature, falling into three categories:

  • Dialogue (words)
  • Music (sounds)
  • Visual (images)

Motifs are not only recurring narrative elements, but also ideas that convey their essence in a compressed form. If they appear as dialogue, they are typically short and to the point. Music, simple and memorable. Visuals, minimal and graphic.

Let’s talk about how to surface motifs in your stories.

First stop: Brainstorming.

I am a huge proponent of brainstorming and see it as an indispensable, even central aspect of the prep-writing process. The point of brainstorming is to let your mind and heart roam in the story universe, and see what emerges. This is a time when you shut off your internal editor and embrace your right brain. Just let it all flow and don’t stop it.

The one rule about brainstorming: Write everything of interest down, even if it seems completely useless or irrelevant. You never know when a line of dialogue, character trait, or sound will turn out to be important.

Did I say line of dialogue (words), character trait (visuals), or sound (music, etc)? Why, that sounds an awful lot like motifs!

Yes, and I find when I brainstorm, story stuff like this pops up a lot. I’m just bouncing around from idea to idea, then suddenly an image will pop to mind: “It’s a kite.” Why a kite? I have no idea. But I write it down because it could become important.

The next stop is character development. You can use all sorts of tools to dig into and develop characters in stories including character questionnaires, character interviews, and character sit-downs:

Questionnaires can surface all sorts of personal habits, beliefs, and behaviors.

Interviews can surface the emotional or psychological significance of those habits, beliefs and behaviors.

Sit-downs all the character to talk in their own voice.

All of that can dredge up motifs as well.

Finally as you go through the process of working up an outline or crafting each of your scene, always ask yourself: Is there a motif that can enrich this scene? So much of this is about being conscious of the possibilities.

Get to know and use them by…

Surfacing motifs.

The Quest” has entered Week 21! And so did Go On Your Own Quest, an opportunity for anyone to follow the structure of “The Quest” to dig into screenwriting theory [Core – 8 weeks], figure out your story [Prep – 6 weeks], and write a first draft [Pages – 10 weeks]. It’s a 24-week immersion in the screenwriting process and you can do it here – for free!

Today and every Monday through Friday for 10 weeks, I’ll use this slot to post something inspirational as GOYOQ participants pound out their first drafts.

For background on “Go Into The Story: The Quest,” go here and here.

For all the previous weeks of Go On Your Own Quest posts, go here.

3 thoughts on ““Surfacing motifs”

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    Scott, in your own writing, do you deal with these sorts of considerations in prep, in first draft, or in rewrites, or has the process changed over time?

    PS I’m really enjoying this series of posts. Thank you.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, it’s an organic process. I just try to be aware of thematic elements in general throughout the entire process. I’m especially cognizant of them during brainstorming. Weird images, lines, sounds, I just put them all into my master brainstorming list. I never know if/when something there might have emerged which could be meaningful later.

      It’s not like I have all that figured out in prep or even first draft. Sometimes thematic content doesn’t reveal itself until a few drafts in when I suddenly see a connection. Other times, however, themes bubble up really early in the process. Then there are times when it’s not until someone brings it on reading the script that you realize, “Oh, yeah, that theme is in there.”

      Every writer is different, so there’s no right or wrong way to approaching thematic material. It’s just a good idea to be aware of the possibilities and sensitive to ideas that emerge, even seemingly crazy ones. You just never know…

      1. Shaula Evans says:

        Thanks for the reply, Scott.

        I’m in that stage with my GOYOQ script right now where EVERYTHING I see / hear / read / watch seems relevant–it’s my brain on overdrive with a healthy pinch of apophenia thrown in for good measure. And it’s good time to be looking at symbols and images and patterns organically present in the script and ask myself “Could I reincorporate this? What happens if I turn this upsidedown? What happens if we see this three times instead of once?” This is a really fun part of the writing process for me.

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