From Writers Workshop Script Doctor
Copyright © 1994, 1996, 1997, Dorian Scott Cole
Recurring elements (representing a subject, theme or idea) that help establish mood are called a "motif." For a man becoming parched and dehydrated in the desert, the motifs might be cracked creek beds, and the sun shimmering through heat waves. For crime in a violent city it might be constant sirens in the background and screeching tires, and TV reports with violence statistics. These things are generally independent of the characters. The characters don't create them, but they may respond to them.
Motifs generally are repeating elements used to create the same mood over and over. They can be created by the display of patterns which might be visual, but could also be behavioral, ideas or themes, auditory, or objects.
Motifs can be things that people universally respond to, but can be much more effective if they are constructed. I call this loading the motif. You give meaning to the motif elements by associating events and possibly symbols with it, so that a mood is established when the elements are shown.
Say you want to lighten up a maudlin drama with comic relief. It's set in the Southwest, so you open the story with fast tempo mariachi music. The shot pans down onto a man sleeping on the sidewalk, with a sombrero pulled over his face. Someone tries to wake him, but he doesn't move. A crowd gathers and begins to torment him. He remains unresponsive. People move his arms and legs, and as soon as they let go, they return to their original position. The crowd is amused. Two men drag him into the street. As soon as they let go, he scampers back to his position and with no getting comfortable, he immediately resumes sleeping. The crowd goes wild. Two men tie his shoe laces together and hang him by the laces from a post. He slips nonchalantly from his shoes and resumes sleeping. They pick him up and stick his legs through the lattice work above the porch. Hanging like a bat, he shrugs, pulls his hat over his face, and resumes sleeping. The next time the mariachi music begins and the camera pans down onto the sleeping man, the mood of the audience will lift whether he does another act or not.
Symbols seem, at first glance, like the least important thing in the world. But a symbol is described as participating in what it represents (Paul Tillich). That is true in some very practical ways. When my father "retired" from his industrial job, which he had come to detest, and began running his own business, he took his old aluminum lunch box and threw it in the trash. I thought he was just discarding it, which I considered strange at the time because it was still good. So I retrieved it. He never said a word. I didnít realize until I had carried it for a while then trashed it myself, what a symbolic gesture that was. Putting that lunch box in the trash symbolized that he had finished with that way of life. That tells us two things about symbols. One, the symbol was an integral part of his life: it participated in it. Two, others donít necessarily understand the symbol unless it is set up for them. I call that process "loading," which Iíll describe later.
If a child (and some adults) wants to hurt another child, but has learned that poking them in the eye will gain them worse, what do they do? Break their doll, kick their dog, tell lies to get them in trouble? Yes. These things represent the person - they are symbols of them. The cherished doll, the loved dog, the reputation, these things participate in the personís life. People who have no regard for others, or no respect, have no conscience about mistreating othersí possessions or reputations or anything associated with them.
A symbol gives us information. It represents something. For example, the symbol of a cross will convey a world of meaning to a Christian. The peace symbol and the acronym VC will mean certain things to a Vietnam veteran. The acronym IRS means headache for most of us. The blindfolded woman holding a scales, the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, the Statue of Liberty - all convey information.
Some symbols have inherent meaning.They are universal, part of the collective psyche of our culture, and will convey information just as they are. They may possibly even represent things we canít describe, enabling us to think more productively about the nature of the cosmos.
Other symbols are created. These are called iconic symbols, and have to be loaded. For example, short-term forgetfulness might be symbolized by leaving eye glasses in unusual places. The first time the person hunts for the glasses, the symbol gets loaded. The next time, the eye glasses are shown laying somewhere, we know what happened. Another example, if a gun is always left in a particular spot in a gun case, and then it isn't there, we know something is up with the gun. These symbols alert the viewer that something is going to happen.
Another use of symbols has already been discussed. People surround themselves with symbols of their identity. If someone carries a briefcase, this conveys information that this person is involved in a business or profession. The person who wears a baseball cap, or has them displayed in his rear car window, we know likes baseball. Symbols tell us about people without having to go into their entire history.
For example, a man who wears a Rolex, has a living room full of Chinese furniture and art, has a statue of Buddha in his bed room, a New York Yankees cap hanging on one post of his four-poster bed, and has cowboy boots in his closet, has told us a great many things by symbols. Money is important to him. He has an affinity for China - either married Chinese or lived there - is probably Buddhist, is married, likes the Yankees and possibly does country dancing on weekends. If we saw the NY Yankees cap and cowboy boots at another bed, we would know the character had been there - the symbol conveyed this information. To see a real life example, see symbols in the article Children With Guns.
William Kelley, master TV and feature film writer who wrote the Amish portions of the Academy Award winning Witness, used waving fields of wheat as a motif to take the viewer to that tranquil country setting. It was a natural part of the environment that worked well as a motif. In The Milagro Bean Field War, the bean crop - and later the water - was a symbol of protest and revolt. These natural elements worked well as symbols. Yet they established mood each time they were shown. They also worked as motifs. Symbols and motifs can do both.
I became interested in symbols and motifs when I was researching my book,The Last Prophet (unpublished). Understanding symbols is fundamental to understanding prophecy. Water is used as a symbol in two prophetic utterances: "...Out of their hearts will flow rivers of living water," and in describing the river flowing from the new temple, the nourishing river became deeper the farther it got from the temple. To search for the meaning of these, I reviewed the use of water in Biblical literature.
Water is actually a motif. But what does it mean? Traditional views of symbolism regard the ocean, and water, as a threat to man. Water is connected with images of flooding - the vast uncontrollable ocean is always threatening to crawl onto shore, wave after wave, drowning everyone with its might and its depth. But what does water mean to a landlocked group of people in an arid climate? Fresh water was a precious commodity in an ancient land bordering arid lands, where wells and springs were scarce. The community wells were daily gathering places for socializing and fellowship. Water set a mood for ancient people that suggested life, community and caring. Godís Spirit was said to be poured out like living waters on the thirsty people. Baptism in the Spirit comes from a water motif, rather than wind. Uniting the various symbols within the motif can lead to the interpretation: Godís Spirit, channeled through the people in community (as temples of the spirit), nourishes an ever growing number. So it is understandable that water flowed from the new temple in a stream that grew wider as it traveled.
Motifs can be natural or constructed, and can come with a variety of symbols within them, which are usually constructed. Symbols and motifs enhance your story by establishing mood and conveying information so you can better utilize your hundred and twenty pages for plot, character and conflict.