You’re reading too much into it.
We all had that thought at some point during high school English, didn’t we?
The teacher would be banging on about The Inheritors, or some frilly Shakespeare play, or - god help us - some poetry about the Great War. It wasn’t enough that the material was turgid and inaccessible (the greatest crime a writer can commit). We also had to endlessly analyse the damned stuff.
Do you seriously expect me to believe that, as well as writing the actual thing itself, the author also painstakingly wove all this alleged symbolism and allegory, and a handful of weighty themes, all through the work? It must have been like a medieval monk constructing an illuminated manuscript, a brushstroke at a time, until the day he dropped dead in his spartan bedchamber.
I knew better, of course, as teenagers do. I expect you did too. All this technique the pages were supposedly dripping with was mostly the English teacher’s wishful thinking.
Twenty years just disappeared, and here we are. You’re there, and I’m here.
I know a little more now, including the universal truth that was so deeply frustrating to gradually learn as an adolescent: it’s not that simple.
I’m a writer now. I have an awareness of themes, and symbolism in writing. Foreshadowing, and recurring motifs. I use them myself.
Am I sitting in my spartan bedchamber, assembling masterpieces brushstroke by brushstroke? No. But, equally, am I just leaving it all to chance - and to overzealous interpretation - by rattling out whatever I feel like, without regard to those extra dimensions? Also no.
Let me tell you how I tackle the process of infusing a piece of writing with those deeper elements. This is strictly my own approach. Every writer is probably different. Many will have techniques that sound a damned sight better in a high school English class, no doubt, and that’s fine with me.
A year or so ago, I wrote a piece called Nets. It’s an essay (non-fiction), and it recounts two different times - one from my childhood, and one recently - when I visited a particular place. The essay is about how nostalgia can be a trap for us, and it’s also about the passing of time.
I’m going to use Nets as my example here, so you should probably read it before continuing.
Let’s be clear about something up front: you shouldn’t make themes and motifs your primary concern. Your job as a writer is to put words together in a way that resonates with the reader. If you can do that, you win. A piece of writing that’s thematically rich and clever, but doesn’t resonate or is difficult to read, is a failure. Always keep that in mind. Writing, for me, is about sparking emotions and provoking thoughts in fellow humans.
Having said that, you can enhance a piece of writing considerably with some additional layers, and it doesn’t have to be a burdensome process. I find that, with a little bit of conscious reflection as you get started, you can develop themes and motifs organically while you’re writing.
Every piece has a moment of genesis. I keep a folder of notes in my Dropbox with possible articles and stories, and when an idea occurs, I immediately commit it to a new text file. There’s nothing worse than losing what seemed like a promising idea because you forgot to jot it down at the time.
Some of those notes sit untouched for years. Most sit for weeks or months. Once in a while, though, the spark happens and I feel like I can get started straight away. Nets was one of those.
As the piece mentions, I was actually back in that little coastal town where I’d spent many childhood holidays. My wife and I were taking a brief holiday, and we’d visited the pebble-strewn beach from the story. The events all took place as described.
We’d rented a cottage for our trip, and when we returned to the cottage that evening, I opened my MacBook Air and started writing. The piece was substantially finished within a couple of hours. It went through various edits afterwards, but the bulk of it is as I wrote it on that evening.
So, how did I start?
This was a piece about emotional issues like memory, ageing, nostalgia, and lost youth: it would clearly have a melancholy tone, and would be grounded in personal reflection. The fundamental tension and contrast was always going to be time: the present versus the past. How we can simultaneously experience both, but only ever affect what’s happening right now. I knew immediately that a core theme would be duality.
There are several instances of duality - and tension, from opposition or contrast - which were obvious even from the planning stage:
The past and the present.
Memory and reality.
Nostalgia and melancholy.
There are also several other dualities which developed organically as I explored other themes, which I’ll mention in a moment.
As I stood there on the beach with my wife, remembering and retelling events from my childhood, what struck me was how near it all seemed. I was looking at the place as it currently was, but the moment I started to remember a detail from the past, the current scene blurred and moved back, to be replaced by just a glimpse of those bright Summer days of decades ago.
Standing there in the same physical place created a powerful feeling of the past being somehow closer here, and I think that’s a feeling we’ve all experienced. But then we come back out of our recollections, and there’s a sense of bereavement. Something lost, remaining forever just barely out of reach. I had a powerful emotional response to that thought, and it fed into the piece too. Loss and separation are strong themes in Nets, and there’s a recurring motif of barriers and obstacles.
To write the opening half of the piece, I put myself back in those perfect days of my childhood, and let my memory fill in the scenes around me. I quickly realised that nature was the backdrop, and indeed provided one of the major characters: our dog, Bruce.
The pieces fell into place after that. Melancholy, loss, the brightness but unreachability of youth, the rocks and surf, and nature as witness… the next memory just slid into my head, quietly and without fanfare: my brother and I always had fishing nets here.
Those nets were the perfect piece of symbolism for that feeling I’d had of being trapped, not just by my own nostalgia for the unreachable past, but also how close that past seemed. Just right there in front of me, through a thin, flexible barrier, almost within reach. Something visible but untouchable; another duality.
I then had the beginning of the piece, and it was the first line I wrote:
I had a fishing net.
Simple, unremarkable prose - but with the promise of a story. It’s the kind of opening that I favour, and you’ll see it again and again in my writing.
As I wrote about the nets and their purpose, it occurred to me that nature, again, tied into the piece, but this time as a force around us. The power of the waves, the heat of the sun, the sharpness and potential cruelty of the rocks. The quiet companionship and apparent inscrutable wisdom of Bruce the dog, as contrasted with the screaming of the gulls overhead, and the unsuspecting simplicity of the anemones in the rock pools that were our targets with the nets.
Other forms of life, and their relationship with humanity, is the vehicle I use to observe the protagonists - my brother and I - throughout the piece. Two further dualities: observer and observed; human and animal.
What could Bruce see that we couldn’t? If my brother had slipped from the spur of rock and fallen into the sea, would the gulls overhead have swooped down? Did the anemones in the seaward pools have any awareness of the two boys who loomed over them?
The surfaces of those pools were another barrier, between the turbulent world of the pounding surf and the quiet little space where the submerged anemones clung to the rock face, oblivious and powerless. It occurred to me that there was an analogy there for the curtain between the past and the present too.
Your mind naturally looks for structure and balance. When you take something amorphous like an idea for a piece of writing, your brain immediately embarks on a process of reduction and refinement: taking something vague and folding it into a recognisable shape that can be worked with. It always happens. You always have themes and motifs. They’re an inseparable part of just thinking about things. The question is whether you’ve consciously recognised and chosen those themes for yourself.
Nets could have been written in many other ways. It could have begun with the core idea of nostalgia ultimately being a path to wistfulness. It could have discussed that idea still using stories from my past, but without the hyper-focused analogy of fishing nets and unsuspecting creatures. It could have used the sea beating against the rock face as the primary metaphor for the changes made to places and people as time passes. You can probably suggest half a dozen more approaches without really trying.
There are always options. No particular embodiment of a piece is inevitable - but it pays to choose one.
As I wrote the part about my brother and I going out over the rocks to find sea creatures to snare in our nets, I realised that there was something to be said about the cyclical, layered aspect of our perception of the world around us. We held our nets ready to trap a sea anemone, naively feeling supreme dominion over nature, but we were also surrounded by it. Gulls above, waves all around, treacherous rocks beneath our feet. We were as much at its mercy as we believed it was at ours. Another duality: the trapper, and the entrapped.
I knew that I had to break the piece into two sections, for each of the two time periods. We’d jump ahead in time, showing the same place as it was much later on, in the present day. That was when the second fundamental theme slotted into place: shifting perspectives. It was a natural consequence of the basic structure, which itself was a consequence of the topic I was exploring.
I like to cross-pollinate my motifs whenever I can; to weave loops between themes, and use elements to mutually reinforce each other. Given I was already playing with the idea of humanity’s relationship to nature - and the animal kingdom in particular - it seemed like a natural progression to make use of the non-human characters in the piece as observers. That way, I could move back and forth between the eyes of the humans (my brother and I), and the other creatures present - like Bruce, or the gulls circling overhead.
The animals could serve as proxies for you, the reader, and give us a front-row seat in a place we can never actually visit. They also provide a vaguely disturbing, alien viewpoint, which reinforces the undertone of twisted perception and uneasiness that I felt as I stood there years later with my wife.
There are also several narrative techniques I like to use, and they’re all present in Nets:
Foreshadowing, or hinting about future events (even if they don’t actually take place). In the piece, there’s an undercurrent of mounting tension as my brother and I climb out over the rocks:
“But true danger is reserved for books and television, and everyone knows that little boys are invincible.”
“The waves were tall, the wet outcroppings of black rock below looked suddenly cruel, and the sea was deep where blue fell away to darkness.”
“I hastened to join him, pushing away any thoughts of how we, too, were now hidden from the shore.”
There’s a sense that something unpleasant is going to happen. We can see the two boys clambering over rocks towards the seaward side, and we’re mentally shouting at them to get back, and be careful. But we’re bound up in the narrative, and whatever happened is going to happen again regardless.
Prolonging tension. This is a technique where I cut away from the actual events to briefly consider another point of view. It keeps the reader waiting to find out what took place back where the action is. In the piece, I do it by switching focus (hypothetically) to the gulls circling far above, just as my brother raises his stick to spear an anemone in the rock pool.
Then, we learn that my brother did lose his balance out there on the rocks, but we see it from the uninterested perspective of the birds. It has a jarring effect, and makes us want to swoop back down into a human point of view again, to find out what happened to him.
Blurring the figurative and the literal. The central conceit of the piece is that the past and the present co-exist in some sense, separated by a barrier we can peer through but never penetrate. The reader understands this on a figurative level: it’s describing memory, and how vividly it can be triggered by revisiting the places of our youth.
In the piece, though, there’s a disturbing moment where the young me follows Bruce the dog’s gaze along the shoreline, towards a previously empty spot above the area of the beach. For a moment, he thinks he sees a single, unfamiliar car parked there. When he looks again, shading his eyes from the sunlight, it’s gone.
In the present day, the adult me did indeed park his car there, and deliberately avoided looking back down the shore to where he had stood on the rocks so long ago as a boy. He seems afraid of momentarily seeing the child that he was, still standing there. It’s at this point that we understand that the half-glimpsed car the boy saw was his own car, years later, as seen through the veil that separates the two time periods.
It’s an unsettling and creepy moment, because the figurative separation takes physical form, just for an instant, letting a young boy unknowingly see his own future. It’s pure technique, of course - to the best of my recollection, I saw no ghostly car on that day - but the imagery stays with you. This small fiction makes the surrounding facts truer.
(It’s further enhanced by the suggestion that Bruce can also see the other time period, which heightens the awareness of an inhuman and unknowable perspective alongside our own.)
Throwing the reader off-balance. The twisting of figurative and literal, as I just mentioned, is certainly an example of jostling the reader, but there are other examples too. I regularly talk about footing, and slipperiness, precarious climbs and surfaces, and even the ground metaphorically tilting. The dizzying vantage point of the soaring gulls, reducing the boys far below to just brightly-coloured shapes, also subtly unsettles us.
The point of the technique, of course, is to convey the uneasiness we feel when we encounter a once-familiar place that’s been changed by the passage of time. There’s a troubling sense of being wrenched from the comfortable world of memory into a reality that no longer conforms to our expectations - and that’s even without considering the questions of mortality that these changes inevitably raise.
Nets wasn’t constructed around themes. It wasn’t written onto a framework of these techniques, and I didn’t have a minimum number of motifs per thousand words. The piece developed naturally, and was written in a single session - but I can truthfully say that all of the elements of craft I’ve spoken about were included deliberately. What a difference twenty years can make.
If I set an exercise to discuss the primary themes, recurring motifs, imagery and narrative techniques used in Nets, you’d get very high marks if you mentioned:
- Duality, opposition and contrast.
- Past and present.
- Memory and reality.
- Nostalgia and melancholy.
- Humanity and the animal kingdom.
- Barriers and obstacles.
- The water’s surface.
- The superimposition of the past upon the present.
- The nets themselves.
- The rock face against the surf.
- Multiple perspectives.
- Human versus animal.
- The eye of memory versus our experience of the present.
- Being trapped, especially when unsuspecting.
- The anemones in the pool, at the mercy of the boys’ fishing nets.
- Living through carefree times, not considering how we might look back upon them.
- People ensnared by their own nostalgia.
- Disturbance of balance, or sense of place.
- Slippery rocks.
- Angled surfaces.
- Skewed perceptions of time.
There’s plenty more you could mention too. For fun, feel free to run through the piece again, and note down examples of each. Just like being back in class.
If there’s advice to be offered for your own writing, it’d be this: don’t force it. That’s always something to keep at the forefront of your mind.
Do, however, think about your goals - and what the piece is really about - before you get started. Continue thinking as you write. You’ll find that your awareness of the framework of the piece will automatically influence your choice of phrasing, symbolism, metaphors and so on. In my experience, your brain will do the bulk of the work for you, as long as you take some time to point it in the right direction.
Your goal will always be to engage the reader: to trigger a whole cascade of sparks in someone else’s neurons, as your words bounce around and create images that are similar - but never quite identical - to the ones you saw yourself. Go to any lengths to serve that purpose.
It’s worth acknowledging, though, that all of that stuff from English class is actually real - and it can deepen and enhance the impact of your writing immeasurably. Don’t get too carried away, and let it happen naturally. You’ll usually find that the result is a piece that’s more nuanced, gripping, and memorable.
Your first duty is to the reader, and it follows that your most sacred task is to be readable. Judicious use of the elements of craft can be a very powerful tool to that end.