I love motifs. If there’s some physical law where the number of motifs in your story threatens to reverse the chemical ratio of metaphor to action, I’m the person to test it.
A motif is a detail that repeats through a story to draw attention to an idea or theme. The motif can be a word, phrase, color, character, monster, sign, place, image, way of describing something, way of talking, alliteration, simile, character trait, situation, anything. The point is that it repeats. Once it repeats it becomes a trail of breadcrumbs we leave to help the reader or viewer find depth and meaning in our stories. When motifs cross and combine, they reflect and magnify each other, drawing a map that points the audience down paths of allusions, partly inherent in the story and partly supplied by the audience’s experience. This is the theme.
I’ll use my Iraq pilot LIONESS as an example to show how I use motifs. I decided to introduce a new motif in each act, like a recurring chord in a symphony, that, once introduced, would blend together in the end. Each act’s motif shapes the act, giving it a guiding metaphor to direct the action.
These are the ideas that take root in the imaginations of my characters in each act. They discuss them, they see evidence of them all around themselves, they see parallels to them in their environment, more importantly, they DON’T see parallels to them in their environment. These motifs show up in both subtle and un-subtle ways, as jokes, as images, as plot points, as looping topics of conversation.
Act 1: Motif: Bloodshed.
Act 2: Motif: University of Texas Cheerleaders.
Act 3: Motif: Missing Humvee and Suicided Soldier.
Act 4: Motif: We Don’t Leave A Man Behind.
Act 5: Motif: Innards.
You don’t have to tell a serious story to use motifs — my sitcom pilot was standard network fare but also very motif-driven. You can bury them beneath the surface or not. What they give you is a deeper, more meaningful, more textural world.
Last year I wrote a pilot about modern day pirates that was set in Haiti. I chose Haiti because it’s one of the poorest countries on Earth — both left behind and close to home. I felt it was real life Sci Fi. The sense of place was an important part of the piece. Now Haiti has been destroyed a thousand times more — before it was a silent catastrophe in our midst, now it will be a devastatingly loud one. While I was writing, I felt frustrated because all I wanted to do was talk about it. And no one wanted to hear it.
Now I’m writing a pilot about Iraq, and everything’s that wrong over there feels overwhelming to me. Horrifying suicide rates among active duty soldiers and veterans. Sickeningly high sexual assault rates for female soldiers, by fellow soldiers — as high as 30%. Unnecessary civilian deaths. Unnecessary soldier deaths. Outrageously corrupt war profiteering. No one over there seems to know what we’re doing over there. This is all going on — and no one cares. No one wants to hear about it, no one wants to listen. No one gives a fuck. We are members of a democratic society who have orchestrated this, and by not rising up and expressing our outrage and ending this, we are responsible. A tragedy occurs in our midst, and we are responsible.
No one cares because the Iraq story is not acute. Like the Haiti story, it was just happening. It was horrific and terrible and outrageous, but there was no moment that was more horrific and terrible and outrageous than the next. There was no acute focus to the story, no lens to help us understand how to feel about it.
With Haiti, those people had always been crushingly poor and betrayed by corrupt leaders, right? How is one day different from the next? Many people have difficulty feeling empathy for people they don’t relate to — or they don’t find a way to relate to people whose plights aren’t right in front of them. Suddenly there’s a horrible earthquake — something that any of us might experience any day — it taps into our fears about our own safety — we could lose our homes just like they did, we could be wandering the streets just like them — then as we wallow in the disaster porn because it stirs up all those feelings so many of us yearn to feel every day but don’t have access to — empathy, understanding, fear, grief — feelings that get buried by everyday life’s efficiency and competency and need to look emotionally stable — disaster porn allows us to access all those feelings — and once accessed, we get it. Wait a minute, they were fucked before this horrible earthquake. They’ve been fucked for a very long time. I just wasn’t thinking about it. It took this acute story, the flurry of excitement, the urgency and concentration of focus centered on the need to find people, find shelter, find medical aid, find water, the sheer drama of it all — that’s what it took for us to care.
If there were a terrible earthquake in Iraq, would people care about the war?
The other big story this week has been the Leno/Conan/NBC war, with virtually everyone I know declaring for “Team Conan.” Both Team Leno and Team Conan are teams that do not hire any women writers. How is it possible that with all this media coverage, no one discusses that fact? If Conan O’Brien released a carefully worded statement declaring his intention to never hire women writers, there would be a public outcry. No one would join “Team Conan” then. However, by not declaring his intention but instead just doing it, no one calls him out on it, no one gives a fuck. It’s the Haiti, Iraq problem: the story is outrageous but not acute. People shrug it off as just the way it is. There’s no urgency, no face on the story — no highly qualified woman who should have gotten a job on the show and was told “we don’t hire women” walking out of the studio with a brave face. No disaster porn to allow people to access their empathy.
The lesson here is this: if you have an important story you want to spread, find a way to make it acute. Give it a face and a focus and make it urgent. Shape it into disaster porn.
Battlestar/Buffy writer Jane Espenson’s blog about writing specs is still incredibly useful, even though she’s not updating it anymore. I perused it over a break today and saw this entry in which she discussed her friend Jeff Greenstein’s advice that pilots’ opening images should contain the series in microcosm. Following is the very persuasive list he composed. (I agree with this idea and would argue it’s a pretty good idea for novels as well.)
In the Cheers pilot, the teaser is Sam with an underage kid who’s trying to get a drink using a fake military ID. Kid says he was in the war. Sam asks what it was like. “It was gross,” the kid replies with a shudder. “Yeah, that’s what they say — war is gross,” Sam replies. The teaser gives you a sense of the place and the guy.
The Battlestar pilot has that great opening scene with Number Six and the emissary from Earth. The scene says, “Remember those metal robots? They look like humans now. And they’re going to fucking kill you.”
The Lost pilot starts with a close-up of an eye opening, and the aftermath of the plane crash. This show is about consciousness and strandedness and tragedy.
Will & Grace starts with Grace in bed with her sleeping fiancé, yet on the phone dishing with Will about George Clooney’s hotness. It’s the perfect encapsulation of their odd relationship.
The Desperate Housewives teaser: In the midst of tranquil suburban splendor, Mary Alice blows her head off.
The West Wing pilot: In a bar, talking off-the-record with a reporter, Sam Seaborn is distracted by a hot girl who’s giving him the eye. This show is about politics and sex (well, it started out that way), and the “backstage” lives of people in government.