Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What's in a Word: Editor's Checklist for Short Fiction, Metaphor and Motif

Motif: The echo of an interesting character
The next items on our editor's checklist for revising short, or longer, fiction are metaphor and motif. We'll start with brief definitions, and provide questions to ask yourself while revising your work.

Metaphor: A metaphor uses an image, a story or an object to represent a less tangible object, quality or idea. For example, "Her eyes were glistening jewels." When revising your work, ask yourself whether your metaphors are original, well-placed and appropriate for your story's theme. The example here, albeit clichéd, would work well for a gemstone dealer describing a woman he loves, particularly in historical fiction and romance. A story about an artist would be better served by this: "Her eyes in the fading light were Prussian blue."

Motif: A motif is a recurring subject, theme, idea, object or concept that represents a deeper concept. Motifs, like metaphors, should be original, well-placed and appropriate for the story's theme. If, for example, your story is about a musician, you'll not only look for instances in the text that echo the subject of music, but also for objects or concepts that will evoke that theme throughout your work. For example, the curve of a woman's body can echo the treble clef of pitch, and vice versa.

The key to using metaphor and motif well is to know your story and characters well. This usually is more the case in draft two. Also, with both metaphor and motif, less (as in understatement), especially in literary fiction, is more.

For the full editor's checklist, see this month's Online Editing Workshop,

Tip: For best revision results, finish your story, then set it aside and work on something else. Distance improves perspective, and you'll more easily spot places in the work where you can exchange one metaphor or motif for a better one.

Happy writing!


Anonymous said...

Speaking as a writer I can say that extending a motif or idea throughout a piece in a way that is not overbearing or obvious is incredibly tricky.

Speaking as a reader I can say, when it is well done, and the idea/theme/motif is subtly woven into the piece it makes for a truly sublime reading experience.

It is also enjoyable as a writer to stumble upon ways in which the idea manifests itself, in ways you never even realized, after you've already written it!

Adele Annesi said...

Thanks, Aidan, for your comments. Great points, and a good reminder that a writer has two roles: writer and reader. That second is key during the revision phase. Thanks, again!