Looking at Narrative Motifs with Elizabeth Wein

I read a wonderful book last year called ‘Code Name Verity’ and have since been telling everyone I meet that they have to read it. It is a superbly crafted piece of writing, which is brave and gutsy in more ways than one. So I am thrilled to welcome to the blog today, Elizabeth Wein, the author of said book.

The Green Flash – A Look at Narrative Motifs

The suggestion of writing a post about narrative motifs and how they’re used is so fabulous—and so different from most of the posts I’ve done lately—that I found myself getting all nervous about what to say. I actually went back to read over the section called ‘Literary Forms and Usage’ in the back of my Norton Anthology of English Literature, as though I was getting ready to write a paper for a school assignment. I didn’t want to get my definitions wrong!

So I’m going to begin with a definition. Wikipedia does such a nice, simple job. In narrative, a motif is ‘any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story.’

I think it was historic fiction writer Rosemary Sutcliff who made me sit up and notice how a motif can work. Throughout her Roman Britain series there is a family ring, an emerald carved with a dolphin crest, which is passed down from character to character throughout half a dozen books. Some of the characters who come into possession of this dolphin ring are unconnected by anything else—they don’t even live in the same century. So not only does the ring play a significant part in some of Sutcliff’s individual books, but it provides continuity through hundreds of years of literary ‘time’ and serves as a symbol of unity and connection for a wide range of characters.

I particularly love the way Sutcliff doesn’t ever drop random symbols into her stories. If an object turns up and appears to be significant and is then lost, you can be sure it’ll be found by the end of the book; and also, that it will play some important, driving role in the plot.

I like to do this in my own books, either with real objects or with some other symbolic motif, and one of the motifs I used in Code Name Verity is an atmospheric phenomenon called the Green Flash.

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I am kind of a weather nerd. I don’t actually remember when I first learned about the green flash, but early in writing Code Name Verity when I was casting about for something cool to happen during Maddie and ‘Verity’s’ first flight together, I thought that for them to see a green flash would work—it would be so different from anything else they might see, like a rainbow or a pretty sunset, and then they would have this unique experience that they would always associate with their first flight together.

I didn’t set out thinking it would become a narrative motif—I just wanted these friends to have a memorable flight experience.

But then Verity, whose writing I often found I had no control over, kept coming back to it. Not surprisingly, she uses it as a sort of metaphor for her special friendship with Maddie. Right after the actual green flash experience Verity writes that she and Maddie hold hands crossing the runway, and she says that Maddie closes her eyes and flies ‘again in the ethereal pale green light’—we think we see this scene through Maddie’s eyes, but of course it is really Verity who’s imagining this flashback. Later, when she mentions how unlikely her friendship with Maddie would have been outside wartime, she says she believes ‘God himself’ would have ‘knocked our heads together in a flash of green sunlight’ to make them become friends. Later she dreams that Maddie’s rescuing her and they’re flying home in green light.

Verity uses the green flash motif again and again to signify her friendship with Maddie. But Maddie uses the motif only once, and that’s to signify Verity herself. ‘One moment flying in green sunlight, then the sky suddenly gray and dark. Out like a candle.’

Sometimes as a writer you get little epiphanies where everything you’re playing with comes together, and I had one of these moments when I was editing the completed manuscript for Code Name Verity. I realized that by changing a single word in a paragraph I’d already written, I could introduce the green flash motif before the actual green flash incident in the aircraft. Here it is, in the run-up to the scene where Verity and Maddie meet for the first time, when Verity’s describing early Radar operations:

So, on the RDF screen you’d see a green dot for an aircraft, one or two, moving across the screen. It might be ours. You’d watch a battle building, the dots multiplying—more joining the first as the pulsing light swept the screen. They’d come together and some of them would go out, like the cinders of sparklers. And every green flash that disappeared was a life finished, one man for a fighter, a whole crew for a bomber. Out, out, brief candle.

It’s all there, though the reader doesn’t know it yet—the metaphor of life and death, the brief spark of fragile life suddenly extinguished, Maddie’s final assessment of Verity’s life—foreshadowed in what appears to be a purely ‘technical’ description of lights on a radar screen.

I love constructing a narrative this way. I love giving the careful reader little surprises and puzzles to solve. I love leaving aha!-moment gifts for the reader who goes back to the beginning and starts all over again. It is a kind of pleasure in craft, the same kind of pleasure you get from putting something together with your hands.

About the Author

Elizabeth Wein’s most recent novel, Code Name Verity (Egmont UK, Disney-Hyperion and Doubleday Canada, 2012), has been named a Printz Award Honor Book and a Boston Globe/Horn Book Award Honor Book. It is also long-listed for this year’s Carnegie Medal. Elizabeth is the holder of a private pilot’s license and an increasing collection of random wartime ephemera. She lives in Scotland with her husband and two children.

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One thought on “Looking at Narrative Motifs with Elizabeth Wein

  1. […] This Craft Called Writing: Looking at Narrative Motifs with Elizabeth Wein […]

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