Monday, January 31, 2011

Consciousness and the recurring image

Whether they come in the form of ideas you can't get out of your head or nightmares that appear repeatedly in your sleep, recurring images are something we all experience.

I've been working a lot with recurring images in my writing lately. I started paying attention to this technique after reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time and then moving on to Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day. Both of these writers deal a lot with the idea of unreliable memory. The narrators of these stories recall memories, but they admit that the memories might be inaccurate. Under these circumstances, recurring images are important because they suggest that whatever is recurring is somehow meaningful to the narrator, even if she or he doesn't understand them. A recurring image weighs more heavily in the narrative, even if it's not presented in any emphasized way.

Maybe this is a simple concept, but I think there's a really wonderful nuance to the recurring image relative to a character's experience. That nuance has to do with the idea of passivity.

When we have recurring nightmares or recurring ideas, we are rarely in control of them. They bob up in our minds when we least expect them. They call attention to themselves. "Pay attention to me! Hey, check me out, I'm totally recurring!"

A writer can create an eerily realistic situation by having their character experience recurring images. In a sense, you are creating an unconscious mind for your character...and if that isn't a remedy for a flat character, I don't know what is.

I love the effect a recurring image has on a character. It makes me feel like the character's mind is working constantly. It creates a parallel inner working to the external events. In my current story, Cyberlama, my narrator had a lot of experiences early in her life that she didn't fully understand. As these memories come back to her, she can reflect on them, grow from them, and I think it really enhances the character development I'm trying to create.

Have you played around with recurring images? How did they work for you? What purpose did they serve?


  1. I love stories with recurring images, or symbols, and definitely use them in my own writing. For example, I've used white roses to suggest purity, tuberroses to suggest evil and danger, the sea to suggest the return to oneness and so on. It takes discipline not to overkill the recurring image/symbol, but the effort is worth it.
    Judy (South Africa)

  2. To add to that, recurring images & symbols work because they're rooted in the collective archetypes imprinted in our individual memories (the unconscious ones)

    Judy (South Africa)

  3. I use recurring images in my writing all the time. I rely heavily on them, actually. I'm not sure I'm using them exactly as you're describing here, but this post helped me remember that I do use them in some form. Like Judy, I also like to use recurring symbolism. These literary devices, for me, are what layer a story and a character. They can strengthen writing.

    If I'm understanding correctly, the recurring images you mention here are ones which the character can't explain. Do you think that's an important part of using a recurring image?

  4. I do this in both Sublimation and in my next book, Ennui and Malaise. In Sublimation I do it under the text for the most part. There are some recurring symbols, some habitual behaviors, and a few other patterned idiosyncrasies that are right there for the reader to see. What the reader doesn't usually see -- at least directly -- is the recurring images in the characters' minds that are driving those behaviors.

    Ennui and Malaise is really all about an unreliable narrator whose unreliability comes from his own increasing inability to distinguish dreams, imagination, and real life. I really pound on some recurring images there. Nightmares that are always dancing before Kip's eyes, that he doesn't know if they're real or illusion.

    In many ways, I think these sort of recurring images are in the back of many of my characters' minds, even if I'm not quite conscious of it. My everyday life is like that. I can never shake the after-images of dreams, daydreams, things I've imagined. There's always something intruding between the frames of my reality. I think because it's how I experience life, it's how my characters experience life, too.

    For them, of course, it often leads to psychoses or existential breakdowns...

  5. We are thinking about similar things today...

    I do like some recurring images and motions in my novels. Esp if they are backed up with purpose and meaning to that character.

    and, on the side..this line

    "Pay attention to me! Hey, check me out, I'm totally recurring!"

    for some reason reminded me of my kids pounding on my office door when I'm trying to meet a deadline. It made me giggle so, thanks for that :D

  6. Judy, that's a great point about archetypes. There's a filmmaker named Miyazaki who I just love. His animated films have dozens of recurring images, and it really makes me wonder why he loved particular things so much. I like it when we can read or watch multiple works by the same artist and see these recurring images.

    Michelle, I think there are several reasons to use recurring images, so I'm glad you are sharing your own uses. For me, when the image is tied to a character's memory, it's just an interesting new dimension to the character. A symbol like you're using adds more layers to the narrative. A recurring image adds more layers to the character. Maybe?

    Nevets, that's a great point about recurring actions. I used that a lot in Rooster because my main characters were related, and I like the idea that they had inherited the same actions. That was an interesting exploration for me. Ennui and Malaise sounds very interesting too!

    Tess, I just read your post. It's a really good point, and I think what I'm talking about here is a small part of that. I love it when you like my jokes. (I think you're the only one who does!)

  7. I wrote a mystery novel and it only occurred to me about halfway through that my protagonist kept winding up in graveyards, or thinking about graveyards, and when I finished it, even the bookend scenes were both set in a graveyard. Now, you might think, "Well, it's a mystery, so that's natural." But the mystery itself didn't involve graveyards at all, and the protagonist's recurring thoughts/visits had nothing to do with the murder victim. It had to do with his coming to terms with his experiences as a soldier in the Great War, and his struggle to find a meaningful life.

    The most fun I had with it, once I figured out that this was a wonderful motif to play around with, was when I discovered that a local cemetery had been moved prior to the novel's setting and then turned into a park. But not all of the older graves got moved, so families wound up having picnics on top of the graves, unknowingly, for several years until the city realized its error and removed the last graves. My protagonist would have been a child during those years, which gave me this delightfully creepy scene where he and his sister play in the park by dowsing for bodies that the city might have missed. It was just a small scene, but later on I used the same park as a late-night meeting spot for some nefarious activity related to the murder. I had no need to mention its previous history in the later scene, hoping that readers would remember that it had once been a graveyard, adding to the spookiness.

    At first the whole graves/death motif seems obvious, but I had a good time trying to subvert the obvious by using the graveyard imagery in unexpected ways.

    I myself have recurring thoughts about islands. They turn up in nearly everything I write, too. Hm. Islands = isolation, yet also = freedom? Must go ponder this!

    -Alexandra MacKenzie

  8. You made me laugh today when you talked about recurring ideas calling attention to themselves. This happens to me from time to time. They holler out, "Pay attention to me. Hellooooo." ;)

    That said Davin, I believe all writers use these in one way or the other. Sometimes not realizing they do. I love what you said about creating an unconscious mind for our characters being a remedy for a flat character. It is, my friend. I have experienced this. It is!

  9. I like recurring images and symbolisms, and I do use them, though I think sometimes I'm not even aware of them till I go back and read what I've written. Overall, I think it adds heft to a character, and gratifying continuity to the story.

  10. In my first book, everybody was pretending to be somebody else, hence masquerading, which was the title of the book. I liked the idea that people could hide behind a mask, or dress, or occupation.

    It also lent an added layer of confusion right up until the very end, as the MC didn't realize who her love interest really was.

  11. Great points here, with the recurring images. I've done this a little, and could/should do it more! :)

  12. You know, Davin, I think I realized I did this without knowing what it was called or having a label for it. I love recurring images in a book and think they give both the characters and the story more depth.

    Once again, the other day I was thinking of this without really having a good idea of how to describe it and then I hop over here to see you discussing the topic so clearly. What, are you a mind reader? ;-)

    Love the new blog heading! Also, where did the name "Domey" come from? I've been curious about this ever since I came back to the blog. I kept thinking, "Wait a minute. I thought I remember his name being Davin..."

    Just curious. =)

  13. This is a timely post for me, coming at a time when I'm halfway through the first draft a novel that is focused on particular memories. I've recently been thinking a lot about structure and the relationship between story and music. The recurring action or image is sort of like having a refrain. It doesn't have to be exactly the same way or with the same intention every time for it to retain its power and make its point. Sometimes the strings sing it, and sometimes the horns. Thanks for the post!

  14. I'm answering everyone really late. Sorry! ,

    Mizmak, that is a GREAT example of turning a recurring image into something more. That's fantastic!

    Robyn, Yeah, I like it when we have patterns that we don't notice right away. Like the way Mizmak worked it out, it can really be exciting.

    jbchicoine, heft is a great word to describe it. We want to make our characters feel heavy. :)

    Anne, it's fun when these elements in the story can serve double duty, huh? I never plan that, but I like it when it happens.

    Carol, it'll be fun to see how your writing changes as you go along. I'm surprised by how different my own stories are from one year to another. I assume it will plateau at some point, but maybe not.

    Ashley, everyone Thai person has a familiar name, or a pet name. Domey is my pet name, so I started using it to try and keep my writing separate from my science. I'm not sure if it's working, but we'll see!


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