I first read North of Beautiful back after I heardJustina Chen speak at a SCBWI writers conference. She was lively and local (to me; she was living in the Seattle area) so I thought I should give her book a go. Whoa. I loved it. Really. And I read a lot of books for a lot of reasons; I don’t expect to love anything anymore—I just want to learn.
But I loved NoB and knew I wanted to write about it—eventually. But as life ground on, I completely forgot about the book, until a mentee asked me to review an article she was writing about the use of theme in How to Train Your Dragon. Reading her article, I knew she wasn’t referring to theme, but something else. I just couldn’t put my finger on the something else.
Then I read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted. In Twisted, Tyler, the main character, is sent to in-school suspension. There, his English teacher reviews symbolism, motif, and theme. I was a little ticked at LHA for not telling us readers the difference but, well, she wasn’t writing an English textbook. It did lead me to Wikipedia and a few other sources (come on! I’m a (relatively) responsible researcher) to look up the differences and that taught me about NoB.
Justina Chen is a master of motif.
According to Wikipedia (OK, sometimes I’m just a lazy researcher), motif is “any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme or mood.”
JC’s use of maps and mapping terminology is consistent, constant, and clearly helps build on the narrative’s themes of finding and accepting yourself.
The book’s cover includes a compass rose, and the title is “North” of Beautiful. I don’t usually include cover and title when learning about books because often the author has no or little say in these things, but, what the author definitively has a say in are the parts and chapter titles. And the motif continues throughout that structure: the three parts are titled “Terra Nullis” (null earth, Latin), “Terra Incognita” (unknown or untested earth), and “Terra Firma.” The theme of each part reflects the part’s title. In “Terra Nullis,” Terra feels awkward, hating her face (she has a port wine stain) and herself. She is unsure of her future, her relationship with her parents, and her art. She feels like she is nothing. In “Terra Incognita,” Terra starts exploring her options, working on her art, trying a new surgery. Her trials at becoming a self-confident independent young woman are random stabs in the dark, unknown and untested. In the third part, “Terra Firma”, Terra’s journey solidifies as she grows into herself.
JC keeps the motifs going with the book’s chapter titles. Titles include “The Topography of Guilt” (topography is the study of the surface of the earth), “Here be Dragons” (in reference to dragons old mapmakers drew in the margins where unknown lands lay), “Dead Reckoning” (the process of calculating your current position by using a previously determined position), and “Orientation.” While each chapter references some aspect of mapmaking, the chapter titles are not random.
In “Orientation,” Terra and Jacob meet; they swap stories, learning about each other and their current journeys (they meet in Leavenworth—which really is as JC describes it—halfway to their final destinations). Additionally in this chapter, Jacob, as a Chinese Goth with a scar from a cleft palate surgery, shows (orients) Terra to another way to deal with the stares she receives because of her port wine stain.
It keeps going. The use of mapmaking as motif continues with the character names: Terra (earth) and Terra’s brothers--Mercatur and Claudius. (As a side note, I first learned about the Mercator mapping system on The West Wing.)
JC uses mapping as subplots in the book as well. Terra’s father is a disgraced cartographer. Jacob introduces her to geocaching (a sport/hobby where you try to find “treasure” caches using GPS coordinates. If you have a smart-phone, there’s an app for that. The Boy and I have found a dozen or so caches so far and have introduced a whole mess of other kids to the adventure. If it hadn’t been for JC, I’d never have known about it!). Terra’s aunt leaves one of Terra’s father’s challenged maps torn in pieces as a cache treasure.
Additionally, JC, through Terra, uses maps as metaphors for Terra’s feelings:
“But all maps lie. … even the best maps distort the truth… Greenland balloons; Africa stretches.” Page 4
“But Erik was at my side like a lost adventurer chasing the North Star.” Page 20
“Unlike his cartographic namesake, Geradus Mercatur, Merc wasn’t just laying down lines for lands that had already been discovered, transferring a globe into a flat map. He was seeing the world.” Page 41
It goes on, throughout the book, instances of mapmaking changing lives; mapping terminology describing Terra’s thoughts and feelings; mapping as an activity to provide background for the characters.
Because mapping is used so heavily throughout the book, and it is tied so closely to the theme (you need a map to find something, even if it’s yourself), motif can easily be confused with theme. The two may overlap, and motif can be used to build theme, but motif is separate: a subset of theme.
I can’t help but think this use of motif would make a good story idea generator. Figure out your hobbies—knitting, horseback riding, sailing—anything with its own language. How can you use the language of your chosen hobby to show—anything? Then build a plot around that.
Regardless, when you’re ready to add another layer to your novel through revision, scan for any powerful images you’ve already used and see if you can’t repeat those images, even just two or three times, to build up your theme. And read North of Beautiful to see how a master does it.
Bonus! A few characters from JC’s Girl Overboard make a cameo appearance here.
Whine: Justina (can I call her Justina when I’ve only heard her speak and read her books? Or is that like stalking?) totally used the naked spa in her book before I could. Pout.
Post first appeared on my now-defunct blog in 2010
I'm Val Serdy, and I'm an editor. I love writing, and I love writing about writing.