Recurring motifs
October 22, 2012 8:05 PM   Subscribe

What's the word for the re-deployment of a story element (character, object, motif, action) that was introduced earlier in the narrative?

For example, protagonist is shown in act one sweating it at a tae-bo class; then in act three uses her newfound tae-bo skills to beat up a mugger. Or a character is shown opting for vertiginous stilettos in act one, and then in act three, trips over at the fateful moment because her heels are too high. Or a narcissistic personal trainer with rippling biceps is glimpsed in passing in act one, and then in act three, is reintroduced when the protagonist is revealed to be dating them.
posted by dontjumplarry to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you thinking of Chekov's Gun?
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:08 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're describing different sorts of foreshadowing, for one thing. There's also the related concept of callback, which is a little different.
posted by griphus at 8:16 PM on October 22, 2012

Also, depending on how obvious the foreshadowing is, it could be referred to as telegraphing, but that is usually a term of derision rather than an objective phrase.
posted by griphus at 8:18 PM on October 22, 2012

This is the TV Tropes page for foreshadowing. Click the links they have there, then try to read all of your tabs. Foreshadowing itself is the set-up portion, but I think you're looking for a name for the 'payoff', where all of the setting-up done along the way gets put to use. TV Tropes will likely walk you through several different types of playoff, as well as different ways to structure the story so that 'foreshadowing' happens at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.
posted by carsonb at 8:22 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Foreshadowing is close, but it seems to refer specifically to clues that predict a pivotal later event.

The concept I have in mind is (I think?) slightly different. It's the near-universal principle that good storytelling will tend to repeat motifs, objects and events mentioned earlier on. In Seinfeld, for example, where George jokes about hating Mad About You, then at the end of the episode is in bed having to watch Mad About You with Susan because it's her favourite show. Or in Citizen Kane, how "Rosebud" reintroduces the sled from the beginning of the movie. These aren't examples of foreshadowing crucial plot points so much as repetitions of earlier motifs, to pleasurable effect.

I thought that the concept began with re-, but I may be wrong. Can't remember if it was from narratology/Russian formalism, or maybe even Robert McKee?
posted by dontjumplarry at 8:48 PM on October 22, 2012

Was going to suggest Chekhov's gun but then realized that Tomorrowful already beat me to it.
posted by komara at 9:02 PM on October 22, 2012

Might you be thinking of a reprise?

In comedy, I'd call it a callback -- that's the lingo for it in standup, when a comic has a bit near the end of a set where the punchline calls back to an earlier bit. Your Seinfeld example is pretty much how it works in narrative form.

See also bookends.
posted by Sys Rq at 9:18 PM on October 22, 2012

If not reprise, maybe leitmotif? Usually refers to music, but I've seen it applied to words, too.
posted by sonmi at 9:29 PM on October 22, 2012

"Setup and payoff."
posted by steinsaltz at 10:59 PM on October 22, 2012

I'm just seeing these as regular old exposition, or if you want to be a little snide, "laying pipe". They're all examples of giving the audience information they'll need later on in order to understand the story.

I think you're being thrown by the separation in time from the element being introduced to the element being used. That's understandable, but just remember the rule that plot elements should be given to the audience as soon as possible as they'll feel ripped off when those elements come together.
posted by bswinburn at 11:13 PM on October 22, 2012

I haven't got the book to hand, but I'm pretty sure in Keith Johnstone's Impro, he calls this "re-incorporation".
posted by crocomancer at 1:16 AM on October 23, 2012

Brick Joke.
posted by wayland at 3:20 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yes, it's reincorporation and Improv is where I read it. Thanks AskMe!
posted by dontjumplarry at 4:22 PM on October 23, 2012

Oh hey I have that book laying around here somewhere. Should read it maybe.
posted by carsonb at 7:53 PM on October 23, 2012

I highly recommend it. I heard of it in an earlier AskMe thread. The chapter on status transactions really made me understand how you can "play" conversations in very different ways, and the stuff on narrative and how not to block is just really useful in all kinds of situations.
posted by crocomancer at 2:58 AM on October 24, 2012

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