5 Different Applications of Narrative Motif Using the Simple Example of 'Coffee' | Ian Sutherland

5 Different Applications of Narrative Motif Using the Simple Example of ‘Coffee’

Just how much has coffee culture invaded our day-to-day life? If my crime thriller novel, Invasion of Privacy, is anything to go by it’s incredibly pervasive. As I near the end of writing its first draft, it’s clear to me that coffee culture has utterly permeated my own lifestyle. And not just because of the copious amount of coffee I’ve drunk during the writing of the book – a lot, by the way – but because sheer number of references to coffee throughout the novel.

A classic writing device is to replay a high level concept, or narrative motif, in multiple ways throughout a novel. Such creative repetition can offer the humble novel richness and depth. It plays to theme. It can elevate a story to a higher plain. Authors strive for such thematic greatness. Not all achieve it.

coffee-1Have I achieved it? With coffee? No, of course not. Well, not yet anyway. Maybe in the redrafts.

But what this does tell me is that I’m another willing participant in the UK’s latest cultural obsession. And as an author, this coffee culture has seeped its way into my book it all sorts of ways. Coffee houses serve as locations for scenes. Taste in coffee defines character traits, good and bad. And it seems that I’ve even found a way to use our coffeehouse culture as an intrinsic plot device. It’s fascinating to have written so many disparate scenes that involve coffee, blatantly and subtly, and to have not been completely conscious of it as a recurring motif at the time of writing. It’s only by looking back on the novel that I can see this common reference, adding subtlety and richness to the novel.

Let me share five different applications of coffee as a narrative motif from my novel:

1) Character Background:

The protagonist of the novel is a computer hacker called Brody. This profession makes Brody a natural loner, a classic bi-product of mostly living his life online rather than in the real world. This makes him a tough character to make interesting as, by default, the majority of his scenes are Brody interacting with the world through his computer. And every writer knows that scenes need conflict, which is best served through making characters interact with each other. To address this, I decided that he lived across the road from a coffee house. That way, some of his scenes could take place there, in a real-world situation with real people. A coffee house was a convenient way to achieve this. I couldn’t choose a pub or a bar. He’s a computer hacker. Alcohol and hacking don’t mix well, but caffeine is a well known bedfellow for hackers, the coke-drinking hacker being the epitome of hacking cultural imagery. And I think his desire to work on his laptop in the coffee house surrounded by other people tells the reader that, despite his own protestations, he needs the company of real people.

Brody entered Bruno’s, shaking the rain from his leather jacket. He loved that the cosmopolitan, independent coffee lounge wasn’t one of the coffee chains that had taken over every busy street in London where baristas operated in little more than factory lines, giving little thought to the quality or style of their craft. He particularly loved that in Bruno’s they waited the tables European style, bringing the coffee to you. But most of all he loved it more for being located opposite his home.

2) Character Traits

Taste in coffee defines good and bad character traits in my novel.  Da Silva, a career climbing police chief inspector, is first introduced drinking a Starbucks takeaway Venti Caffe Late, an huge 20oz (that’s 590ml in real money) steamed milk-shake with a splash of coffee in it. He is presented as not knowing what he is doing throughout the novel, and drinking coffee in this way is just another example.

Da Silva pivoted round, placed his massive black hands on the table and leaned forward. On the desk stood an improbably huge Starbucks takeaway cup.

Another character is one of the bad guys. Even the coffee shop barista, whom he sees as just another waiter, passes judgement:

He ordered an Americano from the foreign sounding waiter, who just about held back a tutt at Crooner’s choice, and sat back in the leather sofa

Needless to say, the novel’s two main protagonists are both coffee aficionados, with a preference for exquisite coffee.

3) Conflict:

My two main characters eventually meet in a public place. I had them choose an independent coffee house in Canary Wharf. One’s the hacker and the other’s a policewoman. Before I knew it, and without any planning on my part as the author, suddenly both characters were contending with each other over whether cappuccino should only be drunk at breakfast and how to pronounce Huehuetenango, a Guatemalan city whose prime export is exceptional coffee.

He pressed send on the text he had prepared earlier.

Your cappuccino is getting cold, DI Price.

He watched her receive the text and scan the room suspiciously. Eventually, she caught his eye in the reflection and held it. Brody nodded obligingly. She acknowledged him and then coolly turned away and approached the counter. He let a deep breath out, not realising he’d been holding it. He watched her order something and pay. She was given a numbered wooden block. They would bring her order over when it was made.

“I take it you’re not a cappuccino girl, then,” said Brody as she sat down opposite him, pushing the full cup to one side.

“I’ve already had my breakfast.”


“No, but I agree with Italian coffee etiquette. It makes sense.” 

4) Romance:

A shared love of coffee is something these two characters have in common, a device I was able to use to ground (no pun intended) their relationship with each other. And, sure enough, many scenes later the two of them are in a bar together late at night getting tipsy, alcohol lowering their inhibitions nicely. But, even here, coffee showed up again. This time in the guise of a very modern cocktail, an espresso martini, made from espresso coffee, Kahlua (a coffee liqueur) and vodka.

She ordered two espresso martinis. A few minutes later, two long-stemmed cocktail glasses containing a dark ochre liquid, with a cream top appeared. Brody was in unchartered territory. He watched Price sip hers and give an appreciating nod to the barman. Brody tasted his, taking time to savouring the unexpectedly pleasant combination of coffee and alcohol, made cold by the ice in the cocktail shaker.

“Kahlua, vodka and espresso,” Price explained.

“So simple.” Greedily, he took a larger sip.

“Nice moustache,” she said, leaning over to wipe the cream off his upper lip with the tip of her index finger. She studied her finger and then, self-consciously catching herself, demurely wiped it on a napkin. 

5) Plot:

From a technology point of view, one of the inherent dangers of coffeehouses is the insecurity of public wifi networks. Our modern day coffee shop culture is full of stories about people using their laptops and devices in them, connected to the internet via the in-house wifi. JK Rowling famously wrote most of the first few Harry Potter books in one in Edinburgh. But these unencrypted networks are a haven for hackers seeking to steal your identity. Being a novel with computer hacking at its core, and it was impossible to ignore. One of the critical scenes shows a hacker secretly breaking into someone else’s laptop over the coffee shop wifi.

With a stupid giggle he whipped out his own laptop and got to work.

He scanned the wireless networks within range. There was an unencrypted network called BrunoCoffee obviously provided by the coffee shop for its customers. He couldn’t see Fingal using that one. He fired up Kismet, his wifi hacking tool of choice. Like a dog tracking a scent, he let it sniff the air for a minute.

Transcending from Motif to Theme

Can ‘coffee’ act as a narrative motif? Of course it can. Any detail that is repeated for larger symbolic meaning is a narrative motif. Any idea, object, place or statement can form a narrative motif, to add depth, colour and resonance.

When I planned and wrote Invasion of Privacy, I set out to write a complexly-plotted novel all about a police investigation into a series of murders that has computer hacking as a major function of the plot. And I think I achieved that objective. But on the way, I seem to have commented on the UK’s current coffee culture obsession and, in so doing, ended up with narrative motif that adds depth and colour to my novel.

The question for me as I enter the editing stage of my book is whether my coffee motif plays into a larger theme. But at least, now that I’m aware of my use (or perhaps overuse) of the motif, I can tone it up or down to suit my thematic objectives for the novel. That’s assuming I’ve figured out what they are….!

What about you?

Do you plan your recurring motifs in advance? Or have you written something only to look back and see that ideas, objects, places, or statements have repeated themselves in multiple guises, forming an unplanned narrative motif. Can they happen completely subconsciously, with authors unaware of how society’s tastes and fads are permeating their work, hidden in their plot and characterisation choices?

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