4/7 – Motif, Riff, Juxtaposition in the Lyric Essay

Daily warm up: Make a case for your favorite fruit. Do not turn this into an academic/persuasive essay. Focus on stories or experiences with the fruit as your “case.”

Today’s focus: We’re going to look at three of the main tools of a lyric essay together: motif, riff, and juxtaposition.

  • motif – a recurring image, object, or idea that often points to a symbol or a theme.

FOR EXAMPLE: In “The Scarlet Ibis,” a short story most of you read as 9th graders, the scarlet ibis is a bird, and an important symbol in the story. But if there were several different birds (robins, blue jays, geese), and even lots of words that had to do with birds in the story (bird, hover, fly, soar, peck), then it would be a MOTIF.

  • riff – a short combination of notes that you might come back to again and again in a piece of music, using it as a starting point and then doing something different afterward

FOR EXAMPLE: In STAR WARS, there is a “riff” that’s played every time Darth Vader comes on screen (or is coming on screen). You know it?

There is also a famous riff for JAWS when the shark is lurking nearby.

You never know what’s going to happen next, exactly–but it’s a great clue that someone familiar is going to be there soon.

  • juxtaposition – putting something where it doesn’t seem to belong, typically next to something that shows us something new

FOR EXAMPLE: I recently read a YA book called WINGER. In that book, there is a high school student who is gay, out,  and also an active, successful player on the rugby team. It’s pretty unusual to have a gay student play a hyper-masculine sport like rugby in a YA novel.

That’s a juxtaposition that got me thinking about why there aren’t MORE books like that…and that maybe there should be.

Next, we’ll look at a sample lyric essay called Fat Studies from Phoebe, a respected literary journal.We’ll read the first few sections together and talk about the motifs, riffs, and juxtapositions we see. For example:

  • motif – the experts she refers to
  • riff – the Kennedy family
  • juxtaposition – the structure of the essay juxtaposes a lot of different scenes, memories and experiences (one in each section)

Today’s experiment: I’m going to ask you to write a “________ Studies” lyric essay of your own. Fill in the blank with something meaningful for you. I might write “Mom Studies” or “Marriage Studies” for myself.

Then write four sections of a lyric essay (sections are separated by a * in the “Fat Studies” essay). ONE of your sections could be a single sentence, if you like.

This is not an assignment you’re likely to finish in class. As a result, you’ll need to finish at home tonight.


2 thoughts on “4/7 – Motif, Riff, Juxtaposition in the Lyric Essay

  1. stareenite October 21, 2016 / 11:16 am

    Reblogged this on stareenite and commented:
    Love this short unpacking of the lyric essay!

    • aborgergermann November 21, 2016 / 3:56 pm

      Just seeing this now–I only use the site when I’m actively teaching the course. Thanks for your kind comment! 🙂

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