So here’s a fun thing: another prof wrote to me yesterday, asking if I’d given a student permission to use some of my course graphics for a paper. “It was a kind of graph of motifs in a short story called ‘Bright Morning Stars,’ by a writer I’m not familiar with. Good story, though.” Well friend, you’re probably not familiar with it because it’s a fanfic by aderyn. I used it in an intro to media studies class, to illustrate 1) how to do a formalist reading of lit, and 2) that you can read fanfic as lit. It’s not the greatest lesson, but was a lot of fun to put together. Here’s how it worked:

I started with the piece itself, a 221B called “Bright Morning Stars.”


“Bright Morning Stars” comes from aderyn’s series Compounds or Stars. It’s a beautiful series, organized around the themes of love and knowledge: John knows and loves the stars, Sherlock knows and loves the chemical compounds. It’s a bit as if they love each other from opposite ends of the cosmos, Sherlock from the smallest and most everchanging details, John from the largest and most lasting totalities. (Two of the pieces, “Uncommon Knowledge” and “Uncommon Affection,” embody these themes very explicitly, and use the same epigram from Olive Schreiner: “There are only two things that are absolute realities, love and knowledge, and you can’t escape them”.) “Bright Morning Stars” describes 221B as a little cosmos of its own, Sherlock and John in separate rooms at separate times, meditating on what they do and don’t know.

I began by going over the canon references, explaining the episodes each came from and their places in the plot. I also tried to touch on the thematic resonances of each one. For instance, in the second paragaph, those references come from The Great Game and Hounds of Baskerville, but they’re also all about light and vision, about recognizing things, illusions being broken: those laser sights were focused on John, who for one terrible moment could have been Moriarty; the freakish diasters of the labs were part of the hallucinations of the eyes of the dogs.

Then I set out to show how the motifs work, how repeated patterns of reference give unity, depth, and meaning to a piece. “Bright Morning Stars” uses motifs of light, stars, and bodies to capture Sherlock and John’s relationship. I went through each motif, highlighting and briefly discussing each appearance, and then showing how they form a cord running through the piece. The point was to get students from simply reading for the plot and get them looking at the language. Here are the stars, in blue:


Aderyn chooses words and images that call up stars, either explicity or in connotation, and the pattern rings through the piece, a kind of through-line with its own momentum.


Here are the references to light:

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This is an excellent piece on one of the elements of literary analysis, but it’s also a great demonstration of one of the subtler techniques in writing.  Repeating images through your metaphors this way is a powerful method for evoking theme and a rich sensory experience in the story simultaneously.  

When you come away from a story with a powerful sense of What It’s About—Sherlock and John as a binary star system, for example—chances are you didn’t come up with that notion spontaneously.  In fact, those words probably cropped up in the story several times, and if the writer was skilled enough you may have glided through those words and even admired them without ever quite noticing what you were absorbing.

Aderyn rides it harder here than writers usually do in a longer work, because the whole point of this 221b is to essentially draw an image in the air, and in 221 words, you don’t need to worry as much about getting repetitive as you would if you used it too often in a longer work.

Still. even in a novel it’s a technique you’re likely to find in scenes that are pivotal or high emotion.  Or, sometimes, writers will bring it in especially on the low-key scenes, to give them punch when they might otherwise feel slow or lacking in meaning.  (Ivy Blossom is a good one to check out for this.  It’s one of the ways The Quiet Man feels so full when in some ways not much is happening.)

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