Add Depth to your Story with Motifs!

Motifs—What the heck are they and why should you use them in your writing?

I will admit that, as a writer, I have often been asked, “What’s your book about?” but I’ve never even once been asked, “What are the motifs in your book?” It would appear that no one really thinks or cares about motifs, so why would a writer care to include them?

The answer is simple—motifs can add a layer of depth and meaning to your writing without being heavy-handed or interfering with your plot.

Do you want your book to have something central that helps create a sense of unity throughout? Do you want something to resonate through the beginning, middle, and end of your book to help tie it all together? A strong motif (or two!) may be just what you need.

So what exactly is a motif? (Don’t worry if you’re unsure… it’s not a word that people use a lot and you may have intentionally purged it from your memory after you finished that class in literary analysis. :D)

There are many definitions available for the word “motif.” This one comes from dictionary.com:

“A recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.”

Motifs differ from symbols in that they recur, weaving back into the story in ways that couldn’t be purely coincidental. This recurrence helps the reader to notice the importance of the motif and to recognize that it has significance beyond its literal meaning.

Likewise, a motif is different from the overall theme of a story. Where the theme is the central or universal idea conveyed by a story, the motifs exist to support or reveal that idea.

Still confusing? Here come the concrete examples!

SPOILER ALERT: The examples below contain spoilers. Please don’t read an example if you haven’t read the book/seen the movie!

In George Lucas’s movie Star Wars, (Episode IV, A New Hope) the color of each main character’s clothing serves as a motif. Luke wears all white, as does Leia, suggesting goodness. Darth Vader’s clothing is all black, which contrasts Luke and Leia and suggests the evil in him. Han wears a black vest over a white shirt, which would suggest his ambivalence between good and evil. (These examples might count as symbols if the character wore that color just once, in a key scene. The fact that these clothing colors recur throughout the film makes them a motif.)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the weather is a motif. Gatsby’s initial reunion with Daisy occurs in the pouring rain, suggesting sadness and regret. As the sun comes out, their love renews. Gatsby’s confrontation with Tom occurs on the hottest day of the year, suggesting they have each reached the “boiling point,” and his showdown with Wilson occurs on the first day of autumn, which suggests the coming coldness of death.

In Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, Roman names are a motif. Cinna, Cato, Portia, Octavia, and Flavia are all names associated with Rome. The name of the country, Panem, is also a common Roman word meaning bread. This motif suggests that the world as we now know it (especially the United States, which in the book collapsed and gave rise to Panem,) could one day see the rise of a new Rome.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, hallucinations serve as a motif. Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air as he is about to kill Duncan. Later, he sees the ghost of his friend Banquo, whose murder he had ordered. Lady Macbeth imagines that there are spots of blood on her hands that she can’t wash off. These hallucinations suggest the destructive power of violence and guilt.

What do you think of motifs? Do you feel they add something to the books you read? Do you think they are worth including in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

     

19 Responses to Add Depth to your Story with Motifs!

  1. Megan Duff Jun 11 2012 at 9:52 am #

    You are so right! I rarely hear people talk about motifs.

    Admittedly when I am studying for an English class *coughSparkNotescough* I do have to consider the motifs. But when I am just reading a book for fun or working on my own writing motifs never come.

    I think its time to re-examine my WIP and see what sort of depth I can add with motifs…

    Very eye opening post, thank you!

  2. Julie
    Julie Jun 11 2012 at 1:06 pm #

    Hey Megan, I definitely first heard about motifs in lit class, but since I learned to recognize them, I really do think they add that extra layer of meaning to writing. I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! 🙂

  3. Kat Zhang
    Kat Zhang Jun 11 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    Great post, Julie! I love motifs 😀 They’re my favorite essay topic in class, haha. To be honest, though, I didn’t start thinking about putting them into my own stories until quite recently. It’s something that requires a light touch, I think 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 11 2012 at 2:21 pm #

      Hey Kat – yes, I agree that you can’t be heavy-handed with motifs. I think I learned the GATSBY example above in a class and had to run back to the book to confirm it! 🙂

  4. JoSVolpe Jun 11 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Great post, Julie! I think that when motifs are done well they can *definitely* add a rich layer to the narrative that has the potential to make a story stand out from the fray. Good advice.

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 11 2012 at 3:13 pm #

      Thanks Jo! I agree that a motif that is subtly woven into the narrative can really enhance a story. 🙂

  5. Myra Jun 11 2012 at 3:01 pm #

    Love this! Great post, Julie, and you’re absolutely right about it adding another layer to the story. 🙂 My favorite motifs are those that pop up unintentionally and surprise you when you realize that there are these recurring motifs throughout your novel.

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 11 2012 at 3:51 pm #

      Hi Myra! I love that too! That feeling when you reach the middle of the book and you think, “Is this a coincidence?” It gives that extra layer of discovery to reading. 🙂

  6. April Tucholke Jun 11 2012 at 3:04 pm #

    From Star Wars to Shakespeare. Awesome.

    Motifs can be cool, though I rarely notice them outside of writing papers back in college. But for the people that want to go looking for something deeper than character arcs and plot–well, motifs provide a sort of secret code for them to break. Which is cool. That said, I once wrote a paper exposing vampire motifs in everything from FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD to WUTHERING HEIGHTS. And I backed it up. So….

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 11 2012 at 3:54 pm #

      I love your analogy of a secret code, April! But your other point is a good one – I think motifs are one of those elements of fiction that readers sometimes believe lit professors like to invent. (Obviously, the paper you wrote proves that they CAN be invented!) Thanks for your comment; I’d love to read that paper! 🙂

  7. Marc Vun Kannon Jun 12 2012 at 6:31 am #

    My son and I were just discussing this topic on the way home from Printers Row last night, in the context of book covers. We were considering a motif for the covers of my series that would be appropriate to the books and tie them together as a series, which is another thing motifs can do. They are also good for foreshadowing purposes, as well as cliffhangers.

    Luke’s clothing in Star Wars was also indicative of his growing maturity. In New Hope the white symbolizes innocence, in Empire he wears the Brown of a journeyman, in Jedi he wears the Black of Mastery.

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 12 2012 at 6:46 am #

      Hey Marc, thanks for your comments – great points! Definitely – visual motifs in cover art can convey a lot, and yes! Luke’s clothing definitely reflects his character arc. Thanks! 🙂

  8. Erin Bowman
    Erin Bowman Jun 12 2012 at 9:49 am #

    Julie, this is such a fantastic post! Motifs are definitely something I usually don’t recognize unless I’ve read a novel multiple times. Like April, the first read I’m usually too busy digesting plot and characters to pick up on the subtleties of motifs. In THG, I picked up on the Roman influence(s), but only on the second or third read, whereas I totally missed the weather motif in TGG when I read it in HS. I bet my teachers harped on it though! 🙂

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 12 2012 at 8:39 pm #

      Hi Erin! I agree that motifs can be difficult to pick up on, and I think I like them all the more for it – the subtlety makes them like a hidden bonus if you’re willing to give a book a really close read. And yes! I think the first time the weather motif in GATSBY was pointed out to me, I couldn’t believe it, it’s sooooo subtle. (But I do think a teacher was the one to point it out. :D)

  9. Marlo Berliner Jun 13 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Very helpful post! Thanks, Julie!

    • Julie
      Julie Jun 13 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Hey Marlo! I’m so glad you liked the post! It’s so great to get feedback that a particular post is helpful. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  10. John Feb 22 2013 at 3:27 pm #

    Just found this site while searching about motifs. I don’t write Novels but Screenplays and had never thought about motifs really until today while I was doing some writing for my next Screenplay. I think I was just thinking of ways to ramp up my story. I pretty much don’t think about theme and just write my story out and build my characters. My theme usually comes from my main character. I just don’t try to force it.

    As for motif. I think as I was writing today it just kind of kept coming up with my character and things within my story. So I was like what am I doing? Come to find out I was adding motifs and didn’t know it. It might have happened from reading books or just writing for so long I juts began doing it unconsciously, so I started expanding on it. It for sure adds layers to your story in my opinion.

    • Julie Eshbaugh
      Julie Eshbaugh Feb 23 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      Hey John! Yes, I think you are onto something about the motifs showing up in your writing almost automatically, and I do think that can happen from having read a LOT of well-written books or, as you point out too, just from writing so long. I’m glad you found our blog. Thanks for the comment!

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