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Motifs in Storytelling: How to Use This Literary Element to Weave a Stronger Story

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What are motifs and why should I care? You ask.

Good question. Motifs are an important literary device that will help you develop your story's theme.

Motifs add depth to stories, making them feel more intentional and meaningful.

It's the difference between a towel and a tapestry. A story without motifs is an ordinary kitchen towel. It'll do its job, but it's not spectacular in any way. On the other hand, a story with motifs is like a handwoven tapestry. It takes time, skill, and careful deliberation to hand weave a pleasing picture or meaningful design into a piece of fabric. It doesn't come together by accident, and that's how motifs work in stories.

Motifs add a level of intricacy to your storytelling and persuade the reader to pay attention.

But there's a right way and a wrong way to carry out motifs in your narrative.

In this post, we'll look at how to use motifs to build a stronger and more nuanced story.

What's a Motif?

Let's start with the basics.

Motifs are recurring elements in a novel. Motifs can be physical objects, images, actions, sounds, symbols, or abstract ideas. The most important thing to note about motifs is that they repeat themselves throughout the story. The elements may not appear in the same form, but they will share the same message.

For example, an author may wish to use ticking clocks, wristwatches, and hourglasses as a series of symbols to represent one motif (i.e. the passage of time). That motif will then tie into the story's main theme (i.e. the transience of life).

Motifs vs Symbols

Motifs in storytelling

Before we go too far, let's talk about symbols. Motifs sound a lot like symbols, so how are the two different?

A symbol is a concrete image or object that you use to illustrate a larger truth. For example, a trampled rose could illustrate death. A sunrise could represent new chances. A traffic jam could symbolize frustration.

Think of a symbol as a poetic way to draw attention to an idea or emphasize an emotion.

Symbols help the reader understand an abstract concept. And you can pepper in as many symbols as you'd like throughout your story. For example, you may use a skull to symbolize death or a season like spring to represent youth.

Symbols help with that good, ole show vs. tell directive that we as writers are commanded to obey.

Symbols only occur once.

As mentioned earlier, motifs can be symbols also. However, here's the difference between the two: Motifs repeat. They're not one-off. Symbols, when not a part of a motif, are one-time-only and used to represent a single abstract idea.

Motifs help the reader understand the story's theme. Motifs repeat to point the reader towards the story's big idea (i.e. its theme). It also serves to reinforce the theme.

Please note that motifs are not always symbols. They can be recurring sounds, emotions, settings, phrases, etc.

Motifs and Themes

Now, let's shift our focus to the theme.

If you haven't already, check out this post to help you understand the theme (and how to find the perfect one for your story).

The theme is the meaning of your story. It explains why your story happened in the way that it did. Through the theme, you can explore your opinion on a topic. This opinion is known as the thematic statement. The thematic statement is not directly spelled out, but it's the obvious message that the reader takes away from your story.

Let's say your novel is about family. That's the topic, and it's very generic. Your theme is more specific, focusing on the benefits of family or the responsibility of being in a family. Your thematic statement expresses your opinion on family, i.e. being a member of a family requires self-sacrifice and compromise.

The motif is the series of recurring elements that tie back to your theme.

How to Use Motifs in Your Novel

Motifs in storytelling

Now, let’s get into the good stuff. Here’s how to weave motifs into your novel.

While motifs are primarily used to illuminate the theme, they can perform other jobs, too.

Review Your Work

Assuming you haven’t published yet, it’s not too late to add a motif to your novel. Read through what you’ve already written. You may always have a few motifs in your story. Sometimes, writers subconsciously add motifs to their work in an effort to emphasize the theme. This may be the case with your work. If so, pinpoint existing motifs and then make them intentional.

Focus on Your Theme

Motifs and themes partner together. Focus on your main theme when deciding on which motifs to add to your story.

If your theme is about never giving up, think of what recurring concrete objects or symbols (etc.) that you can use in your narrative to underscore that theme. It could be a series of vignettes that you sprinkle through your story. In the story, your protagonist may interact with an ant, a bee, or another insect that never gives up.

Of course, don’t beat your reader over the head with symbolism. Don’t spell it out. Instead, casually draw attention to these symbols which will then illuminate your big idea.

Remember that motifs aren’t tied exclusively to the theme

While motifs are primarily used to illuminate the theme, they can perform other jobs, too. You can use motifs as a way to:

  • Foreshadow upcoming events
  • Establish the mood
  • Emphasize a character's emotions

Start Simply

Your motif can be as simple or as complex as you’d like. The most popular example of a motif in a literary work is found in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1920s novel, The Great Gatsby. In this novel, Fitzgerald uses the weather as a motif to describe the emotions of the characters. It also sets the tone. Note that it’s not a specific type of weather (such as rain or sunshine). Instead, in the book, the reader experiences a range of weather that acts as a symbol of how the characters are feeling or how the reader should feel about the characters/ events. Because weather recurs as a symbol throughout the story, it becomes a motif.

You can do something similar in your own story. Consider an element in the setting, such as weather, light/ darkness, temperature (hot/ cold), or colors to act as your motif. For example, if you use colors as a motif, you can draw attention to a specific color to describe an idea (i.e. red - passion, blue - trust, green - life, etc.). If you use one color, it’s a symbol. But if you continue to use colors throughout your narrative, this element becomes a motif.

Incorporate motifs into your outline

If you haven’t started writing yet, now’s the perfect time to outline. I’m a big fan of the story outlining because it saves time and eliminates writer’s block. Here’s more on the benefits of outlining.

Outlining your story can also help with motifs. Look at the main events in your story (this is the plot). Then, take in the big picture (this is the theme). Next, think of recurring elements that you can include in the main events that will point to the big picture.

Final Thoughts

Motifs emphasize your story's theme. One story can have many motifs that point to its central message. But it’s important to keep your motifs subtle and organic to the story. Obvious motifs are obnoxious and will turn the reader off.

For more literary devices to add to your novel, check out these related resources:

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