Unlock the Power of Motifs for a Compelling Story
A motif is a powerful literary technique you can use to captivate your audience through your story and make a strong thematic statement by the end. In this post, I give you the definition of a motif and examples, plus show you how to create effective motifs in your book, screenplay, or short story.
What is a motif in writing?
A motif is a recurring element in a story that plays a significant role in the story's overall message, or theme. Motifs can be abstract ideas, such as freedom or violence or guilt. However, they can also be physical parts of your story world, such as places, objects, colors, and sounds.
What's the relationship between a story's theme and motifs?
A story should have just one theme. The theme is the message the audience is left with after the story ends. For instance, "Hard work leads to success" may be the theme of a story.
Though a story's theme can be explicitly stated in it, often it is not. Instead, the audience infers the theme from the resolution of the story events. For example, if a story is about a protagonist who works very hard and is successful at the end, "Hard work leads to success" is a natural takeaway the audience would have.
On the other hand, let's say a protagonist works very hard, then is beaten out by a rival who cheats. "Hard work leads to success" would not be a message the audience would walk away with. Instead, the theme may be something like "Wiliness leads to success."
A motif expresses a concept that's related to the theme, though is not the theme. A story can have multiple motifs - each would cover a facet of the larger theme. In the story with the "wiliness leads to success" theme, the following could be motifs:
This story may feature a protagonist who engages in "hard work," squaring off against a villain who employs "deception." Story events occur in "skyscrapers," corporate arenas of battle. Various characters drive "cars" of different price points, signifiers of their level of financial success.
These four elements would surface multiple times through the story, in different ways, adding depth to the characters and plot while fortifying the impact of the theme.
What a motif is not
To understand what a motif is, you should also know what it's not. Just because a certain element may show up multiple times in a story does not mean it's a motif.
For instance, let's say you're telling a crime story with the theme "The legal system doesn't always deliver justice." The protagonist is a prosecutor. His sidekick is a junior lawyer who wears chintzy clothing and consistently tells funny stories about his disastrous dating life.
Dating would not be a motif of this story, neither would the chintzy clothing. Though the sidekick's funny comments and outfits may provide consistent comic relief in an otherwise serious story, they're not tied into the broader message, "The legal system doesn't always deliver justice."
On the other hand, here are some motifs a story like this could have:
Tips to create motifs in your story - with examples
I suggest you start by looking at the battle between your hero and villain. What's the main conflict in your story? What abstract idea does your protagonist embody? What about your antagonist?
For example, if you're telling a sci-fi thriller, you may feature "the rebellious citizen" (the hero) versus "the oppressive ruler" (the villain). The abstract ideas rebellion and oppression would be natural motifs for a story like this.
Next, ingrain the concept of rebellion into the parts of your story world your protagonist inhabits, and oppression into the areas where your villain operates.
Are there places you can associate with rebellion? Possibly the protagonist and his allies meet in an underground bunker to strategize. Are there places you can associate with oppression? For example, maybe the villain's government spies on the population from a high-tech surveillance facility.
Even further, are there objects, actions, images, or sounds you can tie to the ideas of rebellion and oppression?
For example, to avert the omnipresent spy microphones around the city, the rebels develop a way to communicate with sophisticated codes. Whenever the oppressive government catches a citizen acting out of order, blinding lights shine down on him.
This technique of associating an idea with a character, then extending that idea into the character's sphere in the physical story world, is not just reserved for your hero and villain. You can use it with other characters too.
However, your hero and villain's conflict should closely tie into your theme, which makes motifs built around these two characters very straightforward. If you're going to create a motif around another character, be sure that character represents a concept linked to the theme.
Symbols vs. motifs
A symbol is another of the devices writers use. It's a specific element in your story that represents a specific idea. Often they are physical-item motifs themselves (or represent an abstract-idea motif).
However, not all symbols have a direct connection to a story's theme, and not all symbols recur (requirements for motifs). Thus, a symbol can exist in a story completely outside the story's set of motifs.
Tips for writing symbolic motifs
If a symbol does happen to be a motif, you can convey a lot of strong thematic information by showing the symbol change through the story.
For instance, in the legal story we've been discussing, a mansion on a hill can represent the power of the wealthy. A young man who grew up there committed murder and now his family is wielding their clout to win the court case.
Early in the story, after the alleged murderer's charges are announced, a swarm of reporters closes in on the mansion to interview the defendant. However, the press can't get past the imposing gate.
Here, you'd be symbolically conveying, "Wealthy families are protected."
Later in the story, after the verdict is announced - not guilty - people in town turn on the killer's family. Locals who were close with the victim jump over the mansion's gate and set the house on fire.
In this story, even though the legal system does not deliver justice (the theme), those close to the victim are able to get a form of justice outside the courts by burning down the mansion.
Here, you'd be symbolically conveying, "Wealthy families are not protected from everyone."
Connecting story threads with motifs
Certain elements in your story may not be directly linked, yet, if they both contribute to the same motif, they become connected in the audience's mind. This association can be very impactful.
For example, let's say you're telling a story that takes place in various countries and time periods. "Courage in the face of danger" is a motif.
You show a young boy in America, risking himself to protect his family during the Civil War. Later, you show a young girl in Europe risking herself to protect her family during World War II.
These two characters are not directly connected in the physical world of the story - they are not even alive at the same time. However, since they both exhibit "courage in the face of danger," the audience will make the connection.
This association has a "2 + 2 = 5" synergy effect. The little boy's story thread becomes strengthened because of the association to the little girl's and vice versa. A human bond is evoked even though they've never met.
What writing genres use motifs?
Motifs can be applied to any fiction or narrative non-fiction genre, such as:
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