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Monday, August 17, 2020

Mastering Motifs for Thematic Power

Today I want to talk about a topic that for much of my life I could care less about--no really, I could care less about motifs. From me, they always got the metaphorical shoulder shrug. Like, who cares when there are so many other more important things to focus on in writing?

Turns out (as what often happens) I didn't care about them because I didn't fully understand them.

I also feel that part of this stems from the fact that I don't think we do a very good job teaching theme in our society.

It was only when I started really understanding theme, that I started caring about motifs.

Because no one told me growing up (unless I was asleep during that class somehow) that motifs are used in conjunction with theme.

I was only ever told that a motif was a recurring . . . thing in a story. The "thing" can be an object, an action, a word or phrase, a concept, a sound, a color, a--I think you get why I use the word "thing." But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Instead, let's first start with a topic we are all familiar with: symbolism.

What Symbolism Actually is

I sometimes dislike the word "symbolism" because I feel like it implies the need to "decode" something, as if it's a secret message that you can only get if you are smart or "in the know."

I won't say it's never such a thing, but I will say that often that is not the actual point of symbolism.

Mostly, at its heart, I feel that symbolism is a means to communicate something abstract in a more concrete way (which as writers, is something many of us will be all too familiar with).

Take the U.S. flag for example. I mean, literally, it's just a piece of fabric with some stars and stripes--does it really deserve such respect and tender care? But here's the problem. The ideas U.S.A. is founded on are things that are abstract: liberty and equality. How do you show respect to abstract concepts?

You can't very easily.

So you have to give it concrete form. It's not the fabric that actually matters. It's the abstracts the flag represents.

Symbolism can also communicate multiple things at once, more quickly. For example, we could open the rodeos with a long speech about liberty and equality. Or we could just raise the American flag, which communicates that.

I could write out that it's important to wear your seat belts when sitting down at a ride at Disneyland in a bunch of different languages, or I could just use an image of a person belted in his or her cart. And anyone can understand that.

Language itself is a symbol (a "signifier" if you want to get specific), but I won't get into linguistics.

Symbolism is simply another form of communication, of conveying something that isn't a literal, present, or concrete thing at that time. Not something you need a high IQ to "decode."

And as writers and readers, surely we know or have at least felt the impact of communicating abstract ideas, feelings, and experiences through concrete means (which is largely what storytelling is all about). "Showing" (concrete) is more impactful than "telling" (abstract).

For some, it might be helpful to think of symbolism as just another language. 🤷‍♀️

What a Motif Actually is

So, most of us are familiar with symbols. Some are very arbitrary:

red light = stop

A red light actually has nothing to do with stopping. We just decided it meant that.

And some are very cultural:

bald eagle = freedom

But some are more universal.

water & food = sustenance and life

Because all of us need water and food to live, using water and food symbolically in a story, in this way, will more likely connect with all readers. (Though sometimes that makes such symbolism too "on the nose" for the reader, depending on how it is rendered.)

And sometimes a symbol will mean something only within the context of the story. In Songbirds and Snakes, birds symbolize John Locke's views on freedom and government, while snakes symbolize Thomas Hobbes's views on freedom and government.

BUT with that said, both birds and snakes also have a history of symbolism--birds, of freedom and harmlessness, and snakes, of being dangerous and deceiving--so Collins is also tapping into a larger cultural symbolism by choosing those animals.

So what is a motif?

A motif is more or less a symbol (I'll explain the "more or less" in a sec)--not in the sense that it has a "hidden" meaning to "decode," but in the sense that it's communicating something bigger, much like a symbol does. A key difference that we are often taught about motifs, is that a motif will recur through the story. A symbol, such as mentioning a bald eagle, may not.

But it's not just the fact that the motif recurs that makes it great (I mean, who really cares? So what?), it's that its recurrence lends power to resonance, mood, and--most importantly--theme, for that story.

Let's consider an example to explain what a motif is and what it looks like. Then we will talk about how it functions.

A motif in the movie Frozen is doors--they appear in significant ways multiple times:

- Anna knocks on Elsa's door to build a snowman

- After the accident, Elsa closes her bedroom door and refuses to open it, even for Anna

- The doors of their castle have been closed for over a decade

- The doors are finally open for coronation

- Anna sings about how love is "an open door" while dancing among doors

- Elsa runs off, creates a palace, sings "turn away and slam the door," and slams her door at the end.

- Kristoff delivers Anna and the door shuts on him

- Hans closes the doors and windows (I should mention windows are also parallel to the doors in the film)

- When Elsa is imprisoned, the doors are forced open

- At the end of the story, the castle's doors are open. Elsa says "We are never closing them again."

Clearly doors are recurring objects that are used in significant ways.

And literally, in real life, doors are used to let people in and/or keep people out.

So what do they mean in this story?

Well, like the thematic statement, by the end of the story, they communicate being open to love.

But also like the thematic statement, they don't reach that final form until the end.

In a sense, at the end, they become a set, direct symbol. They reach a conclusion.

I hope if you've been following me for a while, that some of this is starting to sound a little familiar.

Because this is also how theme works.

Remember, when you are working with a theme, you have a theme topic. Through the course of the story, you will explore this topic from different perspectives. After the audience fairly visits with each perspective, the plot will culminate to a conclusion about the theme topic that is true (in the context of the story), the thematic statement.

The theme topic(s) of Frozen is isolation and authenticity/acceptance (which in turn taps into love).

Just as these topics are explored, so are the doors.

This means we will see the presence of doors in different perspectives--in different contexts in the story.

- Anna is constantly opening doors (and windows) to let things in and knocking on doors to be let in. She views open doors as something very positive and closed doors as something negative.

- Elsa is constantly closing doors or keeping doors closed. She feels she can only be authentic when she's alone. She views closed doors as something positive and open doors as something negative. She loves privacy.

- Other characters see the castle's open doors in different ways. Some see them as a happy occasion for celebration. Others see them as an opportunity to infiltrate.

- Each view is fairly explored. Elsa's doors do keep her and others safe--when people come into her ice palace, they try to kill her; when Anna is let in, Elsa almost kills her. But she's also cold and isolated, incapable of giving or receiving love. Anna, on the other hand, does get to enjoy life and celebrate and connect with others when the doors are open. She wants to love people and have relationships--that is a good thing. But at the same time, she's so open ("Love is an open door!") that she lets enemies directly into her heart.

The doors mean different things to different people, in different situations, and they appear in different contexts.

This is exactly one of the reasons the motif need be recurring.

As the motif recurs over and over, it accumulates different feelings and meanings. If it didn't, it'd just be annoying, because it's literally hitting the same idea over and over again. This makes the motif more complex and also more resonating to the audience.

And worth noting is that a great story will often have more than one motif. For example, another one in Frozen is snow/ice (a bit more obvious, but there ya go).

Similarly, Collins uses birds and snakes multiple times, creating two motifs that represent two different sides of her thematic argument (Locke vs. Hobbes). Each are explored in different contexts and from different perspectives. What each is and ultimately means is clearer by the end. Only when you fully explore both caged and free snakes and both caged and free birds, can you come to a conclusion about each argument.

A motif can be more than an object or animal. In M. Night Shyamalan's Glass, color and color saturation are used as a motifs. (Yes, I hear some people groaning cause they hate Shyamalan and/or Glass, but I actually like most of his work, and I loved that trilogy. In any case, even if you hate them, it doesn't make the motifs nonexistent.)

Each of the three key characters wear a specific color, meant to tap into that color's symbolism:

Glass wears purple, a color of royalty--as sort of the "master mind," he sees himself as being over others, of being regal and important.

The Horde wears mustard yellow, a color associated with religious ceremonies for Hindus and Buddhists, because they see The Beast as sort of a savior or preacher.

David Dunn, The Overseer, wears green, a color associated with life, giving life, because he's a protector of life.

The theme topic of Glass is belief/disbelief in (some)one's extraordinary abilities.

Sometimes this centers on the character's belief/disbelief that he himself is extraordinary, and other times it centers on getting others to believe/disbelieve in the extraordinary.

In fact, this is really the theme topic of the entire trilogy (Unbreakable, Split, and Glass).

The colors are rich, much like a comic book superhero's, when there is belief in something extraordinary. The colors become faded when there is disbelief.

Rich, dark colors = belief

Faded colors = disbelief (interestingly, notice Glass has a deeper colored blanket 😉)

We see the colors repeatedly, in different settings, contexts, and saturations (yes, I just made "saturation" plural--I'm not sure that's technically a word).

(Admittedly, it's hard to see the purple here, because it's under a jacket and behind a scarf)

Purple used in a comic book store

Green used in a comic book store

The colors reach a final form that mimics the thematic conclusion (on multiple levels), in the final shot:

To some extent, even the people within The Horde have different saturations (as much as is possible, given the single-body limitations 😅)

A motif can also be a sound or dialogue. Hamilton is full of motifs, but the most obvious is the word "shot" used in conjunction with gunshots.

- "I'm not throwing away my shot"

- "Have another shot"

- "Laurens, do not throw away your shot"

- "So I'm gonna take a shot"

- "Fire your weapon in the air."

- Actual gunshots (sometimes in songs that don't have any guns present)

- Onomatopoeias of gunshot sounds: "Chick-a-plao," "boom," "buck, buck, buck, buck," "click boom."

All in different contexts, with different meanings, and perspectives, which again culminates into the final shot at the climactic moment.

Other obvious motifs include:

- "I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory"

- "Rise up"

- "Look around, look around"

- "Wait for it"

- Counting 1 - 10 (in both English and French)

- "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . ."
During climactic moments, Lin-Manuel Miranda smashes together motifs to create a more powerful effect on the audience, such as at the midpoint ("Non-stop"), the climax of the middle ("Hurricane"), and in the actual climax at the end ("The World was Wide Enough"). Because these phrases resonate with complexity in the audience, they create a more emotional moment. 

Because a motif is repeated at different times, it can also work to establish a mood. "How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore . . ." sets us up to learn something new about Hamilton and/or sets us up for a transition. But it's also thematic, emphasizing how Hamilton came from the bottom of society and worked his way up.

Just as there are often secondary theme topics, there are often secondary motifs.

"Shot" is the primary motif, as it is associated with the primary theme topic (legacy). "Shot" will be used at the beginning, middle, and end, and will be used most often.

The more important the motif, the more likely it needs to appear in each segment: beginning, middle, end. Good places may be near the inciting incident/Call to Adventure (or, at least when answering that call), near the midpoint, near the climax of the middle (The Ordeal), and near the actual climax. This all happens with "shot" (and then some).

Secondary motifs need not always be so prevalent.

The association between the motif and the theme topic can be arbitrary. After all, what does the richness in color have to do with belief/disbelief, innately? Nothing. With that said, often there may be some connection, as with doors and isolation (I mean, if you want to be alone, slam shut the door), or with "shot," which is all tied into Hamilton's legacy--and historically, it was. He fears that the final shot will be his actual legacy, and frankly, it pretty much was, as it was the only thing people remembered about him until the musical got popular. That's more of a personal connection, whereas doors are more of a universal connection.

Like actual theme, intentionally writing a motif can be tricky. For a lot of people, it's better to see what starts to speak to you when you are working, and develop that. Just as a theme topic will begin to emerge as you plan your story, motifs may begin to emerge as well. Or, if you are more of a plotter, there is nothing that says you can't start with a motif right out of the gates. As long as you remember, that like the theme topic, it needs to be shown from different perspectives through the story, you'll likely be okay. Do what works for you.

. . . and that's everything I wish someone had explained to me about motifs. 
More examples


  1. This is an excellent piece! Love the contemporary examples. Sharing with my English teacher friends. Thank you!

    1. Hi Delaney, thanks! I did originally plan an using at least one example from a classic (as classics are what are often referred to when talking about motifs), but my heart led me elsewhere. And it was fun to look at contemporary motifs. Thanks for commenting.

  2. There is nothing I love better than to get into the weeds of story craft with topics like this. I will def be adding motifs to my list of editing tasks.

    1. Hi Lissa,

      I had fun writing it as well. And I'll also be paying more attention to motifs from now on. Thanks for reading!


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