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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). . . .

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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. . . . (Register for The Triarchy Method for full information)

. . . 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 . . . 

. . . 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 . . .

. . . 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

. . . 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. . . .

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

. . . 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. . . .

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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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