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Literary Devices: Motif

If any of you follow my blog or know me on other social media (especially Facebook), you know that I’m a “yarnie”—that is, I’m addicted to yarn. I’ve had a renewed interest in knitting and crocheting this year, and I’ve been posting pictures on Facebook for months. Apparently, being a spec-fic geek wasn’t nerdy enough for me.

In textile arts, we often use motifs—repeated patterns of stitches or small elements that, when joined together, create a complete work. You might see motifs in quilts, afghans, or tablecloths where several squares are joined together to create a whole piece. Similarly, you can use motifs to add layers and depth to your writing and strengthen the theme or mood in your work.

What is a Motif?

Last week I mentioned that motif is closely related to theme, and that’s true. But theme is the bigger idea that you want to convey, whereas a motif is the specific repeated symbol, image, structural component, language, etc. that you use to convey the theme. A motif is concrete; a theme is abstract. For example:

I mentioned that a theme in Furies of Calderon is “brains over brawn.” How does Jim Butcher convey that theme? Every time Tavi comes up against some kind of magic, he has to think fast to survive—and sometimes save others—without magical skill. We get to see the structural cycle of danger from magic, fast thinking, safety repeated several times in Tavi’s story. That motif conveys the theme of “brains are more important than brawn (magic).”

George R. R. Martin uses the words (official and unofficial) of the various Westerosi houses in A Song of Ice and Fire as motifs that remind us of some of his themes. “Winter is coming” means, in part, “big scary zombie creatures are growing more powerful north of the Wall, and while you all sit here bickering over the Iron Throne, they get closer every day.” The theme might be “evil rises when men do nothing to stop it.”

In One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade tells a new story each night for 1,001 nights, but she doesn’t end it, hoping that the king’s curiosity about how the story ends will be enough to keep her alive for another day. It is, and the next night, she ends the story and begins a new one, and so the pattern is repeated. The theme, I think, is that creativity and a winsome manner can get you out of almost any scrape!

A motif can really be anything you wish

Symbols

If it can exist in the material world, it can be a symbol in your work. Airships, ravens, blood, swords, pearls, trees, yellow fabric—whatever you think can symbolize something important in your world.

Structural Elements

The frame story is a motif in One Thousand and One Nights because we see it repeated so many times. You might have a cycle you want to repeat in your work.

Language

Repeated words or phrases are obvious motifs, but you can also consider how to use style as a motif. Perhaps certain scenes or circumstances in your story call for a particularly poetic voice. This is a very subtle motif, but a reader who’s really paying attention might think, “oh, here’s the lyrical language—that always tells me something big is coming.”

Imagery

Slightly different from symbols, you can use common images to convey themes. Here’s where studying films and visual media can be really useful. How can you use weather or time or spatial elements to convey a theme? In Romeo & Juliet, there’s always some kind of visual hindrance to the titular characters actually seeing the other person’s face—it’s dark, for example, or they’re at a masked ball. The theme of “love is blind” comes through clearly—if Romeo and Juliet never see each other’s faces, how many other things do they miss, and are they truly in love? The image of darkness or blindness adds depth to the theme.

A few words of advice about motifs

Don’t Overuse Them

There’s a fine line between “just right” and “too much,” and it’s going to vary from reader to reader, but be cautious about overusing your pet motifs. Here’s where beta readers and editors can be really helpful. I know one of my betas one time said, “you really need to lay off with the (insert pet phrase here).” I hadn’t even realized I was using that one so often!

Be Intentional

One way to keep from overusing a motif, I think, is to be intentional about when you do use it. Just focusing on using it at certain times will help you recognize when you’re overdoing it.

Vary Them

Find a few different motifs to convey your theme. Use symbols and images in some places, language and structure in others. By varying the motifs, you add texture to your story and keep it fresh.

Place Them In Different Storylines

If you’re writing epic fantasy, chances are pretty high you have more than one point of view character. You probably also have a main plot and various subplots. One way to create unity of theme is to use the same or similar motifs in various POV scenes and plots.

Finally, think of motifs as Easter eggs for your reader. As a reader, I love discovering images, symbols, structural cycles, and the like in the stories I read. I always feel like I’ve made a deeper connection with the story, the characters, and especially the author. Your readers will appreciate you for immersing them more deeply in your world through the motifs you use.

Next week, as I continue the series on literary devices, I’ll look at foreshadowing.

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2 Comments

  1. Okay, I seriously want that stash of yarn in the picture. *wipes drool off the keyboard*

  2. Michaela says:

    As a fellow writer AND yarnie, I very much enjoyed this article. Well said, and great food for thought. Thanks!

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