Motifs? Most writers don’t really know what they are, but they can make the difference between an okay book and a terrific one. Since we’ve just discussed the topic theme in recent posts (by looking at some of my favorite movies), now would be a good time to look at motifs. Not many writers consciously plan out motifs to use in their novel, but sometimes they come naturally into the story. Motifs are symbolic elements packed with inference, but they don’t have to appear in your story as an actual item. Motifs can be a word or phrase, a concept, an image—just about anything that can be repeated with significance and symbolism. The weather can be a motif, for example, if each time something terrible is about to happen, “lightning” strikes.
Using motifs in writing fiction is one of the most powerful and evocative ways of getting across your themes in your novel. Few authors use them, and few use them well. My favorite novels of all time are ones that use motifs beautifully throughout their novel, and these elements weaving through their stories tend to stay with me for months and years after I’ve read the book. Why is that, and just what are motifs and how can they be utilized effectively in fiction?
A Splash of Color
Two definitions of motif in Merriam-Webster’s give a good feel for what a motif is: “a dominant idea or central theme; a single or repeated design or color.” Think about a motif as a splash of color that you are adding to your story palette—a very noticeable, specific color that appears from time to time and that “blends in” beautifully with the overall picture you are painting. As an example, you could say that I just introduced a motif in this discussion by using the concept of color to emphasize my theme.
Motifs can be an object, an idea, a word or phrase, a bit of speech—and you can combine these in your novel to create richness. I like to have at least two or three motifs woven in my novel, and I’ll give you an example by referring to my contemporary drama/mystery Conundrum.
Motifs with Double Meanings
In Conundrum, my protagonist, Lisa, is searching to uncover the truth regarding her father’s bizarre death twenty-five years earlier. Her interest and effort is prompted by her brother’s suicidal bipolar condition, which she believes is exacerbated by the myths and burdens surrounding their father’s death. So as Lisa embarks on this journey, I brought into play a number of motifs. The first is obvious—the word conundrum, which is the overall theme and serves as the title. The best use of a motif is in your title, and a great title will tie in to your book’s theme, often as both a motif and a double meaning. for example—Jodi Picoult’s book titles often do this, as seen in Saving Faith (faith being both the girl character’s name and hinting at her need of being saved) and Plain Truth (where plain refers to the Amish people by that name as well as the book’s plot wherein the plain truth needs to be revealed in the case of a mysterious murder among the Amish). So, in Conundrum, I open the novel with an actual word conundrum, one that has great symbolism to Lisa’s quest. She tells of how she and her brother told conundrums through their teen years, and then I introduce a specific conundrum that serves as another motif in the book.
Motifs Bring Cohesion
Lisa’s father’s specialty was in Boolean algebra. Lisa discovers a conundrum based on that algebraic formula of “and, or, or not.” What I did, then was take two motifs—the conundrum and the father’s profession—and found a way to tie them together, which is a great thing to do. Throughout the novel, Lisa comes across clues that make her think “and, or, or not.” Her quest is one big conundrum. and the next motif comes from the actual conundrum she found—where two guards each stand in front of a door, each claiming they guard the door to enlightenment, but one is lying and one is telling the truth. The conundrum requires the puzzle-solver to figure out which door really does lead to enlightenment. You can imagine why I was so thrilled to run across this conundrum, as it represented Lisa’s search for truth (enlightenment) but with the confusion of not just many doors but many guards claiming they were telling the truth.
I hope you can see here the motifs at work and how, throughout a novel, these can surface to bring cohesion to a story. You can use an object, like a balloon for example, to symbolize important qualities. A balloon could represent freedom, the need for release. A slow-growing tree could represent faithfulness, steadfastness through all seasons, something a character can be viewing out her window at different times in her life. One of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain, uses the motif of race-car driving throughout the book as metaphor and symbolism.
Motifs Tie Into Theme
In To Kill a Mockingbird, the bird itself is a great motif. It comes to represent the idea of innocence; thus, to kill one is to destroy innocence. This ties in beautifully with the books themes and plot involving guilt vs. innocence (with layers of meaning, including a legal one). After Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds” and at the end Scout voices that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Perhaps the most significant use of this motif is the scene in which Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly. I’m sure Harper Lee used this motif very deliberately.
So as you plot out your novel, or tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. If you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. Pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. You will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them. May these thoughts spark some ideas in your head and get you running to your pages!
This week, come up with some motifs for your novel. If you already have some in place, think of other spots in other scenes where you can use that motif again. If you can think of some great novels that use motifs powerfully, share them in the comments!