Writing An Essay On Motifs

Motifs—What the heck are they and why should you use them in your writing?

I will admit that, as a writer, I have often been asked, “What’s your book about?” but I’ve never even once been asked, “What are the motifs in your book?” It would appear that no one really thinks or cares about motifs, so why would a writer care to include them?

The answer is simple—motifs can add a layer of depth and meaning to your writing without being heavy-handed or interfering with your plot.

Do you want your book to have something central that helps create a sense of unity throughout? Do you want something to resonate through the beginning, middle, and end of your book to help tie it all together? A strong motif (or two!) may be just what you need.

So what exactly is a motif? (Don’t worry if you’re unsure… it’s not a word that people use a lot and you may have intentionally purged it from your memory after you finished that class in literary analysis. :D)

There are many definitions available for the word “motif.” This one comes from dictionary.com:

“A recurring subject, theme, idea, etc., especially in a literary, artistic, or musical work.”

Motifs differ from symbols in that they recur, weaving back into the story in ways that couldn’t be purely coincidental. This recurrence helps the reader to notice the importance of the motif and to recognize that it has significance beyond its literal meaning.

Likewise, a motif is different from the overall theme of a story. Where the theme is the central or universal idea conveyed by a story, the motifs exist to support or reveal that idea.

Still confusing? Here come the concrete examples!

SPOILER ALERT: The examples below contain spoilers. Please don’t read an example if you haven’t read the book/seen the movie!

In George Lucas’s movie Star Wars, (Episode IV, A New Hope) the color of each main character’s clothing serves as a motif. Luke wears all white, as does Leia, suggesting goodness. Darth Vader’s clothing is all black, which contrasts Luke and Leia and suggests the evil in him. Han wears a black vest over a white shirt, which would suggest his ambivalence between good and evil. (These examples might count as symbols if the character wore that color just once, in a key scene. The fact that these clothing colors recur throughout the film makes them a motif.)

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby, the weather is a motif. Gatsby’s initial reunion with Daisy occurs in the pouring rain, suggesting sadness and regret. As the sun comes out, their love renews. Gatsby’s confrontation with Tom occurs on the hottest day of the year, suggesting they have each reached the “boiling point,” and his showdown with Wilson occurs on the first day of autumn, which suggests the coming coldness of death.

In Suzanne Collins’s novel The Hunger Games, Roman names are a motif. Cinna, Cato, Portia, Octavia, and Flavia are all names associated with Rome. The name of the country, Panem, is also a common Roman word meaning bread. This motif suggests that the world as we now know it (especially the United States, which in the book collapsed and gave rise to Panem,) could one day see the rise of a new Rome.

In William Shakespeare’s play Macbeth, hallucinations serve as a motif. Macbeth sees a bloody dagger floating in the air as he is about to kill Duncan. Later, he sees the ghost of his friend Banquo, whose murder he had ordered. Lady Macbeth imagines that there are spots of blood on her hands that she can’t wash off. These hallucinations suggest the destructive power of violence and guilt.

What do you think of motifs? Do you feel they add something to the books you read? Do you think they are worth including in your own writing? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Repetition is an important principle in every artistic pursuit from music to painting to literature. It gives you another layer of meaning to work with and can add a level of symbolic value to your seemingly casual description, dialogue, or action.

Today, I’d like to try a unique exercise (which I stole from a friend who teaches art) to help us practice repetition in the form of motif. Here’s a sneak-peak of what we’re going to do:

PRACTICE

Spend the day looking for green. When you see something green, describe it in your journal (which you’ll want to carry around for the day so you don’t forget your green things).

Example: The green grass in front of the old red-brick house no one will buy. The green-yellow bananas lying on their side in the supermarket. The green pine tree which looks bright next to the skeletal oak.

Pretty fun, right? But before we begin, let’s talk for a moment about motif.

Photo by Leland Francisco.

How Great Authors Use Motif

Motif is when you repeat something in your narrative. Often, authors repeat description, but dialogue, action, or any other element of narrative can be repeated as well. The interesting part is that this repeated thing gains symbolic meaning as you repeat it.

For example, in The Picture of Dorian Grey Oscar Wilde uses the color white as a motif. Through the frequent uses of the word “white” in reference to things of innocence, Wilde tracks Dorian’s descent from innocence and his subsequent longing for a return to it.

As another example, when I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I underlined every instance of the words pale and dust. When I looked back through the novel I realized he used those words several hundred times. The pale dusty color became a major part of the palette of the book—along with bloodred, of course. In other words…

Motif is the palette you use to convey the world of your story and its underlying meaning.

Your Life Has Motifs Too

As you go through your day you might notice a few motifs. It might be certain actions in your job. It might be attitudes inherent in your personality. It could be the colors you see as you make your morning drive—blues and greens in the summer, browns and greys in the winter.

If you were to paint your life, what palette would you use? If you were going to convey your life on the page, what motifs would you use?

Hopefully, today’s exercise will help you begin to notice patterns in your own life, so that you can start to arrange patterns in the lives of your characters.

PRACTICE

Spend the day looking for green. When you see something green, describe it in your journal (which you’ll want to carry around for the day so you don’t forget your green things).

Example: The green grass in front of the old red-brick house no one will buy. The green-yellow bananas lying on their side in the supermarket. The green pine tree which looks bright next to the skeletal oak.

When you get a decent size list (at least fifteen) post it here in the comments and we’ll compare notes.

Have a green filled day!

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