How to Utilize Motifs In Your Fiction

Motifs are one of those literary devices that are often ignored because of the belief that they only have a place in academic circles. But in truth, motifs serve two key purposes that can be just as powerful in genre fiction as in literary novels. In today's article, I’m breaking down exactly what a motif is, the purposes it can serve, and how you can begin making use of motifs in your own stories today!

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Motifs can serve several powerful purposes in storytelling.

Yet because motifs are often discussed in literary and academic circles, many genre-fiction writers fail to explore the potential of this powerful literary device — but literary devices aren’t for literary writers alone. Flashbacks, foreshadowing, mood, imagery, metaphor, and suspense are all literary devices that, among other examples, are commonly employed by genre and literary writers alike.

How, then, can all writers utilize motifs to strengthen the quality of their storytelling? Let’s dive deep into this topic today, writers!

What exactly is a motif?

A motif is any central recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. A common example lies in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, in which the green light represents Gatsby’s hope and desire but also the artificial and unrealistic nature of that desire — a concept that is integral to Gatsby’s relationship with Daisy throughout the story.

Motifs are powerful literary devices because of how they help to deepen theme and evoke mood. 

In the example above, the green light captures the essence of one of Fitzgerald’s core themes: the American Dream. It’s a beacon of hope in the dark, tinted green by its relationship to wealth and worldly possessions, but artificial in its nature. Combined with the distance between Gatsby and the green light, this highlights the hollow yearning with which Fitzgerald views the American Dream.

Is this getting a bit literary for your tastes? Have no fear! As I mentioned above, motifs don’t appear in literary classics alone. 

Take George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, for example. Martins’ work is threaded with motifs, with one of the most prominent being the Iron Throne. While any throne represents power and governance, there is an extra layer of symbolism and significance to be found in Martin’s Iron Throne, which was forged from the blades of a thousand enemies and frequently cuts its seated ruler. 

In A Game of Thrones, those blades represent not only the dangers it takes to win a throne but the dangers found in holding it. This is a central theme in the book series, which sees the Iron Throne pass from one ill-suited leader to the next, with a bevy of characters vying for control. The desire for power cuts away at what each claimant holds dear: honor, duty, freedom, dominance, loyalty, trust.

The subject of a chosen motif can be almost anything: an object, a sound, an image, a feeling, a figure, a color, or even a combination of several subjects, as we see in Fitzgerald’s green light and Martin’s sharp-edged throne.

What differentiates a motif from a symbol or theme?

These three literary devices are similar in nature but mistaking one for another can lead to a lack of clarity and purpose in your storytelling. To better understand what differentiates a motif, let’s first define these additional literary terms:

A motif is symbolic, but it’s not just any symbol. It recurs frequently throughout a story and highlights at least one of the story’s central themes. Because of this, motifs should be readily apparent.

In Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, the two main characters, Jess and Leslie, must swing over a creek to bridge the gap between their real world and the make-believe world of Terabithia. The creek then becomes a motif throughout the novel, representing the gap between fear and courage, reality and freedom, and even adolescence and adulthood — all themes Paterson discusses in the book.

How can you utilize motifs to evoke mood?

Motifs are primarily used to deepen theme, but they can also serve to conjure a particular mood. Also called atmosphere, mood is a literary device that creates an emotional setting, encouraging readers to feel a particular way as they approach the scene to come.

Authors often use objects and symbols to set the mood. Just think of how a ticking clock or the sudden appearance of a crow can instill apprehension or how soft candlelight and roses builds a warm and intimate environment. In this same way, motifs can be used to instill (and re-instill) a central mood throughout a story.

This is a purpose that I employ heavily in my current work-in-progress, a medieval fantasy novel called Lady Legacy. For Clíana Godtric, my protagonist, heat and warmth represent emotional turmoil, with the motif as a whole creating an unsettled atmosphere for readers.

Clíana’s story begins in a cold environment, where the heat of bonfires and other bodies arise in scenes where she’s experiencing internal conflict. As Clíana’s story progresses and her inner turmoil grows, she gradually moves into warmer and warmer physical environments, with momentary interactions with the cold representing mental and spiritual clarity for Clíana — and moments of reprieve for readers.

How can you incorporate motifs into your own stories?

There’s actually a good chance that motifs may already appear in your work. Like many other literary devices such as characterization, story structure, theme, and foreshadowing, most readers internalize the concept of motifs as they consume stories without making an active effort to study them. And because of this, many writers utilize literary devices without consciously deciding to do so.

That said, motifs aren’t as vital a story element as other literary devices. There’s no need to include motifs in your work if they don’t already exist and if you don’t feel strongly about incorporating them. I’d also discourage you from utilizing motifs simply to appear more intellectual in your writing, as doing so will always ring false and pretentious on the page.

If you’re interested in including motifs in your stories, remember that motifs exist to ground readers in a larger truth. Take a look at your story’s themes and major atmospheres. Can you distill that mood or theme into a specific motif? And if so, can you work that motif into your story without forcing it onto the page?

When I was in school, classmates often joked that our English literature teachers put more thought into literary works than their authors did, and that’s a probable reality. Motifs can serve as powerful literary devices when there’s a natural place for them in the framework of a story. But if they’re a burden on the author, they’ll be a burden on readers as well.

In your own work, focus instead on crafting stories that readers will love. If that includes motifs from the start, fantastic!

Or, if you notice that motifs arise naturally as you draft, great. Don’t hesitate to hone them in revision. This is exactly what I’m doing with the fourth draft of my manuscript, and it’s been exciting to see how refining Lady Legacy’s organic motifs has strengthened the quality of my storytelling overall. I hope you’ll give your own story’s motifs the same opportunity, writer!

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