Have you ever read a novel that evokes very specific imagery, or even a colour scheme, the whole way through?
Not quite sure what I mean?
Well, here’s an example.
Have you ever read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere? Even if you haven’t you can probably guess that one of the principal motifs in this novel is fire. Throughout the narrative Ng cleverly uses this imagery in many different ways, from showing the power and strength of physical fire and its ability to cleanse and purify, to the sparks flying between two people, and the smothering of a character’s creative fire inside of her.
In this article, I’m going to answer the question ‘what are motifs?’, explore how a motif can be developed throughout a story, teach you how to write a motif, and provide some more examples of motifs in well-known novels.
What Are Motifs?
A motif is a literary device that occurs as a recurring element in a novel and often has symbolic significance. The key aspect of a motif is repetition, which helps illuminate dominant themes and ideas in a story. Sometimes it can be a recurring image, as we explored above with the use of fire in Little Fires Everywhere. But other times, it can be a repeated word, phrase or topic, and can even be a recurring situation, sound, smell, temperature, or colour scheme.
Think of literary motifs as little breadcrumbs or clues that an author will leave for their reader in order to reinforce or deepen a certain theme or perspective in their novel. They are often used to set the tone, change the atmosphere or conjure a particular mood. Think of how a darkening sky or a flock of noisy birds can suddenly instil apprehension, or how a soft, glowing candle or a sunset can build warmth and romance.
It’s important to note, however, that the use of motifs depends on the type of novel. Some novels are enhanced by one or more motifs, whilst in others, motifs serve no purpose at all.
Let’s look at why that is…
Motifs, Symbols and Themes – Key Differences
Motifs, symbols and themes are often grouped together and sometimes used interchangeably, but to get the most out of them in your work, you should see them as overlapping but standalone literary devices.
Let’s refresh ourselves by looking at their distinct definitions.
Themes are the main ideas in a story. They are the backdrop or foundation on which the series of events and plot points of a narrative are then laid. Themes are abstract and conceptual.
Symbols are objects that represent something else. A white dove might represent innocence or peace and a snake might represent poison or fertility. They can appear in just a single point in a story.
Motifs are often symbols, but can also be repeated phrases and words, smells and colours. They are tangible and concrete and must be repeated throughout a story to bring the theme to life.
Now let’s look how each literary device might overlap and work together in a story.
A symbol in a story can be a wilting flower or shrivelled up leaves that symbolise death. If these images are repeated several times through the story, they will become a recurring literary motif, which is used to point to the theme of the story: grief and loss.
Examples Of Motifs In Literature
As we’ve explored above, you can find motifs throughout literature, in many of your favourite novels. Let’s look at this in more depth.
The Picture Of Dorian Gray – Oscar Wilde
Wilde uses a number of motifs in this novel but the most standout motif is the colour white which is used to chart Dorian’s trajectory from a figure of innocence to a figure of degradation. In the beginning, it is used to portray his innocence in boyhood, with his “white purity” being the key reason Lord Henry is enthralled by him. But later, when we learn that Dorian has sacrificed his innocence, there is a quote from the Book of Isaiah: “though your sins be as scarlet, yet I will make them white as snow” which outlines his longing to return to innocence.
Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
The motif in Ishiguro’s bestselling novel is undoubtedly copies, which begins with the students themselves who are essentially clones of people in the outside world. This is how Kathy finds out that their world is but a copied one, as she sees students copy the gestures and mannerisms of the people they watch on television.
There is also a rebellion against this motif of copying throughout the novel, for example, with Kathy observing Tommy’s drawings to be intricate and original creations.
Romeo And Juliet – William Shakespeare
Shakespeare uses light and dark throughout the play. For example, the lovers are described as “stars” that light the dark sky. Romeo often refers to Juliet as a powerful light source and Juliet, too, says that Romeo lights her. Who can forget the famous balcony scene when Romeo says, “But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.” But ultimately the dichotomy of light and dark is there to convey Romeo and Juliet’s doomed future. No matter how much light exists between them, the dark cannot exist alongside it, so one will ultimately prevail.
How To Use Motifs In Your Writing
Now, onto the crucial information that I know you’ve been waiting patiently for – how you can use motifs in your own writing!
Well, the first thing to note is that motifs aren’t for every story. If it isn’t obvious then don’t beat yourself up trying to find something that works. There is nothing worse than an ineffective motif! Yes, they may enhance a story and evoke different moods, but there are many other ways of doing so – from setting the tone and focusing on your sub-plot to working on your rising action and using descriptive adjectives.
The second crucial thing to note is that motifs may already appear in your story without you even realising it – your brain works in marvellous ways! Have a read of your work and see if you can spot them. They may be included with a light touch to begin with, but you can always deepen their connection to the underlying theme of your novel in subsequent drafts.
But if you do feel like giving it go, here are some tips to help you get started.
- As we’ve discussed above, motifs are a way of pinpointing the central theme or themes of your novel so that must always be your starting point. Spend some time thinking (preferably on a nice long dog walk) about the underlying message or purpose of your novel.
- Once you’ve spent some time reflecting, write down any themes that come to mind. Bullet point form is best so they can be reeled off in short, clear phrases.
- Then, once you’ve written down the key themes of your novel, brainstorm any imagery, words, memories or events that come to mind for each. These will serve as the breadcrumbs of your motifs, which you can hone with every new draft.
- Finally, take some time to review what you’ve noted down and focus on a handful of motifs that best represent the underlying themes of your novel. Remember that you need to make sure that they’re not out of place in your narrative or amongst the characters you have developed. For example, using sunshine as a motif in a novel that is based in the Arctic Circle in the depths of winter is probably not the best fit.
Now that we’ve answered the question ‘what are motifs?’, and provided some great examples for you to use, you’ll be able to effectively explore the use of motifs in your writing. Motifs are effective literary devices that can be used to set the mood of your novel and ultimately draw attention to its underlying themes. They are, however, by no means essential and should only be used if they can be integrated naturally within the narrative without distorting the plot or characterisation.
Take your time when adding motifs to your novel. Play around with different imagery and colours. Or if you’re feeling brave, get in the writing zone, and see what creativity flows out of your subconscious!
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