One of the most exciting techniques used by narrative writers is the careful weaving of a central element - or motif - throughout a story. This can be an object, a sound, an expression, a setting, or a sentiment.
Often, motifs spring to life through the use of repeated imagery or language. Sounds and visual descriptors can also encapsulate a motif, as they continue to reappear throughout a story. A popular one is the green light used by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.
Motifs can also be woven through a story with phrases that keep reappearing. In Macbeth, Shakespeare uses the expression "fair is foul, and foul is fair" to centralize his sentiment about the constancy of good and evil and things not being what they seem.
Motifs are sometimes confused with themes. While they are very similar - both weave through a story - the easiest way to differentiate the two is to remember a motif is something tangible (i.e. the green lantern or Shakespeare's catchphrase) while a theme is abstract (i.e. feelings of love or a character's underlying loneliness).
It's a fine line between the two. In the end, a green lantern may be a physical object, but it's a repetitive symbol for the theme of constancy. The two elements work together, much like a painter's brush and palette.
Symbols can also be confused with motifs. By definition, a symbol is an object representing a larger idea, like a heart is a symbol for love. That sounds like a motif, doesn't it? There's one big difference.
If something is mentioned once to allude to something else, it's a symbol. If something is mentioned several times throughout a story, it's a motif. Think of symbols as baby motifs. They only grow up to become motifs if they're repeated throughout the course of a narrative.
So now we know that a symbol contributes to a motif and a motif reinforces a theme. Let’s examine different scenarios where motifs might reappear to paint a masterful picture. What the motif could represent is shown in brackets:
Did you notice each of these examples seemed to echo the function of a symbol? Let's look at the blue bird on the windowsill. If he'd only stopped by to say hello one morning, he'd merely be a symbol of leaving. The moment he kept reappearing every morning, he became a motif.
Motifs are wonderful ways to say, "A change is coming," or "She's a lost soul," without overtly writing that. That's the joy of literature, isn't it? Readers are able to watch tales unfold while subtle moods and feelings start to emerge from the pages simply through a repeated concept or object.
Shakespeare never had to say, “Beware, appearances are deceiving and things may be the opposite of what you believe." Instead he repeated something far more artful in "fair is foul, and foul is fair." The mind ends up getting a good workout and, in the end, a story's true sentiments stay with you forever.
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