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 vs. Themes
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.
Motifs vs. Symbols
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.
Examples of Motif in Narrative Writing
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:
- A repeated reference or visual of shattered glass (something in life is about to break)
- Recurring dishonest characters (to cue up the discovery of an unfaithful spouse)
- A character who constantly misplaces things (as the loss of someone or something significant is on the horizon)
- A blue bird that appears briefly on a windowsill each morning (because the main character will take off and leave the only home she's known)
- The constant pattering of rain each night (bringing on the element of a cleanse or rebirth for a central character)
- Hearing the phrase, "Some things in life never change" repeated throughout a story (to push a character to make a big change)
- Watching a street lamp flicker, but only on Friday nights (to reinforce a central character's loneliness on Friday nights)
- Hearing the sound of a dog collar once, twice, maybe three time throughout a story (to emphasize a character's sorrow over the loss of her faithful companion)
- Finding a Bible at a bus stop and then coming across a featured painting in an art gallery that looks just like that Bible (to symbolize a call to God)
- A pop of sunlight on a cloudy beach morning and then a pop of sunlight on a drive home in the evening (because the character's about to emerge from a difficult time)
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.
Examples of Motif in Literature
- Shakespeare was a master of almost every literary technique. Let's look to him again for another example of a fine motif.
While MacBeth focused on good and evil, Romeo and Juliet focused on the light and darkness. That motif was encapsulated in the brightness of the night moon, the stars that lit the sky, and the bright flash that lightning provides. Romeo refers to Juliet as light throughout the play, she is “the sun” and her eyes are like “two of the fairest stars in all the heaven.” Their love is a light that shines brightest in the darkness, but is ultimately consumed by it.
- How about F. Scott Fitzgerald's friend, Ernest Hemingway?
In Old Man in the Sea, Hemingway kept comparing the central character, Santiago, to Christ. In the end, we discover that Santiago sacrificed his life for others, just as Christians believe Jesus did.
That motif was encapsulated in the crucifixion imagery Hemingway employed. Santiago cut the palms of his hand with fishing line, leading readers to think about the stigmata of Christ. And, when he was attacked by sharks, Santiago is said to have made noises a man would make if he was having nails driven though his hands.
- Onto a lighter motif, let's take another prevalent tale, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.
Journeys kept popping up, establishing the motif of change. Elizabeth's journey to visit Charlotte first introduces her to Mr. Darcy. Her second journey to Derby and Pemberley brings her back into contact with Darcy again. Sure enough, Darcy embarks on his own journey, too, when he saves the family honor by tracking down Wickham and Lydia.
Creating the Mood
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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Green light motif