Image: Matthew Loffhagen
When it comes to writing a story that will stick with your reader, it can be hard to bring certain things to the fore. Characters and events happen in front of the reader, but story elements like theme or larger concepts are harder to define, and therefore harder to get right. Happily, the use of motif is a great way to do so. That’s why, in this article, I’ll be taking a look at motif and what it could do for your writing.
What is a motif?
A motif is a recurring idea in an artistic work. It can be an image, a color, a symbol, a word, a phrase, a sound, an object, or even a situation, just so long as it recurs. Sometimes, a motif will be symbolic in and of itself (motifs like roses or skulls carry a pre-existing meaning) and sometimes it invites a specific conclusion (Forrest Gump’s air-buffeted feather speaks to ideas of chance and predestination), but sometimes it only gains meaning from how it’s used.A motif is a recurring idea in an artistic work.Click To Tweet
What is a motif for?
Maybe you’re thinking: I’ve got symbolism in my story, and I’m developing strong themes. What do I need motifs for?
As we’ve just seen, motifs are related to symbols and themes, but the reason you’d want them in your story is they have the power to take those disparate symbols and themes and link them together, creating deeper meaning in the story than those elements provide on their own.
Motifs can link events over time and space, using only the subtlest of cues to ask the reader to look for the connections. If your work is struggling with cohesion, or you’re finding it difficult to properly connect a B plot or minor character to the main story, a motif could be all it takes to make your story sing.Motifs create subtle connections between moments, characters, and ideas.Click To Tweet
I want to walk you through a simple but profound motif from the Harry Potter series to illustrate how this works. If you’ve read the series, you know that Harry Potter looks like his father, James… except for the eyes, right? Harry has his mother’s eyes. This is an idea repeated throughout the series and always in the same or very similar words.
How does a motif work?
Motifs create meaning through the power of emotional connection. When it first appears, a motif creates an emotional response in the reader. Every subsequent time it appears, it reinforces the original emotional response, builds on it, and changes it slightly.
Let’s see this in action with our example.
- The first few mentions of Harry’s eyes are about creating an emotional connection to Harry’s identity in the wizarding world. Hagrid bursts into the hut where the Dursleys, Harry’s non-magical relatives, have hidden Harry. Meeting Hagrid is our introduction to the wizarding world, and the first thing he says to Harry is how much he looks like his father, except that he has his mother’s eyes. Harry’s not the black sheep of the Dursley family; he’s the favored son of Lily and James Potter, a prominent wizarding family.
- Toward the end of the third book, Harry confides to his headmaster, Dumbledore, that he thinks he’s seen his father, even though he knows he’s dead. Dumbledore repeats the line; he’s so like James… except for the eyes, his mother’s eyes. The same phrase takes on additional meaning: readers intuit how much Harry is beginning to grieve the loss of the parents he never knew.
- By the sixth book, Harry is actively opposing Voldemort, the dark wizard who killed his parents. When he’s tasked with retrieving a key memory from a very resistant Professor Slughorn, he leverages the professor’s soft spot for Lily, his former student. Harry convinces Slughorn that by giving him the memory, he can honor Lily, be brave like Lily, and defeat Lily’s killer. Slughorn finally agrees, telling Harry, “You’re a good boy… and you’ve got her eyes.” A further evolution in meaning: Harry is carrying on his parents’ legacy in the fight against evil.
You can see how, over time, layers of meaning are built into this one idea.
Motifs at a climax
Now we arrive at the scene of Severus Snape’s death in the last book of the series. During the Battle of Hogwarts, Harry witnesses a fatal attack on Snape, a man he’s always believed to be his enemy. Harry approaches the dying man. He grips Harry’s robes and begs him to collect the memories leaking from his eyes in a small glass vial. A confused Harry complies with Snape’s dying wish:
When the flask was full to the brim, and Snape looked as though there was no blood left in him, his grip on Harry’s robes slackened.
“Look… at… me…” he whispered.
The green eyes found the black… The hand holding Harry thudded to the floor and Snape moved no more.
– J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Snape’s last act was to look into Harry’s eyes. The reader knows this must be important, but they don’t yet know why. As Harry accesses Snape’s memories, we see a collection of scenes unfolding from Snape’s life. We learn that he and Lily became close friends during childhood. Though circumstances pulled them apart, Snape was (and has always been) in love with Lily.
After Lily’s death, a distraught Snape confronts Dumbledore. Dumbledore says: “Her son lives. He has her eyes, precisely her eyes. You remember the shape and color of Lily Evans’s eyes, I am sure?” Snape agrees to help Dumbledore protect Lily’s son. Readers finally understand once and for all that Snape was never on Voldemort’s side. Everything he did, even when he seemed to be in league with the Dark Lord, was to protect Harry Potter for Lily’s sake.
By the end of Snape’s memories, Harry learns he is the only one who can destroy the Dark Lord. And how did he receive this revelation? Because Lily’s goodness turned the heart of a once-evil wizard. Good overcoming evil. Harry has his mother’s eyes.Does that phrase have new meaning to you now?
How to start using motifs
It’s easy to recognize motifs once you know what they are and how they work, but creating them in your own stories can be challenging. Creating motifs starts with getting to know your characters at the deepest level. Get into your characters inner world. Ask yourself:
- What is her deepest desire?
- What is the most central lie she tells herself?
- What is his core pain? How does it perpetuate self-sabotage in his life?
- What does he want more than anything else? What would he do to get it?
Once you have an intimate understanding of your characters’ internal world, brainstorm about symbols, colors, phrases, objects, and sounds that could be used to embody those realities in the external world. It’s important to note that, as you’ve seen with the example from the Harry Potter series, powerful motifs often involve more than one character.Powerful motifs often involve more than one character.Click To Tweet
Next, identify specific scenes, conversations, and contexts in which these elements might take on more meaning over time to embody the main themes of your story. Where do key characters meet, conflict, have key conversations? That’s where your motifs should show up.
Finally, create a climactic moment where a significant truth is revealed. When your motif shows up again, it will allow readers to see it in a new light. It will take on a final layer of meaning, solidify a theme, or turn a symbol on its head. In a climax, motifs take on revelatory power.
The transformative power of motifs
A byproduct of using motif to create layered meaning is that it can encapsulate a character arc in a single word, image, or phrase. Think about how you felt the first time I mentioned Harry having his mother’s eyes. How did you feel the last time you read it? There was a world of difference, right? You felt Harry’s change in the blink of an eye. He went from being a mistreated orphan to the one destined to defeat the Dark Lord.
By the same token, motifs have the power to show us how we, the readers, have changed over the course of the story. And isn’t that the greatest power of literature: to change us, to empower us, to give us deeper understanding, to impart a new perspective?
What motifs have you used to powerfully embody themes in your stories? What motifs in literature have stuck with you? Where else do you see motifs at work in art that inspire you? Let me know in the comments below, and check out Why More Authors Should Harness The Power Of Conceit and Your Quick And Easy Guide To Theme, Allegory And Symbolism for more great advice.