Motifs in Writing: Definition, Examples, Usage
Written by  Daisie Team
Published on 6 min read


Have you ever read a story where a certain symbol or idea keeps popping up, subtly adding layers to the narrative? Well, that's what we call a motif. This blog post aims to shed some light on the topic by providing a detailed definition of motif, explaining how to spot them, and even how to use them in your own writing. Let's dive into the beautiful world of motifs in literature.

What are Motifs in Writing?

At its core, a motif is a distinctive feature or recurring theme in a literary composition. But let’s break that down to make it more understandable. When you think of the definition of motif, try to visualize it as a thread that weaves through your story, connecting different elements and enhancing the overall narrative.

The Basics of a Motif

When we talk about motifs, we're talking about things that recur throughout a story. This could be anything - a symbol, an image, a phrase, or even a situation. These elements aren't just there for decoration. They carry weight and meaning, and they help the reader understand the underlying themes of the story. Here's what you need to remember:

  • Motif is not just a decorative design or pattern: It's a dominant idea that echoes throughout the piece of writing.
  • Motif is not a character or a plot: It's a tool used to accentuate these aspects of literature.
  • Motif is not the main theme: It's a vehicle that helps to explore and illuminate the theme.

Types of Motifs

Now that we know what a motif is, let's discuss the different types of motifs you might encounter in literature. It's important to note that a motif can take many forms — it all depends on the creativity of the author. Here are a few common types:

  1. Symbolic Motifs: These motifs take the form of symbols that represent a larger idea or theme.
  2. Conceptual Motifs: These motifs are built around a particular concept or idea that recurs in the story.
  3. Structural Motifs: These motifs are repeated patterns or structures in the story.

We'll get into specific examples of these later on, but for now, just know that a well-placed motif can make your writing more cohesive, engaging, and, ultimately, more impactful.

How to Identify Motifs

Identifying motifs in a piece of literature can be a bit like a treasure hunt — fun, but sometimes challenging. The key is to notice patterns and repetition in the story. Here's how you can get better at it.

Look for Repeated Symbols or Themes

The first step to identifying motifs is to keep an eye out for repetition. Remember, motifs can be symbols, ideas, or even situations that show up again and again. So, if you notice a recurring image or phrase in a story, that's likely a motif. It could be something as simple as a repeated reference to the weather, or something more complex like a recurring theme of betrayal.

Ask: "What Does This Represent?"

Once you've spotted a potential motif, ask yourself what it might represent. Does the recurring image of a storm represent the protagonist's inner turmoil? Does a repeatedly used phrase hint at a deeper theme? The more you practice, the better you'll get at understanding the underlying meanings of motifs.

Consider Its Purpose

Finally, think about why the author might have included this motif. What purpose does it serve in the story? Does it highlight a certain theme? Does it add depth to a character? By considering the purpose of a motif, you'll gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

With practice, you'll start to see motifs everywhere — not just in books, but in movies, TV shows, and even songs. Identifying motifs can deepen your understanding of a story and make your reading experience even more enjoyable.

How to Use Motifs in Your Writing

You've understood the definition of motif, and you're now familiar with identifying them in literature. The next step? Incorporating motifs into your own writing. Here's how you can do just that.

Decide on Your Theme

Before you start using motifs, you need to have a clear idea about your story's major themes. Is it about love, loss, revenge, or perhaps transformation? Once you have your theme, you can start thinking about motifs that will help to reinforce this theme in the reader's mind.

Create Your Motif

Now that you have your theme, you can create your motif. Let's say your theme is "the passage of time." A fitting motif could be something like a ticking clock, the changing seasons, or the growth of a tree. Remember, your motif should tie in with your theme and recur throughout your story.

Repeat It, But Not Too Much

Repetition is key when it comes to motifs. You want your readers to recognize it. However, be careful not to overuse it. If your motif pops up in every other sentence, it might lose its impact. Remember, subtlety is your friend here.

Remember to Be Consistent

Consistency is crucial when using motifs. The meaning and usage of your motif should remain the same throughout your story. This way, your readers can make a connection and understand the message you're trying to convey.

Using motifs in your writing can add depth to your story and make it more memorable for your readers. It's like adding a secret ingredient that ties all the flavors together. Happy writing!

Examples of Motifs in Literature

Now that we've discussed what motifs are and how to use them in writing, let's look at some specific examples of motifs in literature. This will give you a better understanding of how motifs function in a story and how they can add depth and meaning.

The Green Light in "The Great Gatsby"

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby", one of the most famous motifs is the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. This light represents Gatsby's hope and dreams for the future, and its constant presence in the novel serves to reinforce the theme of the unattainable American Dream.

The Scar in "Harry Potter"

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series features the motif of Harry's lightning bolt scar. This scar, a constant reminder of Harry's past, plays a significant role throughout the series. It not only symbolizes Harry's connection to Voldemort, but it also often signals danger or triggers important memories, reinforcing the theme of destiny versus free will.

The Mockingbird in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" uses the motif of the mockingbird to symbolize innocence. The characters who are likened to mockingbirds in the story are those who are innocent and good, but who face danger or harm from others. This powerful motif reinforces the book's themes of racism, prejudice, and the loss of innocence.

These examples should provide a clear picture of how motifs work in literature. They are simple, recurring elements that carry a lot of weight in the story. They reinforce themes and help readers connect more deeply with the narrative. So next time you pick up a book, be on the lookout for motifs – you might be surprised at what you find!

Why Motifs Matter in Storytelling

Having looked at what motifs are and seen them in action in some of the most famous works of literature, you may be beginning to grasp their importance. But why exactly do motifs matter in storytelling? Let's find out.

Motifs Create Depth and Cohesion

The first thing motifs do is add depth to your story. They're like the spices in a dish—while not always immediately noticeable, they enrich the overall flavor. Motifs provide a layer of complexity to the narrative, making it more engaging for the reader. Furthermore, they create cohesion, tying together different parts of the story with a common thread.

Motifs Enhance Themes

Motifs are also key players when it comes to enhancing themes. Remember the green light in "The Great Gatsby" or the mockingbird in "To Kill a Mockingbird"? These aren't just random symbols. They're motifs that echo and amplify the central themes of the narrative. When you see a motif reappear, it's like the author is subtly nudging you to remember the bigger picture.

Motifs Make Stories Memorable

Lastly, motifs make stories more memorable. Just think about it—you probably remember Harry Potter’s lightning bolt scar or the green light from "The Great Gatsby". These recurring elements stick in our minds, helping us remember not just specific details of the story, but the emotional resonance and larger themes as well.

In conclusion, motifs are not just pretty ornaments in a story. They play a vital role in adding depth, reinforcing themes, and making the narrative more memorable. So whether you're an avid reader or a budding writer, paying attention to motifs can significantly enrich your literary journey.

If you enjoyed learning about motifs in writing and are looking for more ways to enhance your creativity, check out Daisie's classes. Our platform offers a wide range of workshops and resources to help you grow as a writer and artist. Don't miss out on the opportunity to learn from some of the best minds in the arts!