I think most novelists don’t really consciously use motifs in their writing. We’re much more familiar with allegory and metaphor. I think there are writers who deal with these literary techniques in a wonderful fashion. I openly admit that I’m not a huge symbol gal. I love to read what other writers create in that vein, but it’s just not my thing. But, motifs … I can handle those. In fact, they naturally work their way into my writing.
Motifs are symbolic elements packed with inference. They can be a word or phrase, a concept, an image—just about anything that can be repeated with significance and symbolism.
Using motifs in writing fiction is one of the most powerful and evocative ways of imparting your themes in your novel. Few authors use them, and fewer use them well. My favorite novels of all time are ones that use motifs beautifully throughout their narrative because these elements weaving through the stories tend to stay with me for months and years after I’ve read the book.
Think of a motif as a splash of color that you are adding to your story palette—a very noticeable, specific color that appears from time to time and that “blends in” beautifully with the overall picture you are painting. Did you notice that I just introduced a motif in this discussion by using the concept of color to emphasize my theme?
Motifs can be an object, an idea, a word or phrase, a bit of speech—and you can combine these in your novel to create richness, anticipation or poignancy. In Transformation Project, for example, I include a phrase that the characters often bring up. In Daermad Cycle, it’s usually an object that has some link to the history of Celdrya.
Willow branches have multiple meanings in Celdrya. Among the Kin, the wise ones carry a diamond willow walking stick as a symbol of honor while the Celdryans see willows as a source of healing. Thus, both elements play in the series. The first book is called The Willow Branch for a reason. Padraig, a healer, is the “willow branch” sent into the kingdom to try to heal the fractures. Ryanna receives the honor staff of diamond willow as her charge to enter the search for the One’s true king. The book titles in the series have double meanings. Book titles are a great place for motifs and allow you to tie it into your book’s theme.
Motifs can bring cohesion to a story. An object can symbolize important qualities. In the movie, Up, balloons represent freedom, the need for release. In To Kill a Mockingbird, the bird comes to represent the idea of innocence. To kill one is to destroy innocence. This ties in beautifully with the book’s themes and plot involving guilt vs. innocence. After Tom Robinson is shot, Mr. Underwood compares his death to “the senseless slaughter of songbirds” and at the end Scout voices that hurting Boo Radley would be like “shootin’ a mockingbird.” Perhaps the most significant use of this motif is the scene in which Miss Maudie explains to Scout: “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but . . . sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That Jem and Scout’s last name is Finch (another type of small bird) indicates that they are particularly vulnerable in the racist world of Maycomb, which often treats the fragile innocence of childhood harshly. I’m sure Harper Lee used this motif very deliberately.
So as you plot out your novel, or more likely when you tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. If you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. Pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. You will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them.