Motif Madness

Song of the Day: Fine Again by Seether

I had the pleasure recently to attend a workshop hosted by my ‘home’ Romance Writer’s of America© chapter Northwest Houston RWA featuring author and editor Alicia Rasley. Among the incredible advice she gave on strengthening a manuscript, she spoke of something I hadn’t been familiarized with – motifs.

Now, I had heard of themes and my head still aches over symbolism due in part to my sophomore year in high school and mining the imagery in The Great Gatsby. But I admit, my first thought was armchair doilies, toile wallpaper, and the awful geometric, Day-Glo T-shirt patterns of the 80’s. I shutter.

Turns out, I’m not too far off in my thinking.

Motifs are recurring elements that help develop the theme in fiction. This could be an image, person, concept, keyword, or pattern which reappears throughout the story. The motif unifies events, characters, and plot points at varying times, the connection linking something of symbolic relevance to different scenes and occasions.  And it happens no less than three times. For the savvy reader, it can provide an ‘ah-ha’ moment, recognizing the motif coincides with a change either in the character or the plot.

Examples of motifs can be just about anything your crazy little mind can think up. Crime, celebrations, tragedies, births, weather, the elements (earth, wind, fire, water), science, music, phrases, battles,  animals, contrasts, tears, illness, clothing, color, family, prophecies, secrets, failures, success, flowers, and the list goes on.

Often the motif is very subtle. Ever notice how the grand staircase in the movie Titanic recurs at specific points of the unfolding story?  Jack greets Rose at the bottom of the staircase before their dinner in first class. Cal shoots his pistol at both Jack and Rose as they escape together down the steps. And the kicker, Rose joins Jack on the staircase after passing away, after living the full life he inspired her to live. Good grief, I need a hankie.

Other times, motifs are more noticeable, such as in It’s a Wonderful Life.  Celebrations mark George Bailey’s despondent, bitter reflection on how his dreams of seeing the world had always been derailed by the needs of others. This bolsters the theme that George’s small town life had significant and positive impact on other people’s lives. Where’s my hankie, darn it?

Need another example? Let’s use Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. One of the motifs in the play is light, or rather the avoidance of light. Blanche evaded direct light. She covered an exposed light bulb with a paper lantern in the apartment, avoided being seen in the daytime, and stuck to the shadows whenever possible, that is, until her suitor Mitch forced her to stand under a bright lamp post. One can argue that light represented Blanche’s youth and innocence and her intolerance of light meant she was losing her grasp on reality. The dim light represented her illicit past and fading beauty and her downward spiral from sanity.

After giving this motif thing some thought, I realized I had motifs woven into my stories.  The phase of the moon plays a big role in my 2009 Golden Heart finalist manuscript Upon A Moonlit Sea, recurring at moments when there are shifts in character growth. In A Kiss in the Wind, my second novel, sunlight is a frequent device popping up in subtle yet integral scenes that seem to be representative of new beginnings. I’m certain once I begin edits, I will come across a motif or two in my current WIP.

I bet if you analyze your stories, you’ll discover you, too, have repetitious imagery, components and/or narratives. See if you can’t find a motif in your masterpiece.

8 Responses to Motif Madness

  1. Tess says:

    I love motifs!!!! Great posts, Jenn!


  2. jbrayweber says:

    Motifs are pretty cool. Thanks, Tess!


  3. Suzan H. says:

    What surprised me was looking through a couple of my novels after Alicia’s class. Turns out I’d been doing the motif thing unconsciously.

    And even though I miss my half-nekked guy fix, Jimmy Stewart is a terrific substitute. (Yes, I’m sick.)


  4. jbrayweber says:

    I was surprised by the motifs that showed up in my manuscripts, too. I mean, I knew certain ones were there, but I guess I didn’t fully grasp WHY they were there.

    BTW – Hump Day kick Starts are every other Wednesday. So mark your calendar! (tee hee)

    Jimmy Stewart is not a bad looking man. I liked Robert Mitchum and of course, Cary Grant. Does that make me sick, too? LOL!
    Thanks so much Suzan!


  5. jeff7salter says:

    Very thought-provoking column today … and not the usual beefcake pix to speculate about.
    Well you’ve got me thinking about motifs.
    I’m sure I have some. In my first three novel ms. the heroine’s two pets crop up a lot and are able to steer the heroine to moments of clarity about matters which perplex her. So, perhaps pets is a motif.
    Kitchens also appear in most of my stories — conversations or even solitary musing in that space seems to advance the plot (or the character’s awareness of things).
    I think my first heroine (in the first 3 books) has a motif thing going with her Jeep Wrangler. She can think better when she’s driving.

    Not positive that’s what you meant with your question, but that’s what came to me.


  6. jbrayweber says:

    Pets, kitchens and Wranglers. Interesting, Jeff. But not at all unusual.
    When Alicia described motifs during the workshop, she used an example from the movie Love, Actually where silence was a motif. Once she pointed it out, it was obvious. It totally fascinated me!

    Thanks, Jeff!


  7. Stacey says:

    I feel like the Gods are pounding me on the head. First there was Alicia’s workshop and then I went to Lori Wilde’s workshop and it too included material about motifs.
    These little critters deepen and add texture to your manuscript. They should always come in threes (at least) and we can’t rely on them to simply show up.
    Our subconscious will add items in, but it’s not always reliable. Lori stated that it’s not enough to hope they show up naturally, but we should go back and add them in intentionally. Once she started doing this, she went from selling 50% of her material to 90-95% of her work. Hmmm, sure makes you think.
    I know I have played with light as a motif in my novel- now I need to be specific with it. Wonder if I’ll be able to keep juggling all those rules and ideas about writing long enough to finish the dang book!!


  8. jbrayweber says:

    I know what you mean, Stacey. I was fortunate to have my first two novels naturally include motifs. In the manuscript I’m working on now, I have bare ship masts recur. But I need to go back in my edits and make sure that I have intentionally used them in the means the are intended. And make sure I reference the masts again later, as I’m not quite done.
    Thanks, girl!


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