Writing 101: What Is a Motif?

Written by MasterClass

Mar 15, 2019 • 5 min read

One of the most useful concepts in literary analysis is the motif. At the same time, the motif can be one of the slipperiest literary terms to define.


What Is a Motif?

Simply put, a motif is a repeated element that has symbolic significance to a story. Sometimes a motif is a recurring image. Sometimes it’s a repeated word or phrase or topic expressed in language. A motif can be a recurrent situation or action. It can be a sound or a smell or a temperature or a color. The defining aspect is that a motif repeats, and through this repetition a motif helps to illuminate the central ideas, themes, and deeper meaning of the story in which it appears.

What Is the Difference Between Motifs and Themes?

The concepts of motif and theme have some overlap, and occasionally you will hear people use the terms interchangeably. Recognizing the distinction between the two literary devices, however, can enhance your appreciation of the craft of storytelling.

  • Themes are the main ideas of a work of literature. They are the meaning behind the series of events that make up the narrative, the deeper concepts which the story explores.
  • Motifs are the recurring elements that point to these themes. While themes are abstract and conceptual, motifs are tangible and concrete.

If a story features repeated images of handwashing, mopping floors, and refreshing rain, then these images of cleansing water are a recurring motif. A theme of the story might be “the desire for purification.” The theme is a matter of interpretation, open to debate, but the motif is an indisputable pattern in the text.

What Is the Difference Between Motifs and Symbols?

Motifs frequently incorporate symbols, but a symbol is not always a motif.

  • A symbol is an object that represents something else. A red rose can represent romance. A crown may represent power. A gold coin represents wealth. A dove represents peace. And a snake, depending on its use, can represent either poison or fertility. -__ Motifs are often symbols.__ The famous green light across the water in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is both a symbol — representing what Gatsby desires but can never fully reach — and a motif, reappearing at multiple key moments in the novel.
  • A symbol can appear just a single time in a story.
  • To constitute a motif, by contrast, an element must appear repeatedly.

In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Yorick’s skull is an obvious symbol of death — or more specifically, as Hamlet discusses aloud, the inevitability of death. But since Yorick’s skull is the only skull to appear in the play, the skull is not a motif.

How Motifs Work in Writing

Authors utilize motifs for multiple purposes. Motifs can:

  • Evoke a mood
  • Illuminate themes
  • Engage the audience on an intuitive level
  • Create unique symbolic meanings through repetition
  • Establish a pattern of ideas

3 Famous Examples of Motifs

  1. In the Godfather film series, oranges are a visual motif. Oranges are repeatedly featured on screen just before a character dies. Outside of these movies, oranges have no established relationship with death; in fact, the citrus fruits would be more likely to be associated with warmth, sunshine, sweetness, and life. But by repeatedly placing oranges in close proximity to characters’ demises, the films establish oranges as a motif related to the theme of death. This uniquely defined symbolism creates a compelling tension between what one might ordinarily associate with the fruit (energy, vitality) and the deaths. One interpretation this tension invites is that death is inevitable, no matter how eagerly one clings to life.
  2. In Hamlet, the language of decay is a verbal motif, one expressed in recurring language. Holding Yorick’s skull, Hamlet observes, “Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.” Earlier in the play, he comments that both kings and beggars will be eaten by worms, and he compares human conception to “breed[ing] maggots in a dead dog.” This repeated language of decay speaks to two of the play’s themes, the mystery of death and the corruption of institutions.
  3. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre, fire is a motif appearing in multiple forms — imagery, language, and key plot incidents. Throughout the book, hearth fires evoke warmth and comfort, candlelight is described as dazzling and energizing, and passionate characters are described as “hot,” like “fire,” and “like Vulcan” (the Roman god of the forge). But fire is also presented as a dangerous force in the novel, with fires causing two major instances of destruction and a key character’s pyromania embodying her mad, uncontrollable fervor. (Ice and coldness also constitute a motif in the novel, symbolizing the absence of emotion and tenderness, in contrast to fire.) Taken all together, fire is consistently representative of strong emotion and love, feelings Jane requires for a full life but which also have the potential for harm. Seeking the right balance of such powerful feelings within herself is a major arc of her story.

How to Spot a Motif

When you’ve finished reading a book (or experiencing another narrative work), take some time to reflect upon it. Were there particular images, types of language, or situations that repeated? If the motifs were well crafted, chances are that they will have made an impression on you. What do you think was the significance of the motif you’ve identified? How did it relate to the deeper themes of the work?

You can also look for motifs while you read (or experience the narrative for the first time). If a particular passage or scene jumps out at you because of its striking language or imagery, make note of it. Then keep an eye out as you continue reading for more passages that make use of this imagery or language. If you encounter another one, you’ve found a motif.

Keep in mind that works of literature can feature more than one motif!

How to Incorporate Motifs Into Your Own Work

Writers develop motifs in different ways. To start shaping compelling motifs in your own work, here’s a step-by-step approach you can use:

  1. Take a few minutes to think about the themes of your story. Write them down. You should be able to state your themes as short, clear phrases, like “The Dangers of Technology” or “Anger and Forgiveness” or “The Power of Friendship.”
  2. Take a walk or a bike ride, or meditate, or just stare at the ceiling for a while — whatever gives you a space to ruminate on those themes you wrote down.
  3. What images, words, or memories bubble up as you muse on the themes?
  4. When you’re done reflecting, write down your favorite images, words, memories, or anything else striking that came up. These are the raw materials for your motifs.
  5. From those materials, pick one element and imagine where it could fit in the story. Remember that you want to use it repeatedly to make a good motif. Could you associate it with a particular character? Could it pop up whenever your protagonist is having a particularly positive experience, or a negative one? Could you place it at the biggest story turns in your narrative?

When you’ve incorporated an evocative element into a satisfying pattern in your story, you’ll have crafted a great motif!

Want to learn more about the art and craft of fiction? See Neil Gaiman Teaches the Art of Storytelling.