Use Motifs to Make Your Novel Interesting

Motif is a literary device that is repeated throughout a novel.  It has symbolic and thematic significance that can add an extra dimension to your writing because it can evoke a mood, highlight certain aspects of the story, act as foreshadowing, underscore themes, provoke the reader’s senses, and provide depth and meaning beneath the surface of the story.

A motif can be anything – a recurring phrase, a colour, a character, a scent, an action, an object, a specific image or even an idea. It can be absolutely anything, as long as it’s repeated throughout the story and is apparent to the reader, but more importantly, the motif must relate directly to the story. For example, in a crime story, the image of blood could be a relatable motif. Maybe a particular piece of jewellery keeps appearing in your romance novel. Maybe the sound of a grandfather clock is repeated. Whatever the object or image, make sure it relates to the story so that it emphasises your theme or something significant.

Motifs shouldn’t be mistaken for actual themes and symbols. They’re not the same thing. They complement each other, in that they represent similar aspects, but motifs work to enhance the story in different ways and provide different qualities to it, which is why it’s useful to have a least one motif appear in your novel.

Themes are the main topics that run through the entire story, such as betrayal, rites of passage, greed or desire etc., whereas a symbol is (usually) an object that represents something much deeper within the story, for example, a specific colour to symbolise a particular mood, feeling or emotion. A snake could represent danger, a flock of birds might represent foreboding or perhaps a dark forest might symbolise fear.

Motifs, on the other hand, work to enhance those themes or symbols. But the fundamental difference is that, unlike themes and symbols, the motif must appear repeatedly throughout the story to reinforce that theme, or feeling or emotion etc. It acts as a constant reminder for the reader.

Writers often create motifs without realising. They subconsciously pick a certain image or object and repeat it to reinforce an aspect of the story. But motifs can also develop or appear naturally during the writing process, which help to deepen the layers and themes within the story, and they only become apparent when writers read through their work and spot them.

But what if you want to create a motif?

As you’re writing, think about the main themes that appear in the story – how might a recurring motif tie in with a particular theme? What would best represent it? Perhaps it’s an object, a sound, a person, a colour, or maybe something else? Look at the elements within the story and see what draws your attention.

What about the key events that occur with your characters? What is the mood in these scenes? What is described with these scenes? Is there a specific action happening? If so, what things around that action could be used as a motif? Again, look at all the elements within scenes and see if there is something you could repeat within the story that would deliberately gain the reader’s attention.

What happens within your story, with the characters and with specific, important moments that a motif best represents?

Read your favourite books and see if you can spot any motifs, and why they might be there.  Most novels have them – hidden in plain sight, and you don’t have to crazy with them – one motif is more than adequate to add another dimension to your novel.


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