Narrative Techniques: Motif

A series exploring storytelling techniques. This essay looks at motif and how to use it.

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In narrative writing, motif—also known as thematic patterning—is a reoccurring element that is of symbolic significance to the plot. It is through this repetition that the narrative can develop a mood or theme that acts as a backbone for the voice.

Any number of narrative elements with symbolic significance can be classified as motifs; whether they are images, spoken or written phrases, structural or stylistic devices, or other elements like sound, physical movement, or visual components in dramatic narratives. A recurring flute sound in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller is used to convey rural and idyllic notions, whereas The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald relies on a green light found throughout.

A narrative is not limited to one motif, and they can appear in varying forms and subtly suggest themselves to the reader as they go on. For example, Shakespeare’s Macbeth makes great use of visual narrative elements to create different motifs, such as references to water and blood continually being repeated, linking to the washing of hands, which combines language and visual prompts from actors. This is all run through with the repetition of ‘fair is foul, and foul is fair,’ echoing across the stage.

Motifs establish a pattern of ideas and possible conceptual purposes in different works, and can be particularly useful to link up non-linear narratives or streamline complex plots. Such examples can be found in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Ridley Scott’s cult classic Blade Runner (and its source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick).

While it may appear interchangeable with the related concept ‘theme,’ a general rule is that a theme is abstract and a motif is concrete. Theme can be divided into two categories: one is the thematic concept, what the audience thinks it is about; the other is thematic statement, what the work says about the subject. Simply put, if theme is the story’s body, what we outwardly perceive, the motifs are the spine that hold it upright.

Motifs can be used in various ways, such as to boldly and deliberately catch the audience’s attention, or on a more subliminal level. They can also appear without the characters being aware of them, or as a driving force of a plot. It is all up to the author to decide how they are used, and can be an interesting device to experiment with, particularly when used with others, such as foreshadowing, harmartia, or self-fulfilling prophecy. It can be a hook used to lure readers in and keep them interested, keep them wondering why that crow is always there, or what that sound could possibly relate to, or if those weird red marks on the back of those photos are related to the weird red marks in the protagonist’s dreams.

If there’s a motif to be had, use it.

Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.

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