Today I’m going to share with you a concept that you’ll probably all remember studying in your high school or college literature classes: repeated motifs. It sounds very high-brow and perhaps even high-fallutin’ but, in fact, it’s a really neat way of getting across a deeper meaning or concept in your book.
According to an article by Neil Gaimon, a motif is “a literary technique that consists of a repeated element that has symbolic significance to a literary work. Sometimes, a motif is a recurring image. Other times, it’s a repeated word, phrase, or topic expressed in language. A motif can be a recurring situation or action. It can be a sound or smell, a temperature, even a color.” In other words, it’s something that is repeated throughout a book in order to emphasize it. Because the motif is repeated it takes on a deeper meaning. It can also signal to the reader that either something is going to happen, something has happened, or that a character is dealing with something or feeling a particular way.
If every time a character is sad, they are surrounded by the color yellow (yellow sun, yellow furniture, yellow car, yellow curtains, whatever), then we know that when the character has yellow around them, they’re probably sad or soon going to feel that way. An author can emphasize the use of a motif (like a color) by using language to describe someone using variations of the motif (the character looked jaundiced).
So, what’s the point of using a motif? Well, first of all, it’s a cool way to signal to the reader that something is happening or will. It’s also a way to show how a character is feeling or demonstrate a character’s growth.
The motif of light and dark or black and white are used a lot in novels. I used it in my novel Token of Love (where the hero deliberately keeps himself in the dark to hide an ugly scar he got in the war, but the heroine brings him out into the light and at the end of the book literally gives him light in the form of a silver tinderbox). Shakespeare used the concept as well in Romeo and Juliet: Throughout the play, Romeo refers to Juliet as a powerful light source, the night (moon) is no match for Juliet’s beauty, Juliet, too, says Romeo lights her, the lovers are “stars” that light the dark sky, their love is discussed as a flash of lightning, etc.
There was a fun motif in the Bridgerton television series. Throughout the series, bees are shown—from the very beginning of the first episode which shows a bee crawling over the door knocker of the Bridgerton’s London home to bee jewelry, bee hat decorations, and finally, a shot of a bee crawling on the window sill after the heroine gives birth to her first child. Why a bee? Because it symbolizes fertility and the business of the family and society, and as a teaser to the next season when we will learn that the Bridgerton children’s father died from a bee sting (sorry if that was a spoiler—you can read it in the book!).
Now, one thing that’s easy to do is to get motif and theme mixed up. A motif is something tangible (like a tinderbox) while a theme is abstract (such as feelings of love or a character’s underlying loneliness).
The one thing about a motif that you, as an author, need to be aware of, is that you’ve got to put it in deliberately. Motifs don’t just suddenly appear in your book without you realizing it. For seat-of-the-pants writers, it usually means that you’re going to have to go back and insert your motifs into your finished work, probably while you’re in the editing phase. For plotters, plan out the motif you’d like to use, how you’re going to use it, and where it’ll show up.
Why should you go to this trouble? Well, because it does add that deeper meaning. It’s also super fun for readers—like discovering an easter egg in the book. So, think about whether you want to add that extra little something to the novel you’re writing. It can be a lot of fun for you as well!