Motifs and Symbols and Themes – Oh My!
I love almost all literary devices, but the three in this post’s title are my favorites. I’m sure you heard of them, and have probably used them in your writing, but you may not know the definitions, so here they are:
Motif is any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme.
Theme is what the author is trying to tell the reader. For example, the belief in the ultimate good in people, or that things are not always what they seem. This is often referred to as the “moral of the story.”
Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.
Thematic Patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative.
I’ve used all of them in my books: An ugly scar, to remind the readers of the protagonist’s guilt and shame (Nothing Sweeter). A cowgirl hat to signify the protagonist’s reluctance to change (Sweet on You). White roses, to remind a mother of her grief (The Sweet Spot). Even a motorcycle, to show a character’s running from her past (Her Road Home).
These are powerful and fun to use, because they’re shortcuts; you don’t have to keep reminding the reader with flashbacks and backstory – you can have them look at the symbol, and the reader gets it.
They’re everywhere in literature. The ring, in Tolkien’s series – it’s a symbol of power, good and evil, all rolled into one. The Silence of the Lambs had lambs, but shoes, too. Speaking of shoes, how about The Wizard of Oz? Or the mockingbirds that represent innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird. Hey, this could be a nerdy game for writers on a long road trip – say the book, and the others have to guess the motif!
But before I get carried away with that, hopefully the examples above convince you of the power of these devices.
You can even use more than one symbol or motif in your novel, to weave a strong theme through the story. It helps deepen the emotion and glue the reader to the page.
I did this with my first women’s fiction, Days Made of Glass. I used the symbolism of glass – these are two sisters, on their own at 17 and 13. They live on the edge of society, the edge of disaster. Their lives are fragile. The protagonist is a rodeo bullfighter; her teacher tells her that she has to be faster, better than the men because – they’re wood, she’s glass. Then there’s her mentally ill sister, who shatters glass, and tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with it.
The symbol I used was a small glass box, a cheap trinket with a yin yang symbol on the lid.
Yin yang represents forever, which is how the sisters think of their relationship. They’re very close. When Harlie, the eldest, has to leave her catatonic sister in a mental care facility to travel to Texas to train to be a bullfighter, she takes the glass box with her. When it’s broken, it’s the beginning of Harlie understanding that she can’t keep her sister safe – she can’t save her.
What do you think? Have you used symbols, motifs or themes in your writing? How? What about my nerdy writer’s game? Do you have any books you can name with motifs?
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