When A Thing Becomes a Motif

There’s a lovely word that describes an object or idea that shows up again and again in a story: motif. To be a true motif, that object or idea should reinforce the story’s theme. But I confess that when we start to talk too long about things like stories’ themes my eyes tend to glaze over. So I’m perfectly happy to expand the definition to anything that appears repeatedly.

Years ago, it was thought that you could up your chances of getting poems into the New Yorker if you included water images in them. I think I read that something like 40% or more of the poems actually did have water in them for a period of time.  Even if an individual poem only contained one mention of water, water was still a motif that strung together many, many issues of the magazine.

Famous literary motifs: a handsome prince, a poor, but humble girl who becomes a princess, darkness, fog or rain, in gothic stories. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, there are sets of doubles, Lord of the Flies has the conch shell, and The Wizard of Oz has a heart, courage, and a brain. Both Shakespeare and the Bible frequently use references to light and darkness to make a point.

In some mystery and thriller stories: the emotionally scarred cop/investigator, the town gossip, weapons, a MacGuffin, a wise mentor. I know there are many more. Motifs and tropes are closely related.

For years, I had an antique comb, mirror and brush set in every story (until someone pointed out to me how weird it was). But now my main motif is a house. I find it hard to write a story unless some of the characters are closely identified with a particular house. As in dreams, a house can be a metaphor for oneself. For me, a house represents a home, and that motif matches up with a theme that’s common to all my books: home is the most important place in the world, even if it’s a terrible, frightening place.

(Update: I originally forgot to include a motif in one of my own stories that someone who was teaching it for a college class pointed out to me. I confess I had never realized it was there, which was probably the reason it worked so well. It’s a recurring dialogue exchange but spoken between varying characters: “Are you there?” “Yes, I am here.” Here’s the link to the story in PANK Magazine. “When I Make Love to the Bug Man.”) 

Do tell, TKZers. What motifs stand out in stories you love? And what things show up again and again in your work?



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About Laura Benedict

Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of eight novels of suspense, including The Stranger Inside (Publishers Weekly starred review). Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com.

31 thoughts on “When A Thing Becomes a Motif

  1. I never took writing classes. I have scary memories of Mr. Holtby’s English classes in high school where everything was about “symbolism.”
    Why is the house yellow? Why are the eyes of the old man in Old Man in the Sea Blue? When he carries the mast up to his house, is it the Cross?

    I fear, very often, I’m writing the same theme into all my books … “you can’t hide from yourself.”

    So, TKZ gurus, what’s the difference between a theme, a trope, and a motif?

  2. Your question brought an instant answer to me, Laura. Since L.A. is my primary setting, I find the Pacific Ocean making an appearance in many of my books. It’s where a character goes to look for peace or solace. In my WIP the MC has a vivid childhood memory of being with his mother on the pier at Santa Monica.

    It’s the place that is an escape from the city’s chaos.

  3. Spiders and a fifth wheel come to mind as symbols in Dean Koontz’ terrifying novel, Intensity. Also, I remember colors, especially purple, in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. And in my WIP . . . uh-oh, I think I have some work to do!

  4. Decay, garbage, rot, mold, waste, detritus, dilapidation, putrefaction, neglect, pollution, smog, sewage, stench, corruption, injuries, death, the motifs in gaseous, liquid, solid, sensory and animal form.

  5. We didn’t know it when we began the WIP, but churches are a motif in our upcoming release The Damage Done. The opening chapter is about Louis returning to Michigan to become part of an elite homicide squad and the team’s new headquarters are in a renovated Catholic church. (they sell cheap in many towns now, alas). From there, the motif emerged almost unbidden. The book ends in another abandoned country church. Part of the theme (sorry, couldn’t help it!) is about renewal. And both churches are being given second lives — just like Louis.

    Hadn’t thought about all this until I read your post, Laura. Strange how the subconscious writing mind works.

    • Isn’t that a fun discovery, Kris? Yes, I believe it’s almost always the story stretching itself in our subconscious. I’ve never created a motif consciously. A church is a powerful visual motif, indeed.

  6. Love this topic, Laura. In my books my recurring motif is family. You can never replace those you love. Cherish every moment as if it’s your last. Oddly enough, it’s also the motif in books I enjoy most. Until now, I hadn’t realized that. As for the object, I always include the family home.

    • Family is another powerful motif, Sue. I think it’s one of the reasons domestic noir and/or so-called women’s fiction is so popular. The subject grabs us in the gut.

  7. The trappings of wealth show up in my death investigator novels — and how they oppress their owners: huge mansions with unhappy people, expensive cars that cost too much to maintain.

  8. Interesting. The other day, a writer said she shied away from Jack Reacher books because it contains a motif that bothers her:

    Reacher said nothing.

    How could nothing that is something be a motif that is about nothing?

    I’ll struggle with this until . . . well, lunch. (Because we’re having tamales today. One must bring all one’s sense to bear to appreciate tamales.)

    Oh, yes. A motif in every story of mine is Doo Wop music.

  9. Not sure if this qualifies as a motif since it is a deliberate inclusion in all of my Seattle cop stories. It is a cop tavern called the Savage Marmot. It has a Wall of Fame where cops who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Some of the tables have brass plaques to commemorate specific events that took place at the table, such as figuring out a big case. The history of cops and their camaraderie forms a contrast point to what is currently happening in the story.

  10. Former college English teacher here. Many of your examples of a motif aren’t.

    Quote: ”Famous literary motifs: a handsome prince, a poor, but humble girl who becomes a princess, darkness, fog or rain, in gothic stories.”

    The prince and the humble girl are archetypes of the fairy tale type. (Also, popular in romances which have a strong fairy tale lineage.) The weather conditions may or may not be according to how they are used in the story.

    A motif in modern literature most often is an image found in a comparison or metaphor which keeps reappearing.

    For a writer, the motif is found after the first draft is finished, and you are reading it. You realize that your subconscious has been using mirrors and shadows as images or descriptions. You then puzzle it out that the mythic double/twin aka elements of identity and Jungian psychology are part of your underllying theme. Then you go back during your rewrite and add a bit more emphasis to these images and this theme, and you have lots more resonance to your story which makes it more emotional for the reader who may not spot these motifs but will usually “get” what you are trying to say.

    These articles are more about archetypes than motifs, but they have some good suggestions on how to spot and layer motifs in your works.


  11. In response to the question and in mind of Marilynn’s interesting addition of motifs versus archetypes, my answer is Eleven.
    Any time I mention numbers, it seems to be a variation of eleven.
    I think I know where this came from originally for me, but once noticed, I just rolled with it.

  12. Not really a motive, but I’ve just realised that all of my stories have a dog in them somewhere!

  13. Pingback: Writing Links 3/12/18 – Where Genres Collide

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