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?