Wednesday Writing Tips: What is a Motif?

What is a Motif? Definition and 10 Concrete Examples from Literature

By: Reedsy

Let’s just admit it: “What is a motif and how do you use it?” is a much less sexy question to ask than, “What’s your book about?”

But it’s just as necessary. If the theme of a book is its heartbeat, then motifs in literatureare the vessels that keep the blood coursing through the narrative. Among other things, motifs add depth to your writing and steer readers toward your book’s central message (assisted by other strong literary devices).

In this post, we’ll look at what a motif is (and what it is not), examine motif examples in action, and explore how you can incorporate motifs into your own writing.

What is a motif?

A motif is a recurring narrative element with symbolic significance. If you spot a symbol, concept, or plot structure that surfaces repeatedly in the text, you’re probably dealing with a motif. Motifs must be related to the central idea of the work and they always end up reinforcing the author’s overall message.

But how can you tell which ones are motifs? Remember that you must be able to connect a motif to the “big ideas” in a book. Just because the narrator mentions a particular pair of shoes a few times, doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a motif — unless the author makes a point of tying it to a bigger question of, let’s say, escape and freedom. (Don’t worry — we’ll provide more concrete motif examples in a bit!)

Since they’re repeated throughout a text, motifs are also very traceable. As you’re trying to figure out the motifs of a given work, it might be useful to think of them as having a trail of purposeful clues. The author plants these breadcrumbs so that the reader can better work out the ideas behind the work — and its overarching point.

That brings up our next question: how do motifs relate to themes? Luckily, we’ve got the answer for you right here!

Motifs support a book’s theme

The theme of a book is generally considered to be the core meaning behind a story — the “soul” behind the text, in other words. Themes are almost always universal and they usually illuminate something about society, human nature, and the world.

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In contrast, a motif reinforces the theme through the repetition of a certain narrative element. As you may have already guessed, themes and motifs in literature are devoted partners in crime.

To give you an easily digestible example, let’s take Shakespeare’s Sonnet 24. The theme of this sonnet is arguably that “love is skin-deep.” And one of its main motifs is sight, which is made clear through the recurring imagery of eyes. It’s not a coincidence that the motif and the theme of a text are closely related: the former props up and strengthens the other, as you can see in this sonnet.

Million-dollar question: what’s the difference between a motif and a theme? Find out here!

Symbols represent motifs

A symbol in a book is just like a symbol on a street sign: something recognizable that represents something abstract. In the US, for instance, eagles are a symbol of freedom. In The Hunger Games, the mockingjay is a symbol of revolution.

That said, when you see a symbol surface over and over again, chances are that it signifies a motif.

Let’s cut to The Great Gatsby, a classic vessel of symbolism, to illustrate this. F. Scott Fitzgerald uses the Valley of Ashes — a barren wasteland between East and West Egg — as a symbol to represent the waste and moral decay of the elite. This is a part of the book’s bigger motif of wealth and finance, which recurs through a number of ideas — among them, Gatsby’s parties, the extravagance of the both West and East Eggs, and Daisy’s voice that is described as “full of money.” That, in turn, reinforces one of the book’s major themes about the corruption of the American Dream.

To sum it up, here’s a quick chart for you:

what is a motif image 1Now that you have a better sense of what is a motif (and what it’s not), let’s see some more of them in action!

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Wednesday Writing Tips: How to Write Dialogue

How to Write Dialogue: 10 Simple Rules (Plus 5 Mistakes to Avoid!)

By: Reedsy

No matter what your genre, learning how to write dialogue effectively is a vital part of any writer’s education. Poor dialogue can make readers put your book down in disgust — but great dialogue can transform your characters into truly believable people, and your readers into satisfied customers.

Of course, the best kind of dialogue isn’t just believable. It also provides exposition, involves distinct language depending on who’s speaking, and — perhaps most crucially — moves the story along. Without dialogue, you’d just have pages and pages of description with barely any character dynamics or interpersonal drama. How boring would that be?

Because dialogue is one of the essential components of strong writing, we want to help you get it exactly right. To that end, we’ve put together this list of rules, examples, and more that will have you writing sparkling conversation in no time! We’ll also cover how to format and punctuate dialogue, for those who aren’t sure exactly what goes where.

If you’re especially curious about formatting, go ahead and skip to #10 using the table of contents on the left — otherwise, let’s jump right in with dialogue rule #1.

1. Enter the conversation late

Alfred Hitchcock once said that “drama is life with all the boring bits cut out.” Comparably, we could say that good dialogue is like a real conversation without all the fluff. And one of the best ways to cut out that boring fluff is to enter the conversation as late as possible.

Think about it: few “classic” scenes start with characters going, “Hey buddy! How are you doing? Wow, long time no see.” This is because people enjoy making inferences based on details in action and speech — and the last thing you want to do is insult their intelligence by spelling everything out for them.

For a more tangible taste of this technique, here’s screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talking about the first scene of his Oscar-winning screenplay for The Social Network:

“We started at 100 miles an hour in the middle of a conversation, and that makes the audience have to run to catch up. The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”

Sorkin’s ability to give the audience just the right amount of detail is a huge strength, and something all writers should strive for. So don’t slow down to accommodate your readers — make them catch up to you.

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The dialogue in The Social Network is famous for its sharp edges and quick pace. (Image: Sony Pictures)

2. Keep dialogue tags simple

Dialogue tags are the phrases in your writing that indicate who’s saying what. For example: “I can’t wait to read this article,” Rita said. In this case, “Rita said” is the dialogue tag. It identifies the speaker and clarifies the action.

Of course, there are plenty of other dialogue tags besides “said”: stated, declared, proclaimed, the list goes on and on. But when writing dialogue, you generally want to keep these elaborate tags to a minimum.

As American novelist and screenwriter Elmore Leonard put it:

“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘cautioned,’ ‘lied.’”

The key word that Leonard uses here is “intrusive.” You want to bring readers into your scene and make them feel like firsthand observers, without drawing attention to the fact that they’re actually not. When you raid your thesaurus for fancy dialogue tags, you risk taking readers out of the scene for a brief display of your verbal virtuosity.

In that vein, keep your tags simple — use “said” where you need to, and other dialogue tags even more sparingly. Luckily, much of the time you don’t even need a tag to show who’s speaking; either readers will already know, or you can imply it another way. Speaking of which…

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