June 24th, 2016

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.

Two beautiful sad teenage girls embracing with quilt outdoors

The symbol I used was a small glass box, a cheap trinket with a yin yang symbol on the lid.

Yin Yang box

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?

 *  *  *  *  *  *

Amazon CoverDays Made of Glass

Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.

Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.

Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.

When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.

It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.

A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.

32 comments to Motifs and Symbols and Themes – Oh My!

  • Sometimes I think I’m writing the same book over and over. I lean toward the “you can’t run away from yourself” or “you have to be you” themes.

  • Hi Laura. I loved your post. I am a plot driven driven reader and writer. I’m a sucker for a good story. When I was younger, as much as I loved reading, I never enjoyed English classes where we had to find the themes and symbols in books. Now I am a writer and my stories have multiple themes (like you and Terry, certain themes follow me from one story to the next. I think the themes are what drive me to write the stories in the first place) and are loaded with symbols. I don’t even put the symbols in on purpose. They grow out of the story all by themselves.

    • I know, Stephanie – isn’t that the coolest? I’ve had our own Jenny Hansen tell me about a theme I’d put in my book that I didn’t even know I had! Love it when that happens.

      But I’m working at getting better at this – being more aware. I’m reading Wired for Story – it’s incredible! Highly recommend it for novel planning!

  • I love a good symbol, as you know, and I’m a sucker for theme. LOVE to punch that up through a story.

    Several years ago when I went through my earliest stories, the common theme in ALL of them was overcoming shame. It was a shocker to me when I realized it. I often have the “family and connections are most important” theme too.

  • Now MS Laura I must get Days Made of Glass and read it. Great post. I have a scent of marigolds running through my WIP.

  • Great post! I hated to pick themes, etc. when I was in school and struggle to identify them in my own writing – but, I’ve friends who love to do that! Trust in yourself and in others is a big theme in all my books. There is an over-arcing symbol in the series as well as in each book. And, they just come with the story – not something I make up.

  • colleen

    Great reminder on these, Laura. I’ll be thinking of motifs all day! (ha) :O)

  • in my book “The Late Sooner,” Lucy insists on taking her china into the Oklahoma Territory because one day her three-year-old will grow up and inherit them. It’s a connection from the past in an uncertain future.

  • Sharon Hampton

    A great post. A keeper, Thanks for sharing.

  • Linda Lee

    Thanks for the helpful post,,Laura. Pinned, shared, & saved. 🙂

  • I too hated taking English in school. Then my therapist suggested taking some editor certificate classes at the UW and suddenly I found myself intrigued by helping writers better their craft. I wish more authors would use plot devices such as symbolism and thematic patterning in their writing.

    I love the symbolism of the small, cheap glass box which sounds like something I might have picked up overseas and given to my wife or daughters.

    What was kept in that little glass box? Who has the glass box now? Was the glass box magical; a portal to another world?

    There are all kinds of stories that could be told around an excellent symbol.

  • Fae Rowen

    I’m always surprised when someone reads one of my stories and talks about the symbolism. Maybe when you’ve read so many books, osmosis really does work.

    Thanks for these reminders and examples, Laura. Definitely not my strongest suit, but they are so important for that “break out” book.

    • I think that a lifetime of reading gives you an ‘innate’ sense of storytelling, Fae. That’s the only thing that explains when we see things in our writing that we weren’t aware of putting there. Or, thinking back to your first attempt at writing – it may not have been prefect, craft-wise, but I’ll bet it WAS a story!

      I love that.

  • Beverly Turner

    Laura…I have had the experience of thinking I knew what theme I was including in my story only to have a friend pick up on an additional theme I didn’t consciously put in there. Guess my subconscious wanted to put in its two cents worth!

    Thanks for a reminder of how these things can make a story stronger. Great post.

    • I do love finding out later, Beverly – but I think the book can be stronger if you use it consciously. But as long as it’s there, you’re golden!

      • Beverly Turner

        I didn’t mean I don’t have a theme that is running through what I write. I am surprised when a reader notices an additional theme that I have layered in, too, without a conscious effort. I agree that conscious inclusion of a primary theme makes for a stronger work. I think those themes are part of what drives us to write.

  • Holly Robinson

    This is a great post, Laura! I used to be terrified trying to explain symbols, motifs, etc. when I was in English classes. That’s one of the main reasons I majored in biology and loved math: the answers were either right or wrong, unlike in literature. Now, as a writer, I often find that my subconscious is putting in symbols and motifs in my fiction without me even realizing it–until an alert reader makes a comment and I suddenly “see” what I’ve done. They definitely serve a purpose. The trick is to use them in a subtle way, so the reader doesn’t feel like the author is banging them on the head with a hammer.

    • You and I have a lot in common, Holly – except the math thing (in spite of my being a CFO – still hate math).

      Good point about the hammer. I’ve read a couple of books that the theme drifts into preaching. Not good. Readers are much smarter than we give them credit for.

  • karenmcfarland

    I love Motif, Theme and Symbolism. I pick out the theme first. I feel like it’s the foundation to build my story on. Then I’ll search for the right symbol to represent the theme along with a strong motif to support the symbol. I want them to intertwine in order to create a strong story. Love this post Laura! I’m going to file this along with your post on Cadence from a year and a half ago. 🙂

  • Victoria Marie Lees

    Clear definitions with examples for writers. This is great! Themes. How about the opposite sides of the lake in The Great Gatsby, old money new money. I write short story. I did have a smiley face stand for a deceased mother. Thanks for sharing this with writers, Laura!

  • These devices are what I love about reading a well-written book. Even if I can’t consciously tell you the symbols, they effect my reading and understanding. Thanks, Laura!

  • I’m guilty of putting motifs in my stories


  • We rarely talk about these, but they’re so powerful! Thanks for reminding us.

    I did use a tobacco pipe to symbolize my main character’s father in SHARING HUNTER. The way she treats that pipe says a lot about how she feels about her father, since it’s a bit of a stand-in.

    And I’m totally in for the nerdy motif game. When do you want to play? 🙂

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