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The Effects of Motifs and How to Include Them in Your Narrative

One of the most exciting literary devices you can use is a motif. It allows you to illuminate the central theme of your story by repeating an element throughout your narrative. This can be an object, a character, an event, a setting, an expression, or a sentiment. In this article, we illustrate the effects of motifs in literature and explain how they can occur in your writing.

The effects of motifs in literature

Besides illuminating dominant themes, writers use motifs to achieve these other purposes:

1. To portray a character's development. A good example is in the notable Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, where many journeys occur as a motif. Elizabeth visits Charlotte, where she is first introduced to Mr. Darcy. On her second journey to Derby, Pemberley enables her to meet Darcy again. Darcy also goes on his own voyage; he tracks down Wickham and Lydia and saves his family honor. Throughout the novel, these journeys serve as a motif for growth and change in Elizabeth and Darcy.

2. To establish a character's personality. We can see this effect in Brontë's Wuthering Heights; Emily uses dogs as a motif. The story opens with Heathcliff maltreating his dog, while Lockwood is more affectionate to it. Later, Heathcliff kills Isabella's dog upon leaving Thrushcross. Heathcliff's abusive treatment of dogs establishes him as a brutal character and foreshadows his cruelty toward Isabella.

3. To create unique symbolic meanings. A perfect example is Ernest Hemingway's Old Man in the Sea. Here, Santiago constantly dreams about lions, even when he is far in the middle of the sea and surrounded by other predators. Instead of the conventional interpretation of lions as representing harm or danger, for Santiago, they represented peace and comfort. The story ends with Santiago "dreaming about the lions," a sign that he has finally found peace.

How to use motifs

There are two ways motifs can occur in your narrative; you either plan to include them or they happen naturally.

Planning motifs: To include motifs in your writing, you may need to plan for them. As motifs help reinforce your theme, the first step in the planning requires you to identify the themes you intend to express in your work. You also need to consider the main characters in your narrative and what you want readers to associate with them. Using motifs may require you to find symbols that elaborate on your theme, so you also need to identify what those symbols can be. A story about courage can feature a sword, which a character possesses when they pass some kind of test. 

After deciding what your story theme is and what symbol would represent it, you incorporate it into your work in a seamless yet compelling and outstanding way. It needs to occur in your narration at the right moments and not appear forced or unnatural. Consider Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird as an example. Here, a mockingbird is a motif; it even appears in the title but occurs in the narration only at crucial moments, portraying the theme of innocence and goodness and the wickedness of attacking something so harmless. 

Naturally occurring motifs: While planning a motif is imperative, you can begin your writing with no intention of creating a motif but notice one occurring naturally. Many motifs in narrative fiction develop this way. The writer discovers the need to represent a deep meaning in their narration and subconsciously delivers it. You may be writing a horror novel about the main character trapped in a haunted house with other characters. They keep encountering skulls in various places in this house, while characters continue to meet gruesome deaths. Here, these skulls may be a part of different scenes for different reasons, but in the end, you notice that you have created a motif pattern that is hard to miss.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen