A to Z Day 13: Motif

Ahh. The half-way point!

I define a motif as a pattern of images or ideas that runs through an entire work of art or type of art. Some of the easiest examples in writing come from fantasy and its most delicious antecedent — fairy tales. Here are a couple examples:

  • The commoner who grows up to discover they’re really nobility.
  • The damsel locked away, for whatever reason, with no way to escape until a most attractive prince sets her free.
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We could also throw in messiah figures, knowledge guarded by supernatural agents with the power of life and death, and self-fulfilling prophecies; but those are all rather older than fairy tales.

And then there are modern motifs. You can find tragic heroes or outright anti-heroes who enforce their own code of justice everywhere, from barely-modern tales of ronin samurai, to the earliest days of comics, to ultra-contemporary tales of the American West.

Motifs can be purely visual as well – hunting scenes, marriages, funerals. All can be depicted on pottery and canvas and cave walls in fine detail or with just a few strokes. And the reason we find these motifs in particular depicted in so many different ways by so many different cultures is that they are powerful. Food and clothing. Bonding with another human being. Mortality. What is more important than those? There are darker, but no-less-important, motifs that run through many cultural records as well. Armed conflict. Massacre. Blood sacrifice.

Here’s how I deal with motifs in my own writing. I use them to generate ideas sometimes. Unbending anti-heroes are useful characters, though not fit for center stage these days, unless you’re a real genius. And who doesn’t love a visceral, high-stakes hunting scene or a really screwed-up wedding? Aside from that, I try not to think about them. I don’t intentionally embed motifs in my writing – they’re not something I use to structure a plot (at least not consciously).

But I do try to be alert to what I’ve done, once I get into the late stages of revision, and sometimes the patterns of images and ideas I find in my own writing are pretty interesting.

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9 thoughts on “A to Z Day 13: Motif

  1. I’ve studied musical motifs a good deal, and I love the way a film score or instrumental piece can take a literary motif and set it to music – it allows the motif to come to life, and we can hear the growth and change of the literary theme with our ears. Write good motifs, and your work will easily lend itself to film!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. It’s true that during revision, I notice motifs that I didn’t intentionally put there while writing the rough draft. Interesting post. Thanks! Good luck to you, too, with the rest of A to Z!

    Like

  3. Pingback: Things I know now that I didn’t know on April 1: An A to Z Reflection | The Writing Catalog

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