Monday, September 27, 2010

English Class with Ms. Moskowitz--Part 2: Motif

Okay! Onward!

Motif is easier than theme, and even less necessary. This is one that you can really ignore if you feel like it. But it's also a fun thing to play with if you like. It's something that I focus on a lot more in some books than in others, but it ends up creeping in most of the time anyway, and I bet it does in your stuff, too, more often than you might know.

The definition of a motif is really simple. It's a reoccurring element in a story that serves to tie parts of the story together. Cool?

A really obvious example of motifing (made that word up) is something like what I did in THESE HUMANS ALL SUCK, the manuscript that has been gently laid to rest. I did a lot with colors, particularly with the color blue.

If something was blue, you could pretty much bet that it was important. I didn't hit you over the head with it, I'd just casually mention that it was blue and move on. If you weren't looking for it, you probably wouldn't have noticed that blue was important. But it was there if you felt like it.

A more common example is a line or phrase that's repeated in the story. This is one I use A LOT. A character will say a line of dialogue early in the story that gets echoed in different ways--in the main character's thought process, in his own dialogue, something like that. And it immediately brings the reader back to the first time it was used.

Using your motif is like cross-referencing one part of your book to another. This is very much an English class element. If an AP English kid ever writes a paper on your book, there's a good chance he'll go in looking for motif. I'm not saying you should write your book with that goal or anything, but it's a good way to think of motif. It's something that works on an analysis level. If it's something that's very blatantly part of the story, it's probably too obvious.

I have weather as a motif in #magicgayfish. The mentions of the ocean are all in there to echo Rudy's emotional state. He projects his emotions onto the ocean (which is called a pathetic fallacy, if you're a fan of even more fancy terms). So if you were to go through and write down the different ways the ocean is described throughout the book, you would actually have written down Rudy's exact emotional arc through the book. Which is pretty cool, I think, and definitely not something I did unintentionally.

Almost done, but I want to do a quick reminder; I'm not writing The Great American Novel over here. I'm not writing anything that I could see a class analyzing in English. So this isn't something that you need to be writing literary fiction in order to worry about. Some of my YA books trend towards the more literary, and others towards more commercial, but they all have theme, motif, and allusions weaved into them, the same way they have plot and character and all that good stuff you're already used to thinking about.

Are these things I'm talking about comparable to plot and character in terms of importance? Well, it depends on the book you're writing, but almost definitely not. This is veering too closely to the literary/commercial debate for my taste (and I'm so, so sick of this debate) but just keep in mind that I'm not suggesting you stop writing dynamic, hooky plots and start writing stories of impotent old men staring out to the horizon or whatever. Write what you want. Be aware of your options.

Even my killing zombies with spatulas book has themes and motifs. And probably allusions, I can't remember. I'll talk about those next.


Dominique said...

Good posts.

I think motifs have a place, even in YA or non-literary books. It's probably because I took so many English Lit classes in HS, but I like to look for the motifs in my writing and many build some in. Not as a glaringly obvious thing, but something nice for the readers who notice.

Claudie A. said...

Motif are also really nice for those who read a book more than once. They are, most often, the kind of things I notice on my second way through, and it always makes me feel happy that I could cast the same story in a different light with my shiny discovery.

hannah said...

Dominique--I totally agree, and that's what I'm trying to get across here. That they can work no matter what you're writing, you know?

Claudie A.--GREAT point.

Remilda Graystone said...

Great post. Thanks for clearing this up.

Dayana Stockdale said...

Lots of movies do the dialogue form of motif, especially in romance movies. I usually find it cheesy, but when its well done it can be very effective and heartwrenching. Its something that stands out to me less in books though.

Lydia Sharp said...

A more common example is a line or phrase that's repeated in the story. This is one I use A LOT.

Ditto. It's one of the easiest/best ways to make an impact on the reader without seeming forced.

Great post. :)

Anonymous said...

I am deeply depressed that you are not MY REAL ENGLISH TEACHER

hannah said...


Ishta Mercurio said...

This is a great post. I love motifs, and as Claudie A said, it's fun to find them all on a second or third read. They're like a present for people who take the time to look deeper into a story.

I see motifs in movies a lot, not just in dialogue but in the color palette and musical choices. Very often, a TV show or a film will use a certain color palette for a specific setting, or there will be a melody that weaves itself throughout the film at specific moments (like whenever the lovers are together, or whenever the bad guy is onscreen). It's part of what weaves a story together into a whole.

I've given you a blog award - check it out at

Thanks for your blog!

Dominique said...

By the way, there's an award for you on my blog. :)

A Novel Woman said...

You had me at zombies and spatulas!

Anna L. Walls said...

You are the English teacher I wish I'd had in high school. Maybe if you had been in my world back then, I'd be a famous author by now and not just starting on this journey. Great post on Nathan Bransford's blog and here too. Thanks for being in my world.