A literary device in which recurring elements, symbols, or ideas reinforce a work's themes


A motif can be an incredible tool for an author. It’s another way to reinforce your story’s theme without being heavy-handed. If you were to repeat your theme, your reader might feel beaten over the head with it. But if you repeat an image or idea, you can introduce your theme in a subtle manner.

To reduce this to its simplest form, say you are writing a a story with a “good vs. evil” theme. You may choose a motif of “light vs. dark” wherein the use of light colors, weightlessness, or knowledge is contrasted with dark colors, heaviness, or ignorance. Instead of saying, this person or thing is good, you allow the descriptions to get that idea across through repetition.

A motif adds a level of complexity to your work when it is used effectively.

Common motifs include:

  • Seasons (winter can represent death; spring can represent new life or youth)
  • Colors
  • The Love Triangle
  • Light vs. Dark
  • Love conquers all
  • Hero’s Journey
  • The Journey
  • Lost innocence


SPEAK by Laurie Halse Anderson

In SPEAK, the image of the tree is used as a recurring motif. Melinda has lost her voice after a traumatic event. The tree comes to represent many things, including her growth as a character throughout the novel.

WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson

Winter and winter imagery appears throughout WINTERGIRLS as a common motif to represent a girl’s relationship with her body as she battles an eating disorder.

HARRY POTTER series by J.K. Rowling

In the Harry Potter series, the muggles act as a motif. These non-magical humans are used in contrast to the wizards in order to show that the best and worst of humanity exists in both worlds.

PAPER TOWNS by John Green

In a road trip story like PAPER TOWNS, the physical journey is a motif representing the spiritual journey from youth to adulthood.


Wednesday Writer’s Vocabulary are a recurring feature on this blog. Have you ever found yourself struggling to offer critiques because you don’t know the lingo? Every Wednesday I define a writing or editing term and provide practical examples from novels and short stories.

Have a term you want to see here? Let me know in the comments!