How to Use Motif to Enhance Your Writing

Repetition is an important principle in every artistic pursuit from music to painting to literature. It gives you another layer of meaning to work with and can add a level of symbolic value to your seemingly casual description, dialogue, or action.

Today, I’d like to try a unique exercise (which I stole from a friend who teaches art) to help us practice repetition in the form of motif. Here’s a sneak-peak of what we’re going to do:

PRACTICE

Spend the day looking for green. When you see something green, describe it in your journal (which you’ll want to carry around for the day so you don’t forget your green things).

Example: The green grass in front of the old red-brick house no one will buy. The green-yellow bananas lying on their side in the supermarket. The green pine tree which looks bright next to the skeletal oak.

Pretty fun, right? But before we begin, let’s talk for a moment about motif.

Green Bottle Motif

Photo by Leland Francisco.

How Great Authors Use Motif

Motif is when you repeat something in your narrative. Often, authors repeat description, but dialogue, action, or any other element of narrative can be repeated as well. The interesting part is that this repeated thing gains symbolic meaning as you repeat it.

For example, in The Picture of Dorian Grey Oscar Wilde uses the color white as a motif. Through the frequent uses of the word “white” in reference to things of innocence, Wilde tracks Dorian’s descent from innocence and his subsequent longing for a return to it.

As another example, when I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian I underlined every instance of the words pale and dust. When I looked back through the novel I realized he used those words several hundred times. The pale dusty color became a major part of the palette of the book—along with bloodred, of course. In other words…

Motif is the palette you use to convey the world of your story and its underlying meaning.

Your Life Has Motifs Too

As you go through your day you might notice a few motifs. It might be certain actions in your job. It might be attitudes inherent in your personality. It could be the colors you see as you make your morning drive—blues and greens in the summer, browns and greys in the winter.

If you were to paint your life, what palette would you use? If you were going to convey your life on the page, what motifs would you use?

Hopefully, today’s exercise will help you begin to notice patterns in your own life, so that you can start to arrange patterns in the lives of your characters.

PRACTICE

Spend the day looking for green. When you see something green, describe it in your journal (which you’ll want to carry around for the day so you don’t forget your green things).

Example: The green grass in front of the old red-brick house no one will buy. The green-yellow bananas lying on their side in the supermarket. The green pine tree which looks bright next to the skeletal oak.

When you get a decent size list (at least fifteen) post it here in the comments and we’ll compare notes.

Have a green filled day!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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