How to Use Motif to Enhance Your Writing

by Joe Bunting | 37 comments

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:


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.


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!

Joe Bunting is an author and the leader of The Write Practice community. He is also the author of the new book Crowdsourcing Paris, a real life adventure story set in France. It was a #1 New Release on Amazon. Follow him on Instagram (@jhbunting).

Want best-seller coaching? Book Joe here.


  1. Sherrey Meyer

    OK, here goes my “green” list: bright green grass, beginning shoots of tulips and daffodils, weeping willows leafing out, my favorite coffee stand, the printing on my coffee card, greens of moss, evergreens everywhere in the NW, and perhaps it was a mind over matter effect, I’m wearing green!

    Fun exercise, Joe!

    • Joe Bunting

      I love it, Sherrey. Did you read the post before you put on your green garb?

    • Beck Gambill

      I love the weeping willows leafing out, I always think they look so magical as they come to life! It’s funny that you wore green, was that the power of suggestion?!

    • Steph

      Love all the baby foliage in your world! (And a little green with envy about it, too!)

  2. Beck Gambill

    I love the idea of motifs and have been identifying them in my writing and my life all day! I’m contemplating if I want to have a strong motif in my novel, I think I may. I have a few tendencies that could easily be worked into a motif.

    It was fun to watch for green today; here in the south it wasn’t hard to find:

    This morning green flecked eyes gazed back at me in the mirror, changeful as the sea, as always betraying my emotion.

    Tiny green ivy leaves unfurled on the window sill, greeting the morning sun.

    The baby ivy leaves compliment the pale green walls of my kitchen, which I’m coming to appreciate.

    The Alabama coast was under tornado watch today. I witnessed the evidence of this as palm trees threw back their green heads in protest to the whipping wind.

    To the left and right spread fields, watered for the last week by heavy rain, now dowsed in emerald green.

    Behind the fields marched a row of tall pines, a dark shadow of green piercing the sky.

    The announcement of road names flashed by my windshield in a florescent green blur.

    On the way home my eyes turned to take in the charm of a white farm house topped by a peaked green roof, it’s shingles echoing the carpet of grass beneath.

    This evening the sky hangs heavy, grumbling and growling, and casting an ugly green light.

    My daughter sorts through her collection of beads chirruping her disapproval, “I hate green!” I chuckle as she sets aside the offending color.

    • Kelly Knight

      Nice. Love the last two. I see that sky you’re describing.

    • Joe Bunting

      Nice, Beck!

      I like them all. This one caught my eye especially, “On the way home my eyes turned to take in the charm of a white farm house topped by a peaked green roof, it’s shingles echoing the carpet of grass beneath.”

      But you’ve got to get rid of that comma splice Beck! 🙂

    • Beck Gambill

      Haha, I know! I have to confess that I love my comma splices. I dread the edit of my novel. It’s riddled with comma splices. (I wanted to use one right there!) I’m afraid my grammar, or lack there of, is going to cause my manuscript to bleed red ink!

    • Joe Bunting


      Well I suppose that;s what copy editors are for.

    • Steph

      Hey, Joe, how ’bout a comma splice post? I know that I am very guilty of splicing!

      Nice list, Beck. I liked the palm trees throwing back their heads.

  3. Yvettecarol

    I love the idea of our lives having motifs. That is awesome sort of day-altering information, and entirely new to me, even better! Thanks Joe for a particularly brilliant piece today. Already I am thinking that way, looking at the very edges of patterns in my life — I’m not sure of the entirety yet — I am just becoming aware of the motifs of my life. I’ll continue to be with it….

    As to ‘greens’ I’m going to cheat and post my three. (Hey, the kids have gone to their dad’s, so I’m on relax mode!)

    * the yellow puke green of Sam’s shirt

    *the blue-green grubby-looking mesh of of the mouse pad

    *the cool mint of the words MP3 PLAYER against the black lid

    I’m off to listen to the last one. Have a happy weekend guys 🙂

    • Joe Bunting

      I love these three, Yvette, and I love that this is altering the way you see your world. I hope it continues!

  4. Eileen

    The green I noticed today: It’s interesting you picked that color because before I read your post, one of my bible readings for today was Mark 6:39 “Then Jesus directed all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass.” Every time I read that verse I wonder why Mark felt the need to share the color of the grass. And then I realized that every time I read that verse I can immediately picture those 5000 people sitting on that green grass…hmm. Anyway my list:

    The green on the green, red and white coffee cup I love to drink my coffee out of. It’s a Christmas mug with the word JOY written on it.

    My green rectangle shaped iPod shuffle attached to my blue jacket pocket while out walking my dog.

    My dark green bedroom walls. Love them

    The green tall grass in my front yard. Taller than normal for winter time.

    The bright green hideous looking car I pulled up next to on the drive into town.

    The green stack of paper stacked neatly on the shelf in the copy room today. They looked so cheerful next to all the other bright colors.

    The green pesto on my pesto & mozzarella bruschetta sandwich I ate while having lunch with 2 good friends.

    The green pieces of broken glass I noticed near the curb while at the light leaving Walmart.

    My son’s green coat when I picked him up from school today.

    The green leftover peas in the clear plastic container in the fridge. Saw them and smiled. Glad my son has decided that peas are no longer evil.

    The green cards mixed in with the yellow, blue, red cardsI held in my hand tonight during several rounds of Uno with my son.

    The sage green cloth blinds hanging from my two front living room windows.

    The green avocado I chopped up for tonight’s taco dinner

    The green night light in my son’s bedroom.

    • Joe Bunting

      I love all of these. Interesting peek into your day through color.

    • Beck Gambill

      What an interesting observation about the Bible verse Eileen. It sounds like you did have a green kind of day! It also sounds like you have a good bit of green in your home and such. Mine leans typically towards red.

    • Kelly Knight

      I like your paragraph about the peas. It’s a short story!

    • Katie Axelson

      Eileen, maybe Mark wanted to point out that the grass was green meaning it was alive rather than 5,000 people sitting on dead, brown grass… Your food descriptions are making me hungry. Especially the avocados and tacos.


  5. Kelly Knight

    I have only fourteen! This was a fun exercise that I focused on as I made my way home late last night. I ran most of these through my head as I drove, and quickly jotted notes when stopped at intersections (a rare occurrence for me to be glad for red lights).

    The forest-green mug that I will use only if the others are dirty.

    I punch each arm through the flannel lined sleeves of my olive green waxed-cotton coat.

    Squat green shrubs hunker down in the rain.

    Green office palms watch potted sidewalk topiary through a plate glass window.

    Wet brushstrokes of electric green bleed into the night-black road.

    The electric green now a fistful of plastic beads thrown across my windshield; the next instant pushed aside with the wipers’ sweep.

    A lonely yellow-green glow from the odometer.

    The green bass-throbbing Camary that slides past me on the left.

    Green and white street signs mark my drive home: Forest Hills, Brookley, Rossmore, Glen.

    The wasabi green messenger bag that I hang on the doorknob.

    I pinch stubborn green strawberry leaves between my forefinger and thumb.

    On my desk, a bundle of colored pencils held tight with an elastic band: Spring Green,
    Marine, Apple, Limepeel, Chartreuse, True Green.

    Green-spined books at rest on the shelf: The Hobbit, The Backyard Homestead, Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens.

    The striped quilt that I tuck under my chin as I drift off to sleep: spring sky blue, dusky rose, pale pear.

    • Beck Gambill

      Great list Kelly. I like the hunkered down bushes! I also like how you use a variety of greens in your description. It was a fun exercise!

    • Joe Bunting

      These were so great, Kelly.

      I particularly liked, “Wet brushstrokes of electric green bleed into the night-black road.”

      And your use of wasabi. Great job!

    • Katie Axelson

      I love your descriptions here. They take normal things and make them appear in a different manner. Not just “a green light” but “Wet brushstrokes of electric green bleed into the night-black road.”


    • Annoxford

      Truly captivating, Kelly! I, too, admire your use of green shades and tints to pull ,what could be random thought, together.

    • Yvette Carol

      Yippee Kelly, what an exuberant writer you are! I liked the electric green too but much better when it became a fistful of plastic beads thrown across your windscreen. It was like I was there, seeing it with you.

    • Steph

      Loved the plastic beads and wasabi!

    • Eileen

      mmm….wasabi. I just had some of that tasty green last night. I actually would like to know why you only choose to use the forest green cup only when all the others are dirty. 🙂

  6. Katie Axelson

    I didn’t see the prompt until the end of the day, so I described the green things within my line of vision. (sorry, rulebreaker here).

    I’ve written about colors before. Blue, orange, and purple come to mind. But never green.

    Green is the glossy cover of Like Sweet Potato Pie that I can’t wait to devour. It’s the delightful Christmas-scented candle on the coffee table. I’m not a candle fan but I like the smell of this one; it almost makes the flames worth it.

    Green is a shade of the cover of this Writer’s Notebook. It’s flimsy plastic is as cheap as the half-pages missing inside. Green is the marker I brought with me to pray. My pencil is lime green so it is harder to lose on the red couch, the brown table, or the white rug. Green is the color of the dress of the girl sitting next to me telling a story in Spanish.

    Green with envy is how I feel. It’s becuause everyone–not everyone, as Neal constantly reminds me–else has a full-time job. It’s for the person sitting behind the desk that will someday contain a plackard with my name on it. I prayed for him or her the other day. It was very strange. Especially since I may get a made-up job.

    Green is the color of my dad’s eyes, the grass that lets me forget it’s February, and the small amount of cash in my wallet.

    • Yvettecarol

      You surprised me with the ‘glossy cover’ of the pie, and I particularly liked the green of your dad’s eyes. What a slice of life! Nice one Katie. Ever thought of writing magazine articles as well as books? Occurred to me you’d be a good fit with your fresh take on life.

    • Katie Axelson

      Like Sweet Potatoe Pie is actually a novel by Jennifer Rogers Spinola.

      I’m a freelance writer so I write everything which does sometimes include magazine articles. Thanks for the thought!


    • Kelly Knight

      This is my favorite: Green is the color of the dress of the girl sitting next to me telling a story in Spanish.

    • Eileen

      “the grass that lets me forget it’s February.” I like that.

  7. Steph

    The tip of the green collar peeking out from under my hair, a blouse I chose to brighten up a drab sweater, though my face still looks like winter.

    The album cover for the record, The Last Waltz, is green, a green that must certainly match the polyester pants of the person who checked it out form the library in 1978.

    That coat – is it green or blue? And of her eyes, I could ask the same.

    Pine trees are green, I know this to be true, but against the snow and clouds they are lead scribbles.

    If I had only green clay to build the totem-story of my life, I would shape my family’s heads and stack them into a tower of smiling green hobgoblins.

    The irony: the fisherman owns a big green pickup truck for his back-to-nature expeditions, and his amped up exhaust system hearlds that he has arrived.

    I keep my mug with the red and green Christmas stripes at work because I won’t miss it at home.

    Though the clear, green packing-pillow sheets biodegrade faster tahn old-fashioned bubble wrap, you still should not put them in your baby’s crib or use them as a flotation device.

    I see green plaid, red hair, and freckles, and that person fast-forwards me one month from now, into spring.

    Your granddaughter takes after your husband’s side, yes, now please let me at that laptop to show you how to take the green tint off that digital photo you are passing around.

    Seafoam green folding chairs: tacky or retro?

    Soft forest green fleece pullover; a hug; my husband.

    • MarianneVest

      This is good. I like how you think a little further than the color, and how you briefly write about the path of your thought. My favorite parts are the pines that you know are green but that look like “lead scribbles”, and the the back to nature truck spewing exhaust (well I don’t like that but I like the way you put it).

    • Yvette Carol

      You’ve got a sense of humour Steph. I love that!

  8. hemsri

    Green is usually depicted as the color of Mother Nature. It tugs at my heart unlike Blue which is more mind-inclined, makes one feel more ‘enterprising’.
    1. The see – through green of a just emptied beer bottle gives a hazy green tint to whatever is being viewed through it.
    2. Long green leaves sticking out of the back of a bunch of white horse radish in striking contrast, making the green appear more greener and the white more whiter.
    3. The bright green thread intricately woven into the golden background of the Persian carpet giving it a softer glow.
    4. Two bright green parrots sitting close together on the electric transmission line their red beaks sharply etched against the green background of the rest of them.
    5 The Ear Rings of Emeralds – pulsating green, making the diamond necklace worn on the throat glow with an inner luster.
    6. The translucent dull green drinking water bottle, standing straight on the
    dinner table with the water in it appearing a bilious green.
    7. The rough, thick, medium green colored blanket, folded at the foot of the bed inviting one to sleep with warm feet.
    8. The tough green color splattered jute vegetable/ grocery shopping bag, hanging in wait on a peg above the kitchen cupboard.
    9. A light green grass hopper , with transparent wings fluttering at the end of the black beak of a crow.
    10. The fresh newly born leaves of the Margossa tree, with the faintest touch of green, waiving gently in the breeze.
    11. The bottle green saree with a light green border worn with a black blouse – stunning sight.
    12. Colorless dew drops drip off the tips of the freshly washed green grass blades.
    13. The dark brown bark of the Gulmohar trees frame the verdant green of the soft grass.
    14. The pale green water hyacinth gently waves its’ tendrils in the small pond inviting the onlooker for a swim.
    15. The palm shaped dull green leaves of the Bargadh tree beckoning the passerby to rest under its thick foliage.

    • Yvette Carol

      I floated away on your ‘greens’ Hemsri. I liked that there was a surprise after the light green grasshopper, that he was fluttering at the end of a bird’s beak …

    • hemsri

      “Floating away on ‘greens’ ” – a magnificent visualization of the feelings of a reader. Thanks.


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