Motif vs Symbol: What’s the Difference?

by Liz Bureman | 10 comments

When you analyze literature, you're often asked to look at the pattern of ideas presented in the text. Sometimes, you're asked to identify or explain motif vs symbol. So what's the difference and why does it matter as a writer?

Years ago, I blitzed through Veronica Roth's Divergent in about a day. For as long as it was, it was a really quick read. If you've read Divergent, you may have noticed the symbols running throughout the book (e.g. ravens, Dauntless' flames, and so on). Or are they motifs?

What is the difference between a motif vs symbol? First, let's look at some definitions and examples.

What is a symbol?

A symbol is a usually something tangible or visible that represents something more abstract. Technically, a symbol is anything that communicates meaning visually. So a red octagonal metal sign means something to drivers, even if it doesn't have the actual word “STOP” on it.

In literature, symbols can take all kinds of forms. Birds and other animals, colors, weather, clothing, and even certain locations like the forest can work as symbols when they represent more abstract ideas.

For example, in the novel The Scarlet Letter, the forest is symbolic of freedom from the Puritanical restrictions so prevalent in Hester's small community. She even takes her hair down in the forest in front of Reverend Dimmesdale (gasp!). It might also represent danger or any number of additional meanings depending on the thematic elements you're unpacking.

Symbols as a narrative element deepen and enrich the experience for the reader even if they don't have to sit down and write an explication of the symbols in the novel. Why?

I think it's because it creates a kind of inside joke, a layer of meaning that the writer trusts the reader to catch.

What is a motif?

A motif is also something tangible, but it's anything repeated to signal deeper meaning directly related to the plot ands. an overarching theme. Motifs recur throughout a work as opposed to only appearing once, and they must hold significance to the plot.

Motifs typically are used in one of three ways:

  • a single object that appears multiple times throughout the work with most of the emphasis placed on the item
  • a collection of related objects that appear multiple times to emphasize the theme
  • a collection of seemingly unrelated items that serve to draw attention to the theme in a subtler manner.

With a motif in literature, the reader might need to work to find the connection, but motifs serve the larger theme of the novel.

As a reminder, a central theme is the overarching message or lesson that the story explores.

For example, colors are highly symbolic in The Great Gatsby, and used together, they form a motif–a way the author comments on the failure of the American Dream. The color green is symbolic of greed and impossible longing, the color white as a false purity, the color gray as a commentary on the lives of the working class.

When you are looking for a motif, watch for things that repeat or seem to touch on the same theme with different variations.

Motif vs. symbol: What's the difference?

They both communicate something beyond literal meaning, but a motif requires repetition, usually directly related to a major theme.

A writer might include a minor character who keeps doves to symbolize the peaceful nature of the character, but that would be a symbol if it doesn't repeat elsewhere or relate to the broader themes.

Symbol vs. Motif in Divergent

One of the main things I noticed early in the book is that the factions that define the citizens of the city each have their own designated wardrobe. Tris, the main character, is born in a faction that is defined by their selflessness, and all members of that faction wear the same shapeless gray clothes. When she chooses her new faction, she chooses the faction defined by bravery and fearlessness, and all members of that faction dress in black and display tattoos and piercings.

These dress codes pretty solidly symbolize the traits of each of the factions. But they only represent the faction personalities. With a symbol, there's no significance to the plot or major theme tied to the dress codes other than establishing the personalities of the factions. This is what distinguishes a symbol from its plot-focused cousin, the motif.

If you are writing your own book, don't worry too much about adding symbols and motifs, especially in a first draft. If they start showing up organically, great. In revision, if you want to amplify an idea by using a symbol or motif, you can easily think about how to subtly play up the major plot points and thematic patterns.

What are some symbols and motifs that you've noticed in books and movies? Share in the comments.

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PRACTICE

Set the timer for fifteen minutes. Choose an object that could be a symbol, meaning it could stand for something beyond its literal self (an apple, a stop sign, a color, a river, etc). Once you've selected an object, either:

  1. Write about what the object might stand for in various scenarios or for different characters, or
  2. Write a scene that incorporates the object in a meaningful way. 
  3.  

When you're finished, post your practice in the Pro Practice Workshop. And if you post, be sure to comment on a few practices by other writers.

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Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

10 Comments

  1. Mar Ri O

    First post guys, copy and pasted basically as-is. Thanks for looking over it in advance!

    I sat there in my study, eyes intent, fingers hesitant,
    focusing on the paper laid out before me. I hadn’t much time left, but I hadn’t
    much ideas either. I stared at the blank page longer, trying to fill it with
    the nothingness in my mind and frustration crawled up my spine like a spider in
    the middle of the night. I shook my head quickly, my nose rings clanging
    against each other, and tried to calm down. This wasn’t me, and this wasn’t the
    right time. I’d been procrastinating on finishing the weekly project for the
    majority of the week and now that I’d finally forced myself to do it, I couldn’t.
    The room, filled with so many paintings and ornaments and eccentricities, with
    all its colors, and all its quirk seemed restricting and drab to me. Gray and
    black and death seemed more appealing than lamps and bed and windows which is
    comforting because at the rate things are going, I won’t have those for long.

    The clock ticked behind me, insistent and consistent.

    My blood pressure rose. Pen and paper, pen and paper. So
    many times before I’d combine those things and more would come of it. I was a
    prodigy, as a child I’d beaten known veterans in painting and fiction and
    poetry contests, and people expected
    things of me now. Scholars from Erudite wrote that I was to become the voice of
    our time. But I couldn’t even find my own voice anymore. I can’t paint, I can’t
    write, and I can’t create. It was
    scary. Losing this ability, even momentarily, is akin to losing an arm. I feel
    helpless and awkward and when I’m not paying attention, in the back of my mind
    I feel like I’m imagining everything, like I could just reach inside myself and
    pull something out, but when I try I get nothing. I need something.

    The clock sounded. Shrill and quick. That meant it was
    showcase hour. That meant I was screwed. I stared behind me at the clock as its
    hands traveled through time again, slow and precise. It was boring. So boring.
    The most boring ornament in my room or any room in the inspiration faction. Everything about us is supposed to scream
    weird, colorful, and ingenious but the only thing the clock screamed at me was
    alarm. I had to go. With sweat beading my forehead I walked out my room, me in
    my tie-dye hoodie and red pants poured into a flood of people with as many
    different colors as there was like to exist in the world. I followed their path
    to the auditorium. You could never say that anyone in our faction could blend
    in anywhere, even within our borders, but I’d never felt like so much of an
    outsider before in my life. At the end of the line, as we entered the spacious
    auditorium with graffiti and posters and poems covering every inch of every
    portion of the walls, I felt eyes on every inch of me. They’d be expecting me,
    I’d put off performing the preceding weeks by implying that I was working on
    something big, and it was obvious that everyone’s patience was spent during the
    last showcase. Chatter, laughs and conversations filled the air until everybody
    filed in and the great proctor signaled for silence.

    “I usually have some sort of procedure but everything
    changes, honestly.” The proctor projected, a small man in a burgundy suit with
    a red bow-tie and green horn-rimmed glasses. His voice boomed without the aid
    of technology. “Mario! We’ve been waiting for you to change our worlds for the
    past month with this project you’ve been working on, our little prodigy. Now’s
    the scene, present us with the presence of the work that only you have seen.”

    Alarm, panic, embarrassment, the emotions spun in my head
    like a carousel. Swallowing my spit, I started to walk towards the stage,
    ignoring everyone’s looks of curiosity at the empty-handed prodigy. A foot
    before the stage, my eyes caught another one of those clocks, simple, plain,
    and relatable.

    Reply
    • Maymunah Rose

      I don’t see how it related to the practice, but it was good. Nice voice there.

    • Claire

      Just stumbled across this while doing some homework, but wanted to let you know that you have an great voice and truly captivating writing style. Keep writing!!

  2. Maymunah Rose

    Ooh.. I like this one. Let’s see.

    Smoke arose all around me as the remains of war stained my formerly beautiful home. Ware always seems to tore people apart, and this one did in four different sects: the Martils, Urynx, Joforus, and the Libdis. I was a Libdis, are symbol a snake. We are quiet but vicious people, always aware and ready to attack. I don’t like it too much, but it’s where I fit in the best- the queit type that I am. Walking the streets, searching for my family, I encountered an old friend.
    She approached me carefully. By the dragon clasp in her hair, I could tell she was a Martilis – the bold fiery group who started this whole war against the Jofurus. I smirked, yet it wasn’t suprising.
    “Hello Zepti, it’s been a while. How’s life?” I asked.
    “Don’t play nice talk on me Emriliah! You’re a Libdis; we’re not friends.”
    I tried not to look hurt. “So Miss Dragon lady, you decided to follow the stupid grudges held after this war.”
    She snorted. “I was chosen to search for the motif of my tribe, I can’t be open.”
    I raised my eyebrow. “Oh, then we’re in this together. I was chosen also.”
    She shifted uncomfortably and then grew really mad. “I’m not working with you! Us Martilis are determined to find our emblem first. You other groups can fall to the ground for all I care. And I already know where my emblem is.”
    “Where?” I asked.
    “In the Upala Volcano.”
    I turned very pale as she turned around and walked off. So this is what the leaders were now doing? Sending people off to their deaths? Not on my watch. With a determination I never knew I had, I made up my mind to stop this nonsense. Dashing after my former friend I screamed, “Wait! Can’t you see. Think for once Zepti! These people are just trying to get us to kill each other, they don’t need some stupid emblem. We’re just part of the game. But it’s not a good game, let us turn it off. I’m going to stop it. But I’m going to need some help.”
    Zepti stopped in her tracks. I came closer.
    ” I said I’m not working with you,” she reaffirmed.
    I smiled to myself. “Remember the time when we were younger? We were playing together in the backyard and you got stuck in the thorns. You didn’t want anyone to see you, so I spent a whole hour trying to get you out. After it you said that you owe me one big time, you promised. You never break promises and I never do to you. You never paid me back, this is the time to do so.”
    She squinted her eyes at me and I could tell she was trying to put that brain of hers to work.
    “You know, I don’t like this war that much either,” she admitted. “But my father…”
    “Forget about your father! He can’t kill you, and your much to old for a spanking.”
    “Fine,” she said simply.

    I nodded thankfully, and we made our way together through the ashes. I wrapped my black hair and stared at my city once more.
    “You,” I promised to myself, “you my beloved city will be strung together to one once more, even if it cost some lives.”
    Me and Zepti had just put ourselves in something that was full of dangers and regrets, but their was no turning back. My city would be saved.

    That was over fifteen minutes, but I liked writing that. Please tell me what you think, and if I should consider adding to it.

    Reply
    • Eliese

      Hi Maymunah Rose. I liked our story. It had a few rough draft mistakes, but that’s ok. I thought your symbols, and motif were well done, and the separation between groups was clearly defined. I like to see when people enjoy what they are writing, and I could feel that here.

    • Maymunah Rose

      Thank you so much! I really appreciate Eliese. Yeah, I didn’t bother going back to edit it because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and would probably change a lot.

  3. Chloee

    I walked down the worn out dirt road past the buildings that had seen better days but were now had peeling paint, broken windows, and missing shingles. The setting sun cast shadows on the ground making the walk more daunting then I hoped. I walked past people worn out workers and children and morthers. All had the same tatto on their arm the numbers 666. Our part of the country. Years ago there had been a war. Much blood was shed and Famlies were broken apart. Now the captial kept us in separate catorgrys. There are three. The Vixens, the Airsly, and then us the Howlens.

    I walked past them and crept up to the fence that separated us from the outside of others. I slipped my fingers through the holes grabbing the metal. I gripped the dagger in my right pocket. The summer breeze blew my red hair and carried the smell of smoke. I heard footsteps and turned around. I looked at two other kids my age. A girl my age with dirty brown hair and murky hazel eyes that glazed over as if it was sleeping, and another girl my age with black hair and ice blue eyes that were darting as if a caged animal.

    “Your CJ from the Howlen clan right?” The brown haired girl asked. “Yes.” “I take it you got the letter?” “Yes and you are?” “Alexis from the Airlsy clan.” The Airlsy were know to be fast thinkers and increablly swift footed. “I’m Roxanne from the Vixen clan.” The black haired girl said. The Vixens were knew to be extreamly crafty and amazing marksmen. She looked at me her eyes piecing through me. “We want you to rejoin the rebellion.” “The what?” “The rebellion.” “A rebellion with only three people?” A raven crowed above me. I looked at it. Was that the same one that followed me on my walk here? “There are more of us.” Alexis said. “Okay and what?” “We recruit the finest kids from the three clans and train them to overtake the captial.” “We’ll explain it more later.” The raven began to crow again. “Can you shut that thing up!” Roxanne asked. “It’s not mine.” Soon the raven flew off. “Will you join us?” “Your father was the finest warrior in the war.” “Don’t speak about my father.” I said. “Fine.” Alexis began to climb the fence. “Come with us leave all the trouble behind.” I took a deep breath and touched the 666 on my arm. “Okay.”

    Reply
    • Maymunah Rose

      I like it, makes me want to no more. Just every time there is a new speaker add a new line. But I really liked the story line.

    • Chloee

      Thanks I was thinking of working on it.

  4. Sindhu S

    Shouldn’t the title of your post be ‘What’s the Difference Between Symbol and Motif?’

    Reply

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  1. Top Picks Thursday 04-03-2014 | The Author Chronicles - […] We also need to think about themes and how they reflect our worldview. And be careful of clichéd characters—they…
  2. Element of Fiction – English RAnts - […] By the way, this “theme” concept has some nifty corollaries. A symbol, for example, shows up to represent individual…

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