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Tuesday, June 4

A Look at Literary Devices: What Is Motif?

By Sherry Howard, @SherLHoward

Part of The How They Do It Series


JH: Sometimes deep and meaningful writing just happens, but usually the writer put time and effort into making it look so effortless. Sherry Howard returns to the lecture hall this month to talk about motifs and how they strengthen our writing. 

Sherry Howard lives in Middletown, Kentucky, in a household busy with kids and pets. She worked as an educator, and now has the luxury of writing full time. Her debut picture book, Rock and Roll Woods, released in October, 2018. And her middle grade NF, Deep Sea Divers, just released. She has more books in the pipeline for publication soon.

Sherry loves to meet other readers and writers, so be in touch on social media here:

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Goodreads

Take it away Sherry…

Motif (moh TEEF) is a literary device. Literary devices are an author’s best friend. These techniques and structures help writers convey story in the most meaningful way. A motif is a recurring symbol, image, object, idea, or element with symbolic significance for the mood and theme of your manuscript.

You can’t talk about motif without considering the words symbol and theme. The three literary terms are interrelated, yet distinct. Simply, a symbol represents something, and is a symbol when used simply and singly in a story. Theme is the overall idea, lesson, or message of a story, a common thread that holds the story together. A theme is more abstract, while a motif is concrete. Themes are universal, while motifs tend to be individual to a manuscript.


For instance, the theme of hope might be supported by a motif of butterflies in one book, and by rainbows in another, depending on the underlying story. When a symbol (or collection of related symbols) is used repeatedly to support a mood or theme, that is a motif. Key words are recurring, and “in support of theme” for a true motif. See how interwoven the terms are?

(Here's more on What Every Writer Should Know About Theme)

Never Heard of Motif?


You’re not alone! In a casual survey, I found that many writers were unfamiliar with the term. Once the term is explained though, the light bulb flashes, and most readers and writers relate very quickly. They didn’t call a motif by name, but knew of their existence. If you’ve had literary instruction at a university, you likely studied motifs during your unit on literary devices.

Finding motifs in a novel is sometimes tricky. Motifs are usually noticeable once you understand them. But sometimes they’re more subtle, leaving you with a sense that you saw that same thing earlier, until you realize it’s a deliberate recurrence.

(Here's more on Three Fun Literary Devices to Make Your Prose Sing)

Why Use Motifs?


I’ve been fascinated by motifs since I began reading novels. I didn’t know there was a name for this literary device until much later, but I loved them. I think it was the poet in me. Why not use a metaphor or symbol to deepen the meaning of words? For me, that’s the beauty of motifs, they make our job as writer more interesting.


Motifs add depth and convey meaning. They help shape a reader’s perception and understanding of the narrative. They help a writer embellish and reinforce a theme symbolically. They help force the reader to examine the theme more deeply. The meaning of a motif depends on the way it’s used in a work, how it supports the theme.

Consider your story’s themes. Can you represent that theme and that mood through a specific motif? Can you do it without it feeling forced? Many of us use motifs naturally, if we tend towards literary writing. But, even if you aren’t in the literary camp, you can use motif to good effect.

(Here's more on The Power of Word Choice in Fiction)

I leave you with a challenge: Use a motif in your manuscript if you’ve never used one before. I promise you’ll be hooked.

Share ideas for motifs that worked for you. I’ll get you started. My middle grade that I’m currently querying used a butterfly to support the theme of hope. Since it’s a middle grade, I kept it pretty simple, but I love the way it supports the theme at critical moments, with no other words needed.

What motif have you used in a current manuscript to add depth and enjoyment for the reader ?

About Deep Sea Divers

Daring and Dangerous: Deep Sea Divers for grades 4–8 introduces young readers to the exciting world of deep sea diving. From the amazing areas that divers explore to the common dangers they face underwater, this 32-page fact- and photo-filled book offers young readers an opportunity to learn how divers stay save and what they discover about our complex, beautiful world.

The Daring and Dangerous Stunt Performers series is an action-packed escape into some of the most daring and dangerous activities on – and beyond – the planet. With topics ranging from stunt performers to space explorers, each spread in these books stands alone so reluctant readers can flip through until something catches their attention. Each book also features glossary words (defined on the pages in which they appear) and a memory game that encourages readers' recall as they are asked to match images to what they've read

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound | Kobo |

1 comment:

  1. As always just as I need help something from Janice pops up in my inbox. I'm in the process of writing a short story (for a competition) and the publisher has provided the theme - I thought I understood the concept and this post has confirmed that I do. Thank you.

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