From The Grammarly Blog:
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse Five, there is a phrase that marks every death in the book: “So it goes.” The phrase is unavoidable, much like death itself, and it draws the reader’s attention to the book’s larger theme of inevitability.
The phrase “so it goes” is an example of a motif: a recurring story element with symbolic significance. Motifs direct readers’ attention to larger themes and engage them on an intuitive level. They are great tools for creating depth in your writing.
What is a motif in literature?
A motif (pronounced mow-teef) can be an object, image, sound, idea, or word. A couple of key qualities can help you determine if what you’re reading is a motif:
Motifs are repeated throughout the story. In fact, “motif” is a French word that translates to “pattern.” If you notice the same object, phrase, or symbol multiple times throughout the story, it’s probably a motif.
Motifs point to a larger theme or concept. Oftentimes, a motif will recur in similar situations throughout the story. For instance, in the Vonnegut example above, the words “so it goes” always occur after a death is mentioned. Noticing what situations the motif appears in gives the reader insight into the larger message the author is alluding to.
What is the purpose of a motif?
The main purpose of a motif is to draw attention to a theme. Attentive readers gain access to a theme or underlying message by paying close attention to the story’s motifs. In this way, motifs can engage readers on an intuitive level.
Writers may also use motifs for these reasons:
To enhance a mood. In Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, the author hides the acronym “VFD” throughout the series to indicate the Baudelaire children are in danger. This creates an aura of suspense every time the reader notices the three letters in succession (e.g.: Volunteer Feline Detectives, Voluntary Fish Domestication).
To create symbolism. Typically, oranges are not associated with death or destruction, but in The Godfather, director Francis Ford Coppola creates a new symbol by repeatedly featuring oranges around scenes of death. For what it’s worth, the production designer has denied that the orange symbolism was intentional. Regardless of the filmmaker’s intentions, viewers have decided that oranges are one of the movie’s motifs.
Motif vs. theme
A theme is a story’s overall message or meaning. It’s what guides the narrative, causes characters to act a certain way, and gives the text a deeper meaning. Themes are typically broad and conceptual. Examples of themes in literature include mortality, good versus evil, corruption, redemption, and love.
Motifs, on the other hand, are elements that point toward that theme. For example, if a book’s underlying theme is about mortality, then an author might attach the motif of decay to their language (as William Shakespeare does in Hamlet). Every time the reader encounters worms, maggots, or skulls, they’re directed to reflect on the broader themes of death and mortality.
In short, a theme is an abstract concept that underlies the entire story. A motif is a recurring element throughout the story that points toward that theme.
Link to the rest at The Grammarly Blog