Tuesday Terminology: Motif

There are small things, when done well, that make literature powerful. Crafting great scenes, using vibrant word images, capturing personalities—all of those are learned skills (topped with talent) that bring great works to life.

In my mind, one of the surest hallmarks of genius is a well established sense of unity that makes the book or poem an experience instead of just words. In some ways, this blog is an attempt to capture all that entails. So, there are no easy answers. But one element I can definitely point to is the skill of creating a motif.

Simply put, a motif is an object, an idea, or even a structure that recurs throughout the work. But just repeating something doesn’t make it a good use of the motif; it has to serve a purpose. For example, in Schindler’s List, a film by Spielberg, he carefully uses a pink jacket throughout that represents the trial of the Jews during the Holocaust. Whether you think he succeeds or not is beside the point; the point is that Spielberg creates and crafts a dynamic motif throughout.

Motifs are best used when they aren’t simply repeated, but they develop in some way. The images rise and fall, grow and stretch; the structure repeats but changes ever so slightly to introduce something; or the idea goes through a transformation.

A carefully selected motif can lend unity to your work.

If you have an example of a motif that you like, let us know.


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