What is a motif?
It's a symbolic element within your story which repeats throughout.
They can be anything from objects, to colours, to music, to words repeated by characters.
The best way to think of a motif is as a side-kick to your theme. It has a certain power that your theme does not, because, unlike a theme, it is concrete rather than nebulous. It is your theme re-imagined as an object, a colour, or a word.
For example, in 'Othello', the word 'monster' and 'monstrous' appears many times.
IAGO: Oh, beware, my lord, of jealousy! It is the green-eyed monster which doth mock The meat it feeds on.
With this motif, Shakespeare is highlighting the theme of betrayal. Someone we trust may, in fact, be a monster.
So how can I use one in my work?
Take a look at these examples. For each of the themes below, I have chosen a possible motif.
THEME POSSIBLE MOTIF
Loneliness Empty vase
Although these may seem obvious, well handled they could add resonance and meaning to your story. They could explicitly or implicitly highlight to the reader what you think are the important themes of your book.
They can also tie two or more disparate moments in your novel together, remind your reader that although these chapters seem different they are actually pointing to the same idea.
Motifs can help even in the planning stages.
Not only might your motif be powerful in your end product, they are also highly useful when writing a first draft. A motif will enable you to clarify what your work is about. Even at the early stages it is worth thinking about what object, colour, song or word, condenses your theme into a single concrete motif. This will help you visualise your theme and to keep it at your side in a tangible form.
So now it's over to you. Draw, paint, find pictures on Pinterest, listen to your favourite music - find whatever you can which speaks to the theme of the novel. Then pepper your novel with your motif judiciously. Good luck!