Considering Theme & Motif

Theme and motif are two writer’s tools that often get lumped together and I think that’s because they share a trait of intangibility, rather than because they’re alike in the way they are used or work. This article is intended to start a conversation that might take some of the vagueness out of their definitions and hopefully we can share our thoughts on how they are best put to use.

Theme

Let’s talk about theme first since, in my opinion, it’s the bigger subject of the two. It seems to me that theme can best be described as: What Your Writing is About, and by that we’re not talking about plot synopsis. Theme exists outside of narrative, characters, genre, time periods and language. It may never be directly stated in the story, it may only ever exist between the lines.

 Image © Adam D’Costa

These threads get tangled, so for clarity’s sake I tried to think of an example where the narrative and the theme are poles apart. The most obvious/famous one seemed to be George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Superficially, it’s a story about a bunch of pigs that take over the operation of a farm from despotic humans and descend into despotism themselves. And entirely enjoyable on that level, of course. Interestingly the first edition was sub-titled ‘A Fairy Story’ and it’s true that it has a narrative simplicity that recalls children’s fiction.

But as we all know, Animal Farm is not about a bunch of pigs that take over the operation of a farm from despotic humans and descend into despotism themselves. It’s an allegory about the communist ideal and the inevitable corruption of power. Analysed on a purely themic level, there isn’t a single pig in Animal Farm.

I wonder if there’s ever been a book that does involve a pig on a themic level? I’d be willing to bet there isn’t, because theme tends to specifically reference human sensibilities and rarely, if ever, porcine ones. It’s about what is important to us. It’s the lesson we learn if we’re reading or the message we send if we’re writing. It’s the greater truth.

Theme and Intent

For the fiction writer, theme might be your only chance to talk directly to the reader. It’s the one place where you don’t need to obfuscate with made up nonsense, where you’re not required to entertain or enthral, where you can describe the real world as you see it and lay down exactly how it is. Even if your story takes place on a different planet, with alien species as your your main characters, theme is what makes it relatable to a human reader. It’s what the writer has learned to be true about the world in his/her life experience crystalised and presented for evaluation.

So, that’s what I think theme is, how do we go about using it in our next piece of fiction? The general consensus among successful authors seems to be that you don’t. Not consciously anyway. The theory goes: Write a story first, give all your attention to your narrative and characters, then check to see if you have put a theme in there subconsciously.

I think this is good advice. A writer who writes with a ‘message’ in mind is in danger of writing a parable, not a story.  A writer’s first, most honest, motive should be to engage the reader’s imagination and pay back that attention with a rewarding story. If your first motive is to make people think the same way as you, or demonstrate your wisdom, by hiding your message in a story then it will most likely be very obvious and, unless you’re George Orwell, you’ll lose your reader.

Once a theme becomes apparent in your writing, however, particularly after a whole draft has been completed (so your narrative is established and can’t be corrupted to fit),  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with building up the elements of your story that play to your theme and cutting down those parts that oppose it. On the contrary, I think that might be what makes a story feel more purposeful and weighty.
The best approach is surely to use discretion. Theme should be subtle, a reward for the closer reader. Better too little than too much.

Motif

Having gone on an awful lot about theme, I’m going to give relatively short shrift to motif because it’s a simpler tool, even if it is as slippery to define.

Motif is used, and can be identified within the narrative itself. It’s a recurring image or event or reference point that creates a mood or a point in the story. Through its repetition it can be used to establish or add to any theme that might be present.

To take a very simple example, should your theme relate heavily to death and rebirth, a recurring motif might be extended descriptions of the same clump of trees in their various states throughout the year.

Another example could be more based in the events of the narrative. Let’s say whenever a character sits on a certain bench, as he does three times over the course of the story at pivotal points in the narrative, a bus pulls up with an advertisement on the side which  speaks obliquely to his current situation and prompts a change in direction. This might speak heavily to a theme that suggests life is fated or that unseen sentients are trying to guide us. Or it could speak to a paranoiac fantasy. The point is that it’s the repetition that gives it meaning, otherwise it’s just a coincidence.

Unlike theme, motif can and should be used consciously, and for best results, inventively. It’s entirely possible to use multiple motifs in a single story, but be aware that part of a motif’s job is to stand out and it’s hard to do that if you have competing motifs. Again it’s a tool that can be overused and counterproductive so easy does it.

Hopefully, that’s enough to start a conversation about theme and motif. Perhaps you disagree with what I’ve said about them and would like to correct me in the comments below? Or maybe I’ve missed some of the subtleties – please fill me in.

What I think is interesting about these two things and the reason, I assume, that they do tend to be discussed alongside each other is that they both attempt to describe something that is outside the nuts and bolts and storytelling. A story can exist wholly without either of these things but is undoubtedly a richer reading experience if they’re present.

Allowing such a major part of a story to be controlled by your subconscious seems quite scary to start off with but I think maybe it’s better to look at it as a learning experience. Often I don’t know exactly what I think about the big questions in life because they’re too big and I feel under-informed. I don’t really know what I’m writing about. The process of writing though, having characters behave in certain ways because that’s how you believe that person would act in real life, can reveal things about the way you and the way you think and then you might  realise that you do have an opinion, a position, on the big questions. In that moment you can find your theme and I think at that point your writing becomes something more interesting.

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4 thoughts on “Considering Theme & Motif”

  1. Fantastic post, James. I often think about theme (and to a lesser degree, motif) when writing and reading. It's one of those topics that never gets dull because there's always so much to uncover.

    One thing I found with my own stories after a lot of years writing is an emerging theme in my themes (Ha!). I often tend towards similar themes, and they can be traced to certain points in my life where one or another emotion, worry or attitude was prominent. But I never noticed the themes until I took a handful of stories and looked closely at what they were saying—all the good stuff you mention that happens between the lines and underneath all the words. It was a cool revelation, and quite telling to me about what I really care about (and what bothers me most!). Have you found many common themes in your own stories, particularly ones that span years and go back to your earlier stuff?

    Here's the thing, I sometimes find motif trickier. I was reading a blog a few months back where someone was talking about one of their favourite authors. The author is well established with a large bibliography spanning many years— and the blogger wrote a post celebrating the moment when they realised the motif that was running through not just the one book, but the entire body of their fav author's work. That's a feat I'd love to be able to pull off, but I imagine it's difficult and you need to be quite artful to do it.

    Or maybe it's one of those things you shouldn't think about too much. I find theme way easier than motif because theme automatically makes itself known at some point before I finish a story, at which point I can draw it out a little bit further to be more clear. But I think you need to be a bit more crafty with motif, in the same way you need to be crafty with word choice and consistent imagery/metaphors, etc. It could just be that I'm way more comfortable with first drafts than the finer tuning stages of building a story. 🙂

    Anyway, I'm not sure if I've come to a conclusion, but I wanted to say great post, and I liked the examples you chose.

  2. Great post. I agree that motif is a good and tricky skill. I really want to learn and master this skill. Some of my favourite authors handle motif well, and those motifs span through their works. Murakami's books often feature cats, women with exquisite ears, and other things I've momentarily forgotten.
    I think both theme and motif are best handled in the later stages, and to probably forget both in the first draft, unless you're super skilled.
    I'm reading the latest Granta right now, and most of those stories are packed with motif. Those stories are doing several things at once and it blows my mind. How did these people get so good? Is it luck? Or is there hours of hard graft and lots of unseen and failed experiments under every successful motif?
    I think it's all semiotics. I'm just not clever enough to understand what will best symbolise my thoughts/ the most effective icons/ symbols/ motifs to use that will most effectively show the idea I'm trying to convey.

  3. I suspect there's a lot of feeling, rather than thinking, that goes into motif and I don't believe any of us are short on emotional intelligence. Maybe the work is in training yourself to notice when you interpret signs, when you see connotations and what they mean to you. Maybe if you can do that then they'll bubble up to the surface and make themselves known when you write – then you won't have to struggle trying to work out the best symbols for your thoughts and falling short, they'll come looking for you.

    When you include signs that seem appropriate to you there's a kind of honesty that goes into that and I think it's important to connecting with your reader and communicating. Trying to be more clever or crafty about it might be counterproductive, perhaps?

  4. Yes, I think you're right. This then creates organic motifs, less forced and therefore more real. I like the idea of training oneself into noticing signs/ being aware of when you're picking up on them and what they mean to you. This is probably a good exercise for anyone, not just writers.

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