The term motif refers to any recurring element – in storytelling as in music or other arts.
Examples of elements that turn up repeatedly within a whole are an image on a tapestry or a particular sequence of notes in a symphony. The dispersal of these elements creates a pattern. It is therefore part of the artist’s craft to have some sort of design principle determine this pattern.
What motifs do
Motifs do not make a plot. But since they make patterns they are part of the structure of a story. And they help add a layer of meaning.
In other words, if a motif is present excessively in the first half of a story, and hardly at all in the second, then the author had better be aware of a reason for this uneven distribution. The distribution – the pattern – carries meaning to the audience. Remember, the audience yearns for meaning, is always striving to understand what the story is trying to convey at any given point. This demand for some sort of raison d’être for each element of a story, or for a sense of order within the whole, may well be unconscious to the audience much of the time, but ultimately the experience of the story is more satisfying when the audience can work out reasons and meaning.
In stories, motifs can be almost anything. Objects, actions, metaphors, symbols, colours, or images can be motifs. What defines an element as a motif is the systematic deployment within the story rather than the thing itself.
How motifs work
Motifs work best when they are subtle and appear with variations. Let’s say a story culminates with a death by drowning. If water is a motif, then the author could have it rain in one scene, another scene might take place on a boat, one more feature a water tap or spout, yet another have the characters cross a bridge, and so on. When the drowning then finally takes place, all the water that has appeared previously – seemingly at random – suddenly gains an enormous force.
A motif could be apples, water, hair, anything. Blood and the washing of hands is a recurring motif in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the colour grey in Goethe’s Faust. In Blade Runner, it is eyes. A motif can lay the groundwork for theme in story. The eyes in Blade Runner elegantly refer to one of the movie’s central themes, which is the Cartesian idea that though we may see and perceive the world around us, we cannot necessarily see the reality of who we really are.
Connected concepts and terms
Sometimes the term motif is used in a broader sense, not just within one work, but across many which are connected by elements that recur. In this sense, the wicked stepmother is a familiar motif in fairy tales. In fact, students of comparative folklore use a method to classify motifs and plot types called the Aarne-Thompson, or nowadays the Aarne-Thompson-Uther, classification system. Motif S31 is the cruel stepmother.
Sometimes the term topos is used to mean a similar intertextual effect, though originally topos refers to a line of argumentation which may have become a commonplace (such as “all men must die”).
A trope is the use of certain words in a particular way with the intention of creating an artistic or rhetorical effect. Tropes are the linguistic equivalents of motifs in that they gain their power and meaning through repetition and variation.