Using motifs in writing fiction is one of the most powerful and evocative ways of getting across your themes in your novel. Few authors use them, and few use them well. My favorite novels of all time are ones that use motifs beautifully throughout their novel, and these elements weaving through their stories tend to stay with me for months and years after I've read the book. Why is that, and just what are motifs and how can they be utilized effectively in fiction?
Two definitions of motif in Merriam-Webster's give a good feel for what a motif is: "a dominant idea or central theme; a single or repeated design or color." Think about a motif as a splash of color that you are adding to your story palette--a very noticeable, specific color that appears from time to time and that "blends in" beautifully with the overall picture you are painting. As an example, you could say that I just introduced a motif in this discussion by using the concept of color to emphasize my theme.
Motifs can be an object, an idea, a word or phrase, a bit of speech--and you can combine these in your novel to create richness. I like to have at least two or three motifs woven in my novel, and I'll give you an example by referring to my contemporary drama/mystery Conundrum.
In Conundrum, my protagonist, Lisa, is searching to uncover the truth regrading her father's bizarre death twenty-five years earlier. Her interest and effort is prompted by her brother's suicidal bipolar condition, which she believes is exacerbated by the myths and burdens surrounding their father's death. So as Lisa embarks on this journey, I brought into play a number of motifs. the first is obvious--the word conundrum, which is the overall theme and serves as the title. The best use of a motif is in your title, and a great title will tie in to your book's theme, often as both a motif and a double meaning. for example--Jodi Picoult's book titles often do this, as seen in Saving Faith ("faith" being both the girl character's name and hinting at her need of being saved) and Plain Truth (where "plain" refers to the Amish people by that name as well as the book's plot wherein the plain truth needs to be revealed in the case of a mysterious murder among the Amish). So, in Conundrum, I open the novel with an actual word conundrum, one that has great symbolism to Lisa's quest. She tells of how she and her brother told conundrums through their teen years, and then I introduce a specific conundrum that serves as another motif in the book.
Lisa's father's speciality was in boolean algebra. Lisa discovers a conundrum based on that algebraic formula of "and, or, or not." What I did, then was take two motifs--the conundrum and the father's profession, and found a way to tie them together--which is a great thing to do. Throughout the novel, Lisa comes across clues that make her think "and, or, or not." Her quest is one big conundrum. and the next motif comes from the actual conundrum she found--where two guards each stand in front of a door, each claiming they guard the door to enlightenment, but one is lying and one is telling the truth. The conundrum requires the puzzle-solver to figure out which door really does lead to enlightenment. You can imagine why I was so thrilled to run across this conundrum, as it represented Lisa's search for truth (enlightenment) but with the confusion of not just many doors but many guards claiming they were telling the truth.
I hope you can see here the motifs at work and how, throughout a novel, these can surface to bring cohesion to a story. You can use an object, like a balloon for example, to symbolize important qualities. A balloon could represent freedom, the need for release. A slow-growing tree could represent faithfulness, steadfastness through all seasons, something a character can be viewing out her window at different times in her life. One of my favorite books, The Art of Racing in the Rain, uses the motif of race-car driving throughout the book as metaphor and symbolism.
So as you plot out your novel, or tackle your rewrite, think of two or three motifs you can weave in, then go back through your book and place them strategically. if you can somehow use the motif in your title, even better. And if you can think of motifs that parallel and/or enhance your overall theme, you will have a book that will be unforgettable. pay attention as you read great novels to see if you can spot the motifs the author has used. you will be surprised how you will start seeing them if you pay attention and look for them. May these thoughts spark some ideas in your head and get you running to your pages!
BTW, you can now get Conundrum as an ebook! Order from Kindle, B&N, or Smashwords! Here are the links: