Motif vs. Symbol: The Duo of Deeper Meaning

Doug Landsborough
September 22, 2023

The real strength in storytelling lies in its layers: elements us authors lay on top of each other to turn a simple tale into something unforgettable and, in some cases, life-changing. Two of those elements—motifs and symbols—add a certain amount of depth (and dare I say panache) to your story compared to others.

And, if Shrek taught us anything, it’s that layers are important.

Seriously, though, symbols and motifs are powerful tools in an author’s toolkit, but so many writers either don’t know what they are or how to properly use them. Worse, they are quite similar at face value, so it’s easy to get them confused.

Which, lucky for us, is why this article exists. Join me as we take a look at:

  • Motif vs. symbol 
  • Some examples of common symbol and motifs
  • How to wield these writing elements like the effective tools they are

And once we’re done, you’re going to be that person at your next dinner party talking about symbolism and the motifs used by famous authors. Or, you know, you could just write a great story. Your call.

The Masters of Meaning: Motifs and Symbols

Both motifs and symbols are narrative elements you can use to convey a message to your reader. The best books in the world are more than just stories. Just as an artist can employ colors, textures, techniques, and different instruments to bring their painting to life, authors have the capability of drawing on these less tangible yet equally powerful elements.

But why would we want to? Take it from an author who loves to write sword fights and scare the pants off his readers: storytelling isn’t just about cool stories. It’s a daunting task of conveying the human experience via words, across cultures and time. It’s the intricate combination of emotions, thoughts, characters, relationships, conflicts, and messages that you need to share.

And, of course, it can be about sword fights and scaring people. But those things would be meaningless if you didn’t go deeper with elements like motifs and symbols.

Enough stalling, though. Let’s establish what these two storytelling tools are.

Defining Motifs and Symbols

Motifs are recurring elements or patterns in a narrative or artwork. They're the constant threads that maintain thematic consistency and continuity. Their repetition underlines and emphasizes themes or emotions integral to the story.

Symbols, on the other hand, are powerful vessels of meaning. They might appear as everyday objects or concepts, but beneath the surface, they encapsulate complex, often abstract themes, emotions, or ideas.

These elements are cornerstones of literary work and artistic endeavors, granting depth and multi-dimensionality to the work. And if you’ve written a story before, you’ve probably implemented both of these elements without even knowing it!

But we’re going to take a closer look at each so we can figure out how to use them *chef’s kiss* perfectly.

The Evocative World of Motifs

Imagine reading a story where the hero always spots a crow before a major event. Over and over, this crow appears. Before a big fight, a crow perches on a nearby tree. When their mentor dies, a crow is perched upon the top of their house. When the hero sacrifices themselves, they notice a crow hunted by an eagle. 

That's a motif for you—a repeated image or idea or recurring element that's more than just a decorative touch. It's used to emphasize and enhance themes, character arcs, or even a narrative's very foundation.

Motifs don’t necessarily have universal meaning; it’s usually better to make your motifs story-specific and tied to a major theme. In the example with the crows, the bird could represent death, our hero’s struggles, or their faith in something bigger than them.

Examples of Motifs

The green light in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby isn't just for ambiance. It's a recurring element, symbolizing Gatsby's elusive dreams and the societal gap between him and Daisy.

In art, Van Gogh's obsession with stars, seen in numerous paintings, could be interpreted as a motif reflecting the artist's fascination and perhaps his longing for the unattainable or the ethereal.

Motifs don’t have to be objects, though. Consider Shakespeare's tragedies where miscommunication is a recurring plot device—lovers missing each other, letters going astray, being told a prophecy that isn’t really that accurate or clear. This motif underlines the fragility of human relationships, where simple misunderstandings can lead to cataclysmic consequences.

Maybe if ol’ Will wrote with less “thine” and “hither,” his characters would understand more. But then we wouldn’t have such a powerful motif.

Symbols: Echoes of the Abstract

Symbols, rich with significance, convey more than their superficial value. They resonate deeper, often breaking cultural and temporal barriers to share a key theme or message.

Unlike motifs, symbols don’t get the point across by popping up again and again. Normally they are a singular, powerful object, concept, item, or person that performs the task it’s needed for while conveying a message to those who take the time to look a little deeper.

A rose isn't just a rose. Depending on the context, it can symbolize love, beauty, fragility, or even the passage of time.

Examples of Symbols

In George Orwell's Animal Farm, the farm and its resident animals aren't just characters in a fable. They symbolize political entities and ideologies. The pigs, for instance, become synonymous with evil and the corrupting influence of power.

In Hamlet, Yorick's skull isn't showcased just to give Hamlet something to chat with. It serves as a symbol of mortality, the inevitability of death, and the transient nature of life.

Art also teems with symbolism. Picasso's Guernica uses a horse and a bull not just as animals in a war scene but as symbols of political unrest and the brutality of conflict. Because of these symbols, this painting is widely regarded as one of the most powerful anti-war paintings in history.

Personally, I struggle to appreciate cubism and surrealism, but even I can see how the animals are used as symbols.

Double-Trouble: Using Motifs and Symbols

When we outline them as plainly as we have, it’s easier to see how motifs and symbols are different and how you can use each of them, right?

But in practice, it might be harder to differentiate the two. The line between these two meaningful elements can blur. A motif, through its repetitive nature, can sometimes take on symbolic significance. Conversely, a symbol, when repeated, can develop into a motif.

Imagine something as simple as rain in your novel. When characters consistently reflect during rainfall, it becomes a motif for introspection. But if one particular rainfall in one particular scene comes after the protagonist has come clean about a secret, it symbolizes cleansing and stands purely as a symbol.

But it’s still a motif. And a symbol. A mobol. That’s not a real term, don’t ever use it.

Motifs and symbols are powerful on their own, but you can use that overlapping space they share to great effect.

Take Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The white whale isn't just there for Captain Ahab to chase. It's a symbol of the unknown, nature's power, or even fate, depending on how deep you dive into the narrative. The color white, however, is a motif that is sprinkled throughout the story, making it a motif. Because the whale itself embraces this motif, it connects all the other pieces together to reinforce the story’s central themes.

How to Write Motifs and Symbols Like a Pro

I think it’s safe to say that you know the difference between symbols and motifs, right? I could throw more examples at you, but odds are you’re already thinking about some of the ones you’ve seen mentioned in your favorite books or are thinking about which ones you can use in your own writing.

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves! In order to truly turn you into a motif- and symbol-wielding wordsmith, I want to leave you with some tips to use these elements to the best of your ability.

Tips for Writing Motifs

Consistency is crucial - A motif's power lies in its repetition. However, ensure its recurrence doesn't overwhelm the narrative. Strike a balance between emphasizing the motif and letting it organically integrate into the story.

Variety in repetition - While the core essence of a motif remains consistent, the way it appears can vary. If a rose motif signifies love, it might first appear as a budding romance and later as a withered rose to depict love lost.

Interlink with themes - Ensure your motif complements the central themes of your narrative. If your story revolves around betrayal, motifs like shadows or masks can be employed to underline deception.

Employ all senses - Don't limit motifs to visual elements alone. Sounds (a recurring melody), textures (the feel of a particular fabric), or even tastes can serve as motifs, creating a richer sensory experience for readers. And, honestly, keep this tip in mind for all of your exposition or descriptions.

Motifs as foreshadowing tools - Cleverly integrated motifs can act as hints, subtly foreshadowing future events or key moments in the story. For instance, a consistently breaking glass could foreshadow an impending tragedy or fracture in relationships.

Tips for Writing Symbols

Start with familiarity - Beginning with universally recognized symbols can be a good way to ease readers into your narrative. I think we all know a heart often signifies love, while a dove typically represents peace. Utilizing these familiar symbols creates an immediate connection with your audience.

Add depth with personalization - While known symbols can resonate universally, personalizing them can make them unique to your story. A personalized symbol can be something as simple as a specific trinket that holds sentimental value to a character, representing their past or aspirations.

Context is key - The setting and cultural background of your story will heavily influence the interpretation of symbols. Always consider the cultural and historical context. What symbolizes prosperity in one culture might mean something entirely different in another society.

Subtlety over blatancy - A symbol's power often lies in its subtlety. Instead of overtly stating its meaning, allow readers to gradually discern it as the narrative unfolds. This basically forces your readers to engage deeper with your work and become more engrossed in your story.

Evolution is vital - As your story progresses, the meanings of symbols can evolve, reflecting changes in character development or plot dynamics. This layered understanding of symbolism adds depth to your narrative and keeps readers intrigued.

Wrapping Up with a Bow (Which is a Symbol for Gifts or Finality)

Motifs and symbols are like the secret spices in a really good cookie (that’s a metaphor, not a symbol, don’t worry). They enrich, enhance, and add depth to creative writing, leaving readers and viewers with a richer experience and something to chew on for days.

And even though they may seem a little artsy for some or a bit intangible for others, it’s tough to deny how effective these two elements are at enhancing your storytelling.

Do you know what else enhances your storytelling? Dabble. Not only does Dabble employ writers who use smooth transitions like that one, but it’s a novel-writing platform built by authors for authors.

That means it comes with all the great tools you need to help you write an incredible book, including:

  • The Plot Grid for managing your story lines and character arcs
  • Comments, stickies, and highlighting for revisions and future changes
  • Goal tracking and daily goals to help you finish that dang book
  • Automatic back-ups from any device so you don’t lose a single word and can write literally anywhere

Plus a bunch more, including a clean, modern user interface that just fades away once you start typing. Because we have enough distractions, right?

And you can try everything Dabble has to offer for fourteen days by clicking here. It won’t cost you a cent, and we don’t even ask for your credit card info so you’ll only pay once you fall in love.

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.