Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Hey Lovelies!

I hope everyone had a great weekend! As promised we’re going to be talking about themes, motifs and symbols today. Before we get to that, I do want to let everyone know that I may not be posting at all next week. My partner and I will be moving out to Vancouver on March 1st (this still hasn’t been confirmed – we’re indecisive) and just with preparation stuff for the move, most of my time will be spent away from my computer. I am going to try to get some posts done this weekend, so I you guys will get something from me. With that said, let’s dive into themes, motifs and symbols.

I’m going to separate these up into three sections. If you don’t want to read any of those three then just click on a link below and it’ll take you to where you want to go.

Also, I did want to share that these three things are very closely related together and I will do my best to make sure that I explain it well. If I don’t please let me know and I shall work on it a bit more.


We’re going to dive right into theme! Let’s start off with our definition:

Theme: is the base that acts as a foundation for the entire literary piece. The theme links all aspects of the literary work with one another and is basically the main subject. It can be long and throughout the text or it can be short and succinct.

Let’s break this down. Your theme is what your story is about when you take all the characters and plot away. That’s literally it, in the nitty-gritty of your story. Another way to think about it, is that your theme is how it relates to the world or life. What does it say about the world and its infinite problems? Your theme can be broad and tackle a larger issue, like racism, or it can be specific and take a stance on it, like racism is good or bad.

On top of this, you can have more than one theme working throughout your novel. You will generally have a overlying theme that all the other themes work into, but you can have multiple themes.

Themes are also simple. They’re not complex beings that will make you head hurt. You usually can sum them up in a word. For example:

“A firefighter was injured, but she’s going to be okay. “

The pronoun of “she” is the theme. There’s a woman in a male dominated profession and you know that gender equality is going to be something runs throughout the entire story – in small and big ways.

Theme isn’t super complicated, but a lot of the time it trips us up. We think we need to really focus on it to make it work. A lot of the time, and this works specifically for me, I have an idea of a social issue or something I need to say about something and that’s my theme for the entire piece. I’m a pantser and this is my guiding structure to my story. I base my character’s actions, goals and desires off of those themes. It helps set up current scenes and future ones.

Now, I’m not saying that every scene needs to be about theme, it doesn’t, but it can add layers to your story and help you figure out what needs to be worked on more or cut entirely from your manuscript.

Janice Hardy puts this brilliantly:

“Plot is the backbone of a story, theme is the muscle. Using both gives you a story that’s not only solid, but strong.”

If you don’t know where to start on deciding on a theme here is a link to a list of them.


Motifs are a bit different than themes, though they can be similar. Let’s start off with our definition, first:

Motif: is any element, subject, idea or concept that is constantly present through the entire body of literature. Using a motif refers to the repetition of a specific theme dominating the literary work. Motifs are very noticeable and play a significant role in defining the nature of the story, the course of events and the very fabric of the literary piece.

But Danielle, this sounds exactly like a theme! Themes are constantly throughout a piece of work and they’re a backbone to the entire story. And you’d be right, but Motifs are a bit more simple. They’re something that pops up time and time again as a way to help further or identify the theme.

For example, in The Hunger Games, Katniss is constantly dressing up in fire – one it represents her district and two it often represents her abilities and also her temperament. In a larger sense, as pertaining to theme, the world around her needed to “go up in flames” in order to be reborn as a more egalitarian society.

If this still isn’t making any sense here is a short little video explaining the difference between theme and motif:

Essentially, motifs are symbols, ideas or images that pop up again and again to help identify the theme and/or make the theme stronger in a story.

A lot of the time motifs show up in description – think a certain color in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey. Wilde uses the color white a lot to convey innocence – the loss of and in wanting to reclaim it.

So, when you’re writing, think of something that is significant to the plot and to the theme and then repeat it often – in subtle or not so subtle ways. Then you’ll have your motif all set up.

What if you cannot come up with any motifs? Try imagining your movie poster for your story. What is going to be included on that poster? Here’s one for The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

Here’s what you find in it: the mocking jay – sign of the revolution, the song of the mocking jay is symbolic throughout the book; we’ve got fire, which I mentioned earlier; we have the bow and arrow – symbolic of hunting and Katniss’ weapon of choice; and we the color red. Plus the slogan at the end plays into the fire motif throughout the novels. Your movie poster will highlight the motifs you will be using in your story.


Finally we get to symbols. So, let’s start off with our definition:

Symbol: is literary device that contains several layers of meaning, often concealed at first sight, and is representative of several other aspects, concepts or traits than those that are visible in the literal translation alone. Symbol is using an object or action that means something more than its literal meaning.

Alright, we’re going to unpack this. Symbols are more than just what they are in their essence. They have extra meaning associated with them and to make it more difficult, there are more than one type of symbol.

In fact, there are three different types of symbols that you can find in literature:

  • Common symbols: These are symbols that are universal and everyone understands what they’re going to mean. This could be a dove = peace; red = blood, violence or passion; white = innocence.
  • Uncommon symbols: These are symbols that not a lot of people will understand and usually have an expiry date for their meaning. A lot of them are relevant to certain time periods – like women showing their legs in Victorian novels can indicate a fallen woman. They’re not something an average person is going to understand or recognize right off the bat. So if you do want to use them, then you might have to hint at their deeper meaning.
  • Story symbols: These are symbols that have created meaning for that story particularly. These are a bit like uncommon symbols where it can be hard to catch specific meanings for certain objects, images, etc, without a little hinting involved.

Symbols can come in the form of similes, metaphors, allegories and personification among other things and figures of speech. We use them all the time in writing and our everyday lives. Plus, they can be repetitive, which is where a motif comes in. It becomes a motif if the symbol you are using shows up everywhere in your story and consistently. Symbols should be sustained, to a degree, within your story, but not to the degree that a motif is.

Confused yet?

Here’s the difference between the symbols and the motif. The motif helps the theme and is sustained throughout the story. A symbol shows up once or twice and helps the reader understand something within the story. For example, in the movie Inception, the spinning top is shown once or twice to help the audience figure out if they were in the real world or in another. It doesn’t show up throughout the movie, but a couple times to help the audience out.

How do we make symbols awesome in our story?

  • Make sure your symbols are not being overdone in your narrative. If everything is a symbol then it gets confusing and annoying for the reader.
  • Your story should still be able to entertain even if you do not have those symbols in it. Symbols are there to help pull things together and round out your story. Your entire story shouldn’t rely on them in order to be good.
  • Don’t force symbolism into your writing. Symbols will help your theme and until you know what your theme is then you will not be able to add your motifs and symbols into it. These should come naturally.

Also, check out this Writer’s Helping Writers article that dissects Jane Eyre for it’s symbolism. It’s really well done and gives you some good ideas.

If you really have no idea where to start when it comes to adding symbols into your story, here is a link to a Symbol Dictionary that will list a lot of them. It has everything categorized by country, culture, or use.

Alright, lovelies, that’s all that I have for you today. I hope this was helpful. I will make sure that I have world building written and ready to go for Tuesday next week. After that, I do not know what I have in mind yet. My brain has been in a constant loop of moving details lately. I will make sure I let you know what the next post will be about though on Tuesday.

Until next week!




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Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams

Danielle Adams is a writer and editor for a local marketing agency. She has formerly worked as a writer for the Investing News Network and as an editor for Whetstone, a bi-annually published literary magazine. Aside from writing, Danielle has an unabiding love for all marine life and the outdoors. She loves taking long hikes with her husband and cooking delicious meals in the kitchen.


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