What Is a Motif? Definition & 15+ Examples

Ever come across repeating symbols or themes in a book or movie and wondered about their significance? These aren’t random; they are motifs, vital tools used in storytelling to communicate deeper messages.

A motif can be an object, a character, a color, a sound, or even an action. They traverse various categories, including literature, film, music, and visual arts.

Motifs contribute to the development of a story and help build its texture and depth. They reveal important plot points, character relationships, and conflicts, weaving multiple layers of meaning and interpretation.

In this article, we’ll dive further into the concept of motifs. We’ll explain what they are, why they matter, and how they work in a story. We’ll also explore how these recurring elements are not mere repetitions but play a key role in developing narratives and underlying themes.

Are you prepared to redefine your comprehension of motifs? Let’s get started:

What Is a Motif?

A motif is a recurring element or idea in art, literature, or music that signifies a dominant theme or central idea.

It is essential not to confuse a motif with a theme. While a theme conveys a universal message, a motif is a recurring symbolic element that helps readers, viewers, or listeners identify the theme.

For instance, motifs can be a symbol, an image, a word, a phrase, a sound, or a pattern:

  • In literature, these recurring elements bring richness and depth to the story.
  • In film or visual arts, a visual motif could be a color palette or type of shot pattern that occurs repeatedly, contributing to the overall mood or tone in a work of art.
  • In music, it could be a repeated chord progression, melody, or rhythm that serves as a unifying element across the piece.

Understanding motifs can significantly elevate one’s appreciation of art, literature, and music. Identifying and analyzing motifs can help enthusiasts appreciate the intricacies of a creator’s intentions and the meaning behind their work.

Motifs also serve as valuable tools for writers, artists, and composers to connect different aspects of a story or artwork, linking them together in a way that is coherent and engaging.

Did You Know? An interesting and well-known motif is the "hero's journey" or "monomyth," which is a narrative pattern identified by Joseph Campbell in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. An example of the hero's journey motif can be found in popular movies like Star Wars series.

The Role of Motifs: Why They Matter

Uncovering Patterns

Motifs, by definition, are recurring elements in narratives that bear significant meaning. These elements can be images, symbols, or themes, and they play a crucial role in storytelling by uncovering patterns within the narrative. When readers or viewers notice a motif, they can connect various scenes or events, enriching their understanding of the story.

Example: In the classic film The Godfather, horses symbolize power and the ability to control. The famous horse head scene demonstrates this motif, as it communicates a message of dominance.

Connecting to Overall Message

Another important aspect of motifs is their ability to strengthen the overall message of a narrative. They often point towards the underlying themes, acting as a thread that helps in identifying and weaving the story’s main ideas. As a result, motifs enhance the connection between different elements within narratives and the audience, ensuring that the message is conveyed effectively.

Example: The green light motif in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. This symbol represents Gatsby’s longing for Daisy and the unattainable nature of the American Dream, thus encapsulating the novel’s central themes.

Reinforcing Themes

Motifs also function as tools to reinforce themes by invoking emotions and associations that resonate with the audience. Through repetition, motifs emphasize the importance of particular ideas or concepts, leaving a lasting impression on readers or viewers. By instilling these connections, motifs ensure that the themes are grounded and impactful.

Example: In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, the motif of constant surveillance — represented by Big Brother — highlights the oppressive, controlling nature of the regime. This recurring element serves as a vivid reminder of the novel’s central theme: the dangers of totalitarianism.

Can you guess the motif from your favorite novel or film? Try this out!

  1. A tale of revenge where the protagonist wears the same emblem as their enemy.
  2. A story about a battle between good and evil that repeatedly mentions a mysterious prophecy.
  3. A romantic drama where the main characters frequently exchange a particular type of flower.

Revealing the motifs: 1. Emblem, 2. Prophecy, 3. Flower

Did You Know? An infamous example of an impactful motif is Shakespeare's use of blood symbolism in Macbeth. This recurring element highlights the guilt and consequences related to the characters' violent actions, reinforcing the themes of ambition, power, and the effects of one's choices.

Types of Motifs

Symbolic Motifs

These motifs consist of symbols that represent a larger meaning or theme. Examples include objects, colors, or animals that recur throughout a work to give it deeper emotional or intellectual significance.

Situational Motifs

In situational motifs, common situations or scenarios recur throughout a work to emphasize themes or connect different elements. Examples might include characters frequently confronting their fears or facing moral dilemmas.

Structural Motifs

Structural motifs involve repeated patterns of narrative structure or story elements, such as quests, initiations, or reversals. These help to unify a work and highlight its underlying message.

Conceptual Motifs

These motifs involve abstract ideas or concepts that are represented through characters, settings, or events in a work. Examples include the struggle between good and evil, the quest for identity, or the forces of chaos and order.

Contrasting Motifs

In contrasting motifs, two opposite elements or themes recur throughout a work to emphasize their mutual dependency or opposition. Examples might include light and darkness, love and hatred, or life and death.

Literary Motifs

Literary motifs are found specifically in literature and encompass recurring elements such as character types, settings, or plot devices. These motifs serve to establish certain themes, generate emotional responses from readers, or contribute to overall storytelling.

Narrative Motifs

Found in various types of narrative works, narrative motifs include story events, character actions, or plot developments that appear repeatedly. They can help contribute to thematic development and increase the story’s depth.

Visual Motifs

These motifs occur in visual mediums such as film, television, and art. Examples include recurring colors, images, or visual patterns that carry thematic or symbolic significance.

Artistic Motifs

Artistic motifs involve stylistic elements or techniques used repeatedly by an artist, filmmaker, or writer. They reveal an artist’s unique style, preferences and may serve to convey specific meanings or themes.

Musical Motifs

In music, motifs consist of short musical phrases, rhythms, or patterns that recur throughout a composition. They help create unity and coherence within a piece, while sometimes also conveying important information or symbolism.


These are universal, recurring symbols, concepts or characters that appear across different cultures and time periods. Archetypes can serve as motifs within a work, providing a way to link a specific story or character to broader themes or cultural patterns.

Pro Tip: To differentiate between various motifs, consider their presentations and functions within a work. For example, symbolic motifs often represent larger themes through specific objects or images, while structural motifs involve patterns in the narrative structure. 

Motif vs. Theme vs. Symbol

Theme Comparison

In literature, a theme is the central topic, question, or idea explored by a narrative. It often represents an abstract concept or message that the author wishes to convey to the audience. For example, themes such as love, loss, and redemption are commonly seen in fiction.

On the other hand, a motif is a recurring element, image, or concept in a narrative that supports the overall theme. While themes are broader and more complex, motifs are smaller details woven into the story to enhance the theme’s expression. Examples of motifs can include symbols, words, phrases, or even weather conditions.

Symbol Comparison

A symbol is an object, character, or scene stand-in that represents an abstract idea or concept. Symbols can be specific to a story or universally known. They function as literary devices that convey meaning without explicitly stating it.

For example, a dove often symbolizes peace, while a red rose can symbolize love.

Motifs and symbols are connected, as a motif can be a symbol that is frequently used throughout a story. However, the fundamental difference is that motifs support and emphasize a theme, while symbols contribute to the story’s overall meaning and may be used sporadically or consistently.

  • Motif: Recurring element supporting a theme.
  • Theme: Central topic in a narrative.
  • Symbol: Object representing an abstract idea.

While themes represent the overarching messages, motifs provide support through recurrence, and symbols contribute to the story’s wider meaning.

Examples in Literature


In Macbeth, one example of a motif is blood. Blood appears frequently throughout the play and symbolizes guilt and violence. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s guilt is manifested through the bloodstained hands, which they cannot wash clean. This highlights the consequences of their actions and the inescapable guilt they face.

Shakespeare’s use of the blood motif in Macbeth creates an aura of dread and tension, reflecting the consequences of unchecked ambition. The masterful portrayal of guilt makes it one of the most riveting tragedies in literature.

Fun Fact: Macbeth was believed to be cursed as early as its first performance, due to the supposed use of real witchcraft in the play's dialogue. Actors often avoid saying the name "Macbeth" while inside a theater, referring to it as "The Scottish Play" instead.

“The Great Gatsby”

In The Great Gatsby, the motif of the green light is prevalent. The green light on Daisy’s dock represents Gatsby’s unreachable dream of reuniting with her. It symbolizes hope, longing, and the American Dream. Throughout the novel, Gatsby is constantly drawn to the light, despite the ultimate futility of his pursuit.

The green light in The Great Gatsby serves as a powerful reminder of the unattainable nature of the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s skillful use of this motif adds depth to the novel, emphasizing Gatsby’s hopeless pursuit of happiness.

Fun Fact: The Great Gatsby was not an immediate success upon publication. It gained popularity and critical acclaim only after F. Scott Fitzgerald's death, now considered one of the greatest American novels of the 20th century.

“To Kill a Mockingbird”

In the novel To Kill a Mockingbird, one recurring motif is the mockingbird itself. The mockingbird becomes a symbol of innocence, as the characters learn that it is a sin to kill a mockingbird since they cause no harm to others. This motif serves to remind the reader of the novel’s central theme: the importance of protecting the innocent from harm or injustice.

The symbolism of the mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird highlights the emotional journey the characters undergo, learning the importance of empathy and understanding as they confront the prejudice that surrounds them.

Motif in Film and Theatre

“The Godfather” Trilogy

The Godfather Trilogy, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is a prime example of the use of motifs in film. In this series, motifs such as family, power, and loyalty are used to showcase the complex relationships within the Corleone mafia family.

For instance, the recurring scenes of family gatherings with food and wine symbolize the importance of preserving family bonds amid the violent criminal background.

Al Pacino, who played the iconic role of Michael Corleone, initially had to convince producers that he was suitable for the role. Pacino’s portrayal of Michael’s transformation from a reluctant family member to a powerful mafia boss became a highlight of the trilogy.

Fun Fact: The horse head scene, a pivotal moment in the film, used a real horse head procured from a dog food factory.

“West Side Story”

In West Side Story, motifs of love, prejudice, and rivalry which are derived from Romeo and Juliet allow viewers to emphasize with the protagonists from opposing gangs: the Jets and the Sharks.

The recurring use of dance scenes in the film demonstrates the unity within each gang, whilst heightening the tension between the two factions. Additionally, the blending of Puerto Rican and American cultures is evident throughout the musical with the mixture of English and Spanish languages in dialogue and songs.

The rivalry between the Jets and Sharks was inspired by real-life street gangs during the 1950s in New York City. Co-writer Arthur Laurents drew inspiration from his firsthand experiences while growing up in Manhattan.

Fun Fact: Rita Moreno, who played Anita in the film, had a breakdown on set due to the insensitive handling of her character’s attempted assault scene. After a meeting with the director, the scene was altered to be more sensitive to the situation.

“The Wizard of Oz”

The Wizard of Oz boasts a classic motif of self-discovery and the realization that home is where the heart is. The film can take an audience on a whimsical journey through a fantasy world with magical creatures and vivid landscapes.

The central message within the film is enhanced through the motif of the yellow brick road as a guiding path, which ultimately leads Dorothy back home to Kansas.

The famous ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland were not in the original text by L. Frank Baum. Instead, the character of Dorothy wore silver shoes.

The Role of Motifs in Storytelling

Unifying Themes

Motifs are recurring elements that contribute to unifying the themes of a story. By consistently appearing throughout the narrative, motifs help to emphasize and strengthen the overarching themes, tying together disparate story elements.

Example: In Lord of the Flies, the conch shell serves as a motif to represent order and civilization, emphasizing the breakdown of these concepts as the story unfolds.

Did You Know? The conch shell in Lord of the Flies has been interpreted in various ways, with some critics arguing that it represents the inherent fragility of civilization and the ease with which it can be shattered.

Creating Mood and Atmosphere

The use of motifs can also establish a particular mood or atmosphere, immersing the reader in the world of the story.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the mockingbird is a motif symbolizing innocence and vulnerability, setting the mood for the novel’s examination of prejudice and injustice. Similarly, in Macbeth, motifs like blood and darkness contribute to the creation of an ominous, sinister atmosphere.

Foreshadowing and Building Suspense

Motifs can be employed to foreshadow events in the story, hinting at what might happen next and building suspense for the reader.

In The Great Gatsby, the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock foreshadows Gatsby’s longing for her and the eventual tragedy that befalls him. Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet, motifs of light and darkness foreshadow the tragic fate of the star-crossed lovers, amplifying the suspense as the story unfolds.

Did You Know? The motifs of light and darkness in Romeo and Juliet also carry an element of irony, as the passionate love between the two main characters is ultimately what leads to their tragic demise.

Character Development

Character development is another essential aspect of storytelling that can be enhanced through the use of motifs. Motifs related to a specific character can reveal their personality traits, motivations, and inner conflicts, making the character more complex and relatable.

In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s love for reading is a motif symbolizing her intelligence and independent spirit, drawing the reader closer to her character.

Motif in Art and Design

Recurring Visual Patterns

In the realm of art and design, a motif represents a repeated pattern or design element that appears throughout a piece of work. These recurring visual patterns can lend a sense of unity and coherence to the overall aesthetic.

For instance, a textile designer may use a specific floral motif as a unifying thread in a collection of fabrics.

Color and Imagery

Motifs can also take the form of repeated colors or imagery.

Color motifs, for example, may be used to symbolize emotions or themes within a piece, while repeated imagery can be employed to convey a message or create a desired effect. An artist might use a specific shade of blue to evoke feelings of tranquility or employ an animal motif to represent the persistence of nature.

Collection of Well-Known Motifs

  • The Greek key pattern: A classic and versatile motif featuring interconnected right-angled lines. The Greek key pattern likely originated during the Geometric Period of Greek Pottery, further adding to its mystique.
  • The fleur-de-lis: A stylized lily or iris used in art and design, often associated with French royalty.
  • Paisley: A teardrop-shaped motif of Persian origin, popular in textiles and patterns. The term “paisley” actually originates from the Scottish town Paisley where the pattern became popular in the 19th century, despite its Persian roots.
  • The lotus flower: An iconic symbol in Eastern art and design, representing purity and enlightenment. The Buddha is often depicted sitting on a lotus flower, signifying his attainment of enlightenment while being grounded in the earthly realm.

Motif in Music

Melody and Leitmotif

In music, a motif is a short musical idea or pattern that is repeated throughout a piece or a section of the work, often with variations. A leitmotif is a type of motif, typically associated with a specific character, place or event in a larger work, such as an opera or a film score.

Example: The “Imperial March” from Star Wars is a well-known leitmotif that represents Darth Vader and the dark side of the Force.

Noteworthy: Motifs and leitmotifs can also help create thematic unity in a piece of music, much like motifs in literature or visual art. They can serve to reinforce or elaborate on the themes of the music, whether that's a specific narrative in an opera or the overall mood or atmosphere of a symphony or film score.

Opera and Film Scores

Motifs can be found in opera and film scores. They give a sense of continuity, as well as helping to characterize different aspects of the story:

  • In opera, motifs function as a unifying element across various scenes.
  • In film scores, they provide sonic references to emotions, characters, and locations.
The Ring CycleRichard WagnerHarry PotterJohn Williams
Don GiovanniWolfgang Amadeus MozartPirates of the CaribbeanHans Zimmer

Collection of Well-Known Motifs

  • Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5

The famous four-note motif in the opening movement. Beethoven’s symphony grabs our attention from the very beginning and holds it as the motif transforms and evolves throughout the piece.

Did You Know? Beethoven was almost entirely deaf when he completed his Symphony No. 5, yet it remains one of the most celebrated and recognizable pieces of music.
  • Jaws

The two-note motif representing the approaching shark. The Jaws motif’s simple repetition and increasing intensity create a sense of impending doom.

Did You Know? John Williams, who composed the Jaws score, has received over 50 Oscar nominations, making him the second most nominated person in the history of the Academy Awards.
  • The Nutcracker Suite

The “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” uses a celesta motif. The whimsical motif in The Nutcracker Suite captures the essence of the magical Sugar Plum Fairy character and has become a staple in the Christmas holiday repertoire.

Becoming a Motif Detective: How to Identify a Motif

To become a proficient motif detective, follow these steps:

  1. Familiarize yourself with common motifs: Research and read about motifs in literature, movies, and music to develop an understanding of the various forms they can take.
  2. Analyze the medium: When reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to music, pay close attention to recurring themes, symbols, or images.
  3. Take notes: Write down any potential motifs you notice, as well as the context in which they appear throughout the piece.
  4. Look for patterns: Examine your notes to determine if any of the potential motifs have a consistent presence or if they serve a particular purpose.
  5. Reflect on the work: Consider how the identified motifs contribute to the overall meaning or interpretation of the piece.

Common Places to Look for Motifs

Motifs can be found in many places within a piece of media. Some of the most common areas to explore include:

  • Title: Motifs might be indicated in the title of the piece itself.
  • Settings: The location, time, or environment of a story can contain motifs.
  • Character development: Look for recurrent traits or behaviors among characters.
  • Dialogue: Pay attention to repeated phrases or topics in conversations.
  • Visual and auditory elements: In movies and music, motifs might manifest through colors, sounds, or specific camera angles.

Becoming a motif detective can greatly enhance your enjoyment and understanding of various forms of media. Identifying motifs helps reveal the deeper meaning and intent of a piece, connecting you more directly with the work’s message.

Give motif detection a try in various forms of media, whether it be a novel, film, or song. As you hone your skills, you may discover new depth and resonance in the media you consume. Take this exciting opportunity to immerse yourself in the intricate world of motifs and see the stories unfold in a new light.

Exploring Universal Motifs

The Hero’s Journey

Perhaps one of the most well-known motifs, the Hero’s Journey is a narrative pattern that involves a hero embarking on a quest, facing challenges, and eventually returning home transformed. This motif has appeared in many cultural mythologies and countless stories, from Homer’s Odyssey to modern tales like The Lord of the Rings.

Light and Darkness

The contrast between light and darkness is a powerful motif that denotes good and evil, knowledge and ignorance, or hope and despair. This motif can be traced back to ancient works like The Epic of Gilgamesh and persists in contemporary literature.

The Cycle of Life

The cycle of life, death, and rebirth is a motif rich with symbolic meaning. This theme represents the natural order of things and the inevitability of change. Examples of this motif can be found in works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet and James Joyce’s Ulysses.


Water is a versatile motif in literature, often symbolizing purification, transformation, or the subconscious. Its fluidity makes it a powerful symbol for change and growth. An example of water as a motif can be found in the Biblical story of Noah’s Ark, where a great flood washes away a sinful world to make way for a fresh start.

The Fool

The character of the Fool, often naïve but wise, can be seen in many literary and artistic works, from Shakespeare’s plays to traditional tarot cards. This motif may act as comic relief or provide a unique perspective in a story. The Fool’s wisdom is often underestimated but can lead the protagonist to transformative realizations.

By understanding these universal motifs, one can not only gain a deeper appreciation for the stories they feature in but also recognize the connections between seemingly disparate narratives.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Motifs

AspectAdvantages of MotifsDisadvantages of Motifs
Thematic UnityEnrich creative works with deeper meaning and thematic unity.Overused motifs can become clichés or confuse the audience.
Storytelling DeviceFunction as subtle reminders of underlying themes or represent character journeys.Excessive reliance on motifs can stifle creativity.
CohesionBring consistency across different elements, creating a sense of order and harmony.Overuse of motifs can make a work feel repetitive.
Character DevelopmentStrengthen character development, providing insight into personality, motivations, or conflicts.Misused motifs can be distracting and detract from the main narrative.
EngagementFacilitate audience understanding and deeper engagement with the content.Overly complex or ambiguous motifs might confuse the audience, reducing engagement.
Pro Tip: Finding the balance between incorporating motifs and maintaining originality is key to successful storytelling.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can a character serve as a motif?

Yes, a character or even a group of characters can act as a motif, particularly if they represent a specific idea or concept. For example, in Greek mythology, the Fates are a recurring motif, symbolizing the inescapable power of destiny.

Does every work of art have a motif?

Not every work of art has a distinct or intentional motif. However, many works do incorporate recurring elements that could be considered motifs. The presence (or absence) of motifs can be a personal choice made by the artist or author, depending on their creative vision.

Can a motif have multiple interpretations?

Yes, a motif can have multiple interpretations depending on the context in which it is used and the perspective of the reader or viewer.

Many motifs are deliberately open to interpretation, allowing for various layers of meaning to be uncovered by different people.


Understanding motifs has a transformative effect on our media consumption. By identifying recurring themes, symbols, and ideas, one can appreciate the depth and artistry of various works. Recognizing the significance of these motifs deepens our understanding of the overall artistic message and enriches our experience.

The importance of motifs lies in their ability to communicate narratives, emotions, and messages throughout different aspects of art. They serve as a foundation for the viewer or reader to build their understanding and connection to the media they consume. Whether in literature, music, or visual arts, motifs play a pivotal role in communicating the creator’s intentions.

As one delves into their favorite works and begins to uncover the hidden motifs, it becomes an engaging and enlightening journey. This newfound knowledge leads to a greater appreciation for the intricacies of artistic expression in various forms. So, on this note, are you ready to uncover the hidden motifs in your favorite works?

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Jessa Claire is a registered healthcare provider. Music lover. Daydreamer. Thalassophile. Foodie. A hardworking Capricorn. Most days, an incurable empath. An old soul. Down-to-earth. Vibrant. When she's not writing, she can be seen relaxing with headphones on or engrossed in her favorite fan fiction book.