CotM Feat Themes and Motifs

The Importance of Themes and Motifs

Technically that title is a little redundant, since themes fit under the umbrella of motifs nicely. It’s just there for clarity. Motif is one of the aspects of writing that I find is seriously neglected in online discussions of writing. Maybe that’s because it tends to happen naturally. Human being s have a natural understanding of theme, and don’t really need to be taught it.

You’re a writer, though, and you need to have themes on your mind, because if you’re thinking about themes and motifs then you can use them to control your readers’ brains — which is what writing is all about: using words to trick peoples’ limbic system into releasing compounds that affect their emotional state. It’s a pretty neat trick, and there will be a follow-up article. 

Luckily, this is easy to do in the case of themes. See, human brains are trained to look for patterns and connections even when there aren’t any –and filling in the details you leave out, as I get into in this article on the challenges of writing about beauty– which says interesting things about the survival importance of imagination, but that’s a story for another day, too. There will be a follow-up article. Let me give an example of a motif arising naturally.


Let’s say that, as I’m writing this, I’m enjoying a rare tolerable day outdoors in Phoenix, sitting outdoors at a table on an overcast morning. Damn do I love coffee shops. I can sit here and work and just watch the world doing its thing.

It’s the little things in life, that keep you sane. Watching a little girl who’s just barely walking toddle over to the door and push on it. The slow change from confidence to confusion and frustration as it won’t budge, because she was so sure she had doors figured out. And now everything she thought she knew about the world is a lie! This was her big bid for freedom. The bold escape to somewhere she isn’t allowed to be. Then the light bulb flashes on, and she fumbles with the door lock, and pushes again. No luck. Of course, she’s doing everything right; she’s got the door thing down perfectly, utilizing the same steps we all do:

  1. Push or Pull,
  2. Whichever choice you didn’t pick on Step 1,
  3. Check lock, try 1&2 again.

Her problem is that the door’s just plain too heavy for her little body to move. Even four and five-year-olds can’t really handle it.

Sometimes you can have it all figured out, and you’re still not quite ready to make things happen. Of course, that’s a lesson she won’t learn today, and she’s still pushing when her pregnant mother waddles over and scoops her up. Then again, eventually doors like this one will move when she pushes. So maybe the take-home lesson is just keep pushing. 

Almost simultaneously, the morning workers of Supercuts are realizing that they forgot to lock the door last night, and the business has been completely unlocked for the last sixteen hours. They aren’t thrilled.

A group of Hispanic women, clearly three or four generations of the same family, arrive together, all in formal dresses, the only male member of the group a very young boy. He’s there with his sister, about the same age, maybe four, both dressed all in white. Maybe they’re headed to a baptism or something. The mom sends the girl in to get drinks for herself and her brother. She needs help opening the door. A few minutes later she comes back with two drinks: Grape juice for her, and chocolate milk for her brother. Their mother looks at them, looks at their sparkling white clothes, then sighs and opens both drinks for them. When all of the older women get their drinks, one of the youngest, mid-to-late teens, looks at her drink with a scowl.

“Es verde.”

Apparently it’s either not what she ordered, or she wasn’t ordering what she thought she was. Specifically: green.

One door down the other way is a computer repair shop. There’s only one guy there in the mornings, it seems, and he keeps locking the door and leaving to go smoke around the corner. Two of his coworkers arrive in the middle of his smoke break. One stands there scowling and just shakes the door, for a good five minutes. His coworker, a woman pounding Redbulls as she waits takes pictures of the locked door, and they discuss the situation. The guy comes back. . . someone’s in trouble.

Overall, sitting outside was a good choice.

The theme, of course, is doors. Someone who usually sits inside is surprised to find so much going on outside. Someone is shirking work, someone is incompetent, someone can’t open the doors, and some other people probably shouldn’t have stayed outdoors and let others handle the purchases. None of these have much in common, but because they’re happening together on a page, this becomes a vignette dealing the theme of doors.

The Point of it All

I probably could have thought up a stronger example for this. Maybe a theme that had a bit more metaphor potential mixed in. That might have been good. However, I think we built towards something pretty well, and the point was that themes arise naturally as part of the human experience. I suppose I could build from here, if I wanted to. Doors are great for that sort of thing. Phrases like, “A doorway to a new future,” or “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” are fraught with meaning. Doors are the boundary between being inside and outside, they represent security and privacy, the things we own from the greater world. Anyone who’s ever had a room without a door knows there’s something significantly less to the experience. If a door is open, it’s an invitation, if it’s closed we knock, unless we’re extremely familiar with the residents.

Just walking through doors has significance. Usually you can walk back through them, but you can’t unwalk through a door. Something has transpired, a change is implied in the reality.

And woe to those who walk through the wrong doors, which is my point. For example, when staying with a friend for a bit I once walked into his apartment without knocking, carrying a box full of my stuff — incidentally, a box covered in cartoon dinosaurs — straight into the wrong apartment, where I met a partially dressed and very alarmed transvestite.

Writing is often a door sort of experience. Once a thought or a skill or a concept takes over, it’s there. You’ve passed through a door and the passage is locked behind you. Themes work the same way, so maybe the door thing was a good choice after all. Since we assign themes so instinctively, it’s very hard to change course once they’re established. Changes in theme are jarring to readers, they break stories, and trip us up.

That’s the real reason a writer needs to always have them in the back of their mind: Once you walk through a motif, it’s really hard to walk back out again. And you really never know what’s behind the door you didn’t mean to walk through — although sometimes that’s a pretty good story, too.

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