Motif vs. Theme: What Is the Difference?

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Here’s the difference between a motif and a theme:

A theme is a general term for a literary work’s overall message or meaning.

A motif is a recurring element in a piece of literature that develops or helps to reveal the theme.

If you want to learn all about the differences between motifs and themes, then this article is for you.

Let’s get started!

Motif vs. Theme: What Is the Difference? (+ Examples)

What Are the Differences Between Motifs and Themes?

Beautiful young lady sitting in a park under a tree reading a book
DefinitionA literary tool that uses a repeated element or symbol to create a themeThe main idea of a literary piece or work of art
How it’s expressedMotifs can be a recurring word, phrase, object, situation, action, color, taste, smell, or even temperatureExpressed through a series of events, characters, and other elements that make up an entire narrative
ScopeA technique utilized by authors to highlight the main theme or concept A representation of the meaning of a story or artistic work
NatureMotifs are concrete and tangible Themes are abstract and based on concepts
SpecificityA recurring element or undeniable pattern that’s shown within a storySubject to a reader’s or an audience’s interpretation

Writers have been trying to convey feelings and narratives since the invention of language.

As such, it should come as no surprise that the terminology has gotten a little complicated over time. 

Motifs and themes are, at their core, very similar to each other and are almost always intertwined in a work.

Both affect the work from beginning to end, having overarching effects that permeate a piece.

However, they are not quite the same. Today we’ll be discussing the minute differences between them and how they interact with each other to enhance any written piece.

What Are Motifs?

Mysterious wood nymph plays on white harp in fabulous place.

Motifs can most accurately be thought of as patterns.

Motifs consist of images or events used to create predictions in the readers or to emphasize the greater theme or line of action in the narrative. 

There might be a recurring image with great significance, or there might be a particular pattern of ideas, scenes, and images that reinforce reader expectations.

For example, if you started reading a short story that takes place in an old mansion, at night, in dimly lit rooms, you might say that the story has a Gothic or horror motif to it.

This can then be used to either reinforce your expectations or to subvert them by having the characters engage in events that don’t match the motif at all.

Some key elements of a motif are:

  • Based strictly on patterns.
  • Acts through specific writing techniques, especially imagery.
  • Often deeply wrapped in settings, backstories, etc.
  • Often relies heavily on genre tropes.
  • More objective. Most readers will notice the same motifs.

What Is a Theme?

woman reading book while sitting on wheat field

Themes are much broader and more abstract than motifs.

A theme is not comprised of the images, techniques, or events within a text.

It is generally a more vague resulting effect or feeling of the various techniques used.

A romance novel might have themes of acceptance or overcoming differences, for example.

A work does not necessarily have to have a single theme, either.

It’s not uncommon for young adult novels to combine a friendship theme with themes of personal growth since both are relevant topics to the target audience.

Some key elements of a theme are:

  • Extracted from the general feeling or message of a piece.
  • Much broader and less easily identifiable.
  • More subjective. Different readers may identify different themes.

What Are the Interactions between Motif and Theme?

Forest crowns of fairy trees with bright sunlight, flying dandelions and butterflies.

While motifs and themes are inherently separate, it would be hard to have one without the other.

By implementing an identifiable pattern in the text through a motif, the writer often ends up imbuing the work with some sort of over-arching theme, whether it’s intentional or not.

There are many ways that motifs can enforce and even produce themes.

A romantic piece might utilize flower gardens, mentions of pleasant scents, scenes of stargazing, and depictions of attractive characters to keep the reader enthralled.

This, in turn, heavily implies that there will be a romantic theme, so long as the characters in the story play along with the setting that has been presented to them.

A sci-fi novel might fill its pages with spaceships, strange planets, lasers, and aliens.

This can naturally lead up to themes of adventure and exploration. 

Alternatively, the writer might present the aliens as dangerous and terrifying, the planets as lonely and desolate, and fill the cosmos with derelict freighters.

These subtle twists on the motif shift the piece toward themes of survival and horror.

Of course, what happens when the motifs and themes are a bit more customized?

Subverted Expectations: How to Twist Motifs and Themes?

Beautiful fairy in white in the city at night time.

Motifs and themes are such a staple of literature that it’s become common practice to act out at them among writers in an attempt to escape the little checkboxes that readers naturally want to assign to literature. 

Every writer wants to write the next work that bends or breaks a genre.

After all, and themes and motifs are two of the most important things to be aware of in this endeavor.

Let’s say you want to write a novel with a romantic theme, but you don’t want it to have the typical romance motifs.

So how would you go about it? 

Well, the most obvious path is strict defiance.

Instead of a peaceful upper-middle-class suburb with rosy gardens and familiar faces, perhaps throw the characters into the depths of poverty and leave them there.

Purposely make them unattractive, but with likable personalities, the readers find enthralling.

Even after all these changes, you could still easily retain a romantic theme by simply having the characters overcome the challenges you’ve placed. 

Let them fall in love just like romance characters always do, with the ups and downs intact.

The setting might not be lovey-dovey, but the theme of love can still be achieved by directing your pieces properly.

Now, what about using a subversive theme?

Beauty and the beast dancing with romantic fireplace in the background.

Let’s say we want a horror novel, but we want the theme to be the power of friendship.

Keep the motifs in place.

It’s still allowed to be in a spooky, run-down graveyard next to the old farmhouse where Old Man McMurder lives.

Instead, we’ll shift the theme through the plot.

Normally, the characters in a horror piece are picked off one by one by some invincible evil.

Instead, let’s have the characters encounter situations where they should die, but have them overcome each moment by working together. 

At every turn, the evil forces almost get someone, and there’s a feeling that it could happen at any time, but the heroes keep building up their cooperation into a more and more dominant force.

In the finale, the heroes defeat Old Man McMurder by coming up with a plan that could have only possibly been accomplished with each of their unique talents.

So now we have a horror story, complete with a horror motif and horror elements, that ultimately has the power of friendship as one of its themes.

Ultimately, the point of this section is to remind you that there are no checkboxes.

You can utilize motifs and themes to retread old ground in new ways, or you can create wholly original combinations of motifs and themes that match your ideals and style.

The choices, as always, are up to the writer.