Posted On January 15, 2016 by Print This Post

Motifs and Symbols and Themes – with Laura Drake

Good morning! Author Laura Drake returns to talk about how to incorporate symbolism in your story. 

I love almost all literary devices, but the above are my favorites. I’m sure you heard of them, and have probably used them in your writing, but you may not know the definitions, so here they are (from

Motif is any recurring element that has symbolic significance in a story. Through its repetition, a motif can help produce other narrative (or literary) aspects such as theme.

Theme is what the author is trying to tell the reader. For example, the belief in the ultimate good in people, or that things are not always what they seem. This is often referred to as the “moral of the story.”

Symbolism is the use of symbols to signify ideas and qualities by giving them symbolic meanings that are different from their literal sense.

Thematic patterning means the insertion of a recurring motif in a narrative.

I’ve used all of them in my books: An ugly scar, to remind the readers of the protagonist’s guilt and shame (Nothing Sweeter). A Laura Drakecowgirl hat to signify the protagonist’s reluctance to change (Sweet on You). White roses, to remind a mother of her grief (The Sweet Spot). Even a motorcycle, to show a character’s running from her past (Her Road Home).

These are powerful and fun to use, because they’re shortcuts; you don’t have to keep reminding the reader with flashbacks and backstory – you can have them look at the symbol, and the reader gets it.

They’re everywhere in literature. The ring, in Tolkien’s series – it’s a symbol of power, good and evil, all rolled into one. The Silence of the Lambs had lambs, but shoes, too. Speaking of shoes, how about The Wizard of Oz? Hey, this could be a nerdy game for writers on a long road trip – say the book, and the others have to guess the motif!

But before I get carried away with that, hopefully the examples above convince you of the power of these devices.

You can even use more than one symbol or in your novel, to weave a strong theme through the story. It helps deepen the emotion and glue the reader to the page.

I did this with my first women’s fiction book (released on the 11th of this month!), Days Made of Glass, I used the symbolism of glass – these are two sisters, on their own at 17 and 13. They live on the edge of society, the edge of disaster – their lives are fragile. The protagonist is a rodeo bullfighter; her teacher tells her that she has to be faster, better than the men – they’re wood, she’s glass. Then there’s her mentally ill sister, who’s shatters glass, and tries to commit suicide by slitting her wrists with it.

The symbol I used was a small glass box, a cheap trinket with a yin yang symbol on the lid.

yin yang

Yin yang represents forever, which is how the sisters think of their relationship. They’re very close. When Harlie, the eldest, has to leave her catatonic sister in a mental care facility to travel to Texas to train to be a bullfighter, she takes the glass box with her. When it’s broken, it’s the beginning of Harlie understanding that she can’t keep her sister safe – she can’t save her.

What do you think? Have you used symbols, motifs or themes in your writing? How?

What about my nerdy writer’s game? Do you have any books you can name with motifs?


Days Made of GlassDays Made of GlassJanuary 2016

Shared blood defines a family, but spilled blood can too.

Harlie Cooper raised her sister, Angel, even before their mother died. When their guardian is killed in a fire, rather than be separated by Social Services, they run. Life in off the grid in L.A. isn’t easy, but worse, there’s something wrong with Angel.

Harlie walks in to find their apartment scattered with shattered and glass and Angel, a bloody rag doll in a corner. The doctor orders institutionalization in a state facility. Harlie’s not leaving her sister in that human warehouse. But something better takes money. Lots of it.

When a rep from the Pro Bull Riding Circuit suggests she train as a bullfighter, rescuing downed cowboys from their rampaging charges, she can’t let the fact that she’d be the first woman to attempt this stop her. Angel is depending on her.

It’s not just the danger and taking on a man’s career that challenges Harlie. She must learn to trust—her partner and herself, and learn to let go of what’s not hers to save.

A story of family and friendship, trust and truth.


Bio: In 2014, Laura realized a lifelong dream of becoming a Texan and is currently working on her accent. She gave up the corporate CFO gig to write full time. She’s a wife, grandmother, and motorcycle chick in the remaining waking hours.

Connect with Laura via Twitter and Facebook or visit her website and her group blog Writers in the Storm.

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12 Responses to “Motifs and Symbols and Themes – with Laura Drake”

  1. Thanks, RU, for having me back!

    Posted by Laura Drake | January 15, 2016, 5:54 am
  2. Wonderful post, Laura! You’ve given me a lot to think about for my own writing.

    Congrats on Days Made of Glass! The story sounds intriguing and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Posted by Carol Opalinski | January 15, 2016, 8:27 am
  3. Hi Laura,

    I love that you chose this topic. I’ve always been aware of symbolism in books I’d read, but weaving it into my stories is a lot harder. Great point about using symbolism as a shortcut. Do you consider which symbols and motifs to use in your stories before you start writing?

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | January 15, 2016, 7:38 pm
    • Thanks for reading, Jennifer! Sometimes I do – in Days Made of Glass, I’d planned glass…but not that little glass box, or the infinity symbol, or the tat…

      Don’t you love it when your brain does that?

      It’s not as hard to do as you think though. Think about your theme in your WIP… what would be an interesting physical manifestation of that? Then weave it in like a Navajo blanket-maker!

      Posted by Laura Drake | January 16, 2016, 5:39 am
  4. This is a great post!! Something I hope to use in my own stories. Thanks!!

    Posted by Traci Krites | January 15, 2016, 8:51 pm
  5. Bookmarked this post! I was so frustrated when I first started writing. I’d have such a hard time trying to incorporate motifs and to build in themes, but sometimes to my surprise I’d realize I’d already done it. I think of this as an advanced skill, and certainly when I TRY to focus on themes and motifs I don’t always succeed. Hopefully I’ll improve – I’m keeping this post with my folder of bookmarked craft posts. Thank you!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | January 15, 2016, 9:12 pm
  6. Thanks, Traci – Boldly go!

    Posted by Laura Drake | January 16, 2016, 5:40 am
  7. Sometimes symbols and motifs come of their own accord. When I wrote worship drama, my partner in the ministry often found symbols I didn’t know were there.

    Posted by Andrea R Huelsenbeck | January 17, 2016, 12:03 pm


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