You’ve Run Your Motif to Death … Again | Breaking Bad Writing Habits

Have a bad writing habit? We can help.


Welcome to a brand-new Novelty Revisions series, Breaking Bad Writing Habits. This is exciting. We’re going to tear apart your worst writing habits and build stronger ones, together.

This week, we’ll be talking about motifs.

You’ll remember from this post (sorry, that last photo is a bit sadder now) that a motif, similar to a symbol, is a recurring idea, image, sound, etc. throughout a story. There is a right and a wrong way to use a motif, and thankfully, the “wrong” way is easily fixable.

The habit: overusing your beloved motif

Once we come up with a really great motif – because every now and then, amazing things like this just HAPPEN – we latch onto it … sometimes a little too hard. It’s a great technique, and once you learn it, basically all you’ll want to do at first is use it. Over … and over … and over again.

My first novella uses its title object, ribbons, as a way to (literally) tie back to its overall themes of togetherness and forgiveness and love. We’ll use that to refer back to throughout the remainder of this post as we break own this bad writing habit.

What’s so bad about it?

Yes, motifs are great. Especially when you let yourself get creative with them. Use them too much, though, and you’ll end up wearing down your craft much more than you’ll enhance it.

Put simply, overusing a motif kills its wow factor. If I mentioned ribbons in every single chapter of my story just for the sake of mentioning it, you’d get absolutely tired of it. The point of a motif is to remind the reader of a main theme, not beat them over the head with it.

How to break the habit

The reason this writing technique is a bit tricky to use at first is that it takes awhile to really master how to use it subtly. It isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the only way you address your themes, but if you take the time to figure out how much is just enough, they can really enhance your story.

One way to minimize the ‘sparkle’ of your motif without diminishing its importance is to alternate it with different motifs instead of using just one. In my story, when Madison first comes home, she tells Veronica she wants to learn to knit. ‘Tying’ back to the same theme, different object. Change up the type of motif you use as well. Instead of an image or object, use a sound or a color.

Weave your motif subtly into other parts of your story, so it’s there, but not prominent in every single scene. In some scenes of the novella, ribbons are the main focus. In others, they’re just something Rylie and Jake put into baskets while they’re having a completely unrelated conversation.

If you have a bad writing habit, you can break it. We believe in you. But let us know what it is so we can help.

Image courtesy of Image Catalog/

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