A motif or theme paper allows you to focus on an aspect of a short story, play, or novel. It can be especially useful in complex works, with multiple plots, recurring elements, or numerous characters that can make an overall criticism difficult. By exploring a single motif or element, you are able to draw conclusions and offer insight into the motivation or message of a particular piece of literature. Some motifs are also useful as starting points for larger discussions about a work.

Create a list of motifs. Larger works, such as plays and novels, may have multiple motifs. Write a list of all of the elements (settings, objects, colors, phrases, or imagery) that appear multiple times in the text. For example, in "Macbeth," blood is one motif, as are sight vs. blindness, light and dark, and attention to clothing. A short story or poem may have a single motif, or very few.

Select a motif and identify all of the lines, scenes, or chapters where the motif appears. Sometimes, a particular theme appears in different formats; for example, in "Macbeth," several characters say the word "blood" but it is also implied in phrases about murder and killing animals.

Develop a thesis statement. Often, your motif paper will come with an assigned question to answer, and your thesis should first address that question. For example, in "A Separate Peace," there is a strong motif of war, but neither of the main characters actually go to war. A common essay question in this case might be: How does the war and notions of warfare impact the boys in Devon school? A strong thesis statement asserts your opinion and at the same time gives you room to prove why the examples of the motif support it.

Prove your thesis with examples of the motif. Select three to five recurrences of the motif to focus on in your paper. For each one, describe the scene or setting in which the motif occurs and explain how it contributes to or impacts the overall arc of the story or play. If your motif has a historical aspect (such as World War II in "A Separate Peace"), describe the significance of the motif as it relates to the basic conflict or characters.

Draft your essay based on the requirements. Most motif papers are short, and the basic five-paragraph essay will give you plenty of space to prove your thesis. In this format, you write an introduction paragraph, then three paragraphs each with a different example of the motif and its significance, and a concluding paragraph.


Check with your teacher or professor about which format (APA, Chicago, or MLA) to use, if you will be including references and a bibliography. Proofread carefully for grammatical and punctuation errors.


Be sure to cite any quotes or examples that you include; otherwise, you may be plagiarizing another writer.

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