Episode 192: But what does it MEAN?

On July 16, 2022, Kasie and Rex continued the discussion on theme, symbolism, and motifs. Here are the show notes:

Theme for the day

Themes, Symbols, and Motifs


Photo by Gert Coetzee on Pexels.com

Link to the podcast

Segment 1

Last week we continued our work with literary devices begun in Episode 190: Dogs at the Poker Table wherein we broke apart personification and anthropomorphism. Episode 191 took on similes and metaphors and then sunk its teeth into motifs. Today we’ll wrap up motifs and work our way through juxtaposition. Then we’ll deliver some exposition-specific devices like flashbacks. Ready? Let’s do it.

Here’s the link for that silly blog (from Episode 125) which actually does have a great list of devices we’re going with:

  • Simile
  • Metaphor
  • Imagery
  • Symbolism
  • Flashback
  • Foreshadow
  • Juxtaposition

But don’t forget:

  • Allusion – refer to other literature
  • Anachronism – put something out of place in the era
  • Anthropomorphism (personification) – give an object or nature human characteristics
  • Archetype – we did a whole show on the female catalog of these
  • Frame story – a play within the play
  • Hyperbole – exaggeration
  • Hypophora – the character asks a question and then immediately answers it himself
  • Irony – the difference between how things are perceived and how they really are: dramatic (readers knows before the character does), situational (characters and reader are surprised by events), verbal (when the intended meaning of a statement is the exact opposite of what is said)

Leaving aside that we’re both of the generation totally fucked by Alanis Morissette’s inaccurate read of “irony,” and that hyperbole is So.Everywhere. that we probably don’t need an episode on it, and directing you all to the other episodes we did on archetypes (Episode 181 The Fool, Episode 72 Feminine Archetypes, and Episode 45 Cliche Characters), this may very well be our last deep-dive literary devices episode. But who knows.

We didn’t expect motifs to go into a second week. And yet here we are.

Themes, symbols, and motifs are frequently treated together when taught, but they’re different (link):

  • Themes are abstract or conceptual and live in the backdrop of a story as a main idea.
  • Symbols are objects that represent something else: a white dove, a skeleton key, a snake
  • Motifs are symbolic, but not objects rather, phrases or words repeated: the scent of oranges in Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris is used to indicate the triggering of a migraine by the characters’ mother. The smell of peanuts at the circus is used to taunt the little girl who wants to be part of proper society in The Greatest Showman.

Segment 2

So let’s work on Themes first. As a holdover from the old morality plays, themes are often confused with morals – “What’s the moral of the story?” – Wheel of Morality turn, turn, turn …


Like Jane Friedman says, all authors are preoccupied with something and usually it’s that something that emerges as the theme in their writing. This masterclass gives us a high-level view of some of the most popular ones:

  • Good vs. evil
  • Love
  • Redemption
  • Courage and perseverance
  • Coming of Age
  • Revenge

Themes are the underlying preoccupation of the story. They can be as blatant as the name of the story – Bonfire of the Vanities – or as subtle as the setting – Outer Banks. Themes are not the starting point for the story, they are usually the subtext, the unintended byproduct, or the preoccupation (as mentioned) of the author bleeding through.

Some other (maybe more recent?) themes (link):

  • Family
  • Power
  • Loneliness
  • Friendship
  • Free will vs. fate
  • War
  • Childhood

I’m not convinced these are themes per se, but circumstances. I mean, “war” could deliver a dozen or more themes – man vs. nature, redemption, courage.

Childhood, likewise, could deliver a number of powerful themes – love, coming of age, friendship. 

So if they’re all kind of subjective, general, or nebulous, what gives? Why select and pursue a theme? Why aim your writing toward a specific thing? Why not just let them all mingle in a themeless mess?

What purpose does a theme serve?

Segment 3

Are not symbols and motifs just ways of reinforcing the theme? Symbols are something that stand for something else. Like our discussion of Chekov’s gun – if there’s a gun in the scene, eventually you have to explain it. He doesn’t just mean “gun” in the literal sense. He means anything incongruous, anything that could alter the circumstances, anything that exists in a passive sense and could disrupt the story if activated.

A symbol could be as blatant as a Tarot card reading (thanks, Cassandra Clare) or as subtle as the trains in Anna Karenina. There’s the green light at the end of the dock in Gatsby and the moors in Wuthering Heights (link). Hemingway uses Hills like White Elephants as the symbol for a belly rounded in pregnancy as his two characters discuss an abortion.

Symbolism revisits our simile and metaphor discussion from last week because often (as in Shakespeare) the symbols are blatant (all the world’s a stage). But it’s the subtle symbols that are really clever, that have you – as a writer – jealous of the work of others and as a reader enthralled by the possibilities of the work.

So if the theme is despair (as in Elie Weisel’s Night) and the symbol is night – darkness, depth, loss of faith and hope – we get it, right?

If the theme is imprisonment or suppression, the symbol is doors with multiple locks, or having to pass multiple security measures to enter.

If the theme is hope or opportunity, the symbol is a distant horizon, a clear sky, a long clear path.

And if motifs are simply recurring symbols, then the theme, symbol, and motif are all working together to deliver a very specific impression.

Some examples from our own work?

  • In The Shower, my pregnant protagonist is salty because she’s not permitted a mimosa – the restriction (no alcohol) is symbolic of the life change she’s undergoing and her desire to drink is the persistence of her “other” (pre-pregnancy) self.
  • In For the Win, the football team’s success and the speculation around the season are symbols of Kate’s ambition to be a rock star – something difficult to attain, something only a certain number of people realistically pursue. Her friend Austin’s dad is dead, the loss of him at the game and Austin’s presence anyway are symbolic of Kate’s willingness to pursue her ambition even if Tyler quits on her.
  • In Two Trunks, that pornographic pachyderm reminds Tracey that sexuality is natural, impulsive, albeit embarassing for others. She’s preoccupied with the lack of sex in her own life after witnessing the unapologetic sexuality of the animals in the zoo.

Segment 4

Writers often begin the story with the story and the themes and symbols emerge during revision when we’re asking, “What is this story really about?”

Then, the details of the story – what the character is doing, reading, watching, listening to, seeing – organize themselves to reinforce the theme. It’s why we get so frustrated by stories that have mundane settings – a coffee shop, a city park – those places don’t have theme

Imagine these setting contrasts:

  • Cafe vs. handmade soap boutique
  • Strip mall vs. school cafeteria
  • Beach vs. grandma’s screened porch
  • Stadium at game time vs. a small town war monument in the town square
  • Pool hall vs. kids’ books section of a local library

Some things are delightfully mundane – we know what a funeral home feels like, a hospital, a busy restaurant. Sometimes we need the place to be backdrop, not an integral part of the story. But sometimes we need the place to be very specific. There are required elements: the massive hotel buried in the woods in The Shining – it’s isolated, it’s cavernous, it’s sinister.

What about these activity contrasts:

  • Walking (for fitness) vs. jogging vs. CrossFit vs. swimming
  • Eating a hamburger vs. a cupcake vs. an ice cream cone vs. popcorn
  • Watching a cat video vs. a documentary vs. the local news vs. a superhero movie
  • Reading a newspaper (with its spread and its crinkly sound and its inky smears) vs. scrolling through one’s phone vs. a worn second-hand, well-loved paperback
  • Baking a cake vs. scrapbooking vs. sorting old pictures vs. drawing

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