What Is A Motif, Visual Motif and Leitmotif?

A motif is a recurring pattern which expands on theme. It is like a symbol, but symbols have wider cultural significance. A motif can be unique to the work.

A motif is meaningful repetition which helps an audience enter a work at the thematic level. 

When related images repeat to enhance or bring attention to an idea, you know you’ve identified the story’s motif. It’s not a motif unless there is symbolic or thematic significance in the story. Simple repetition does not equal ‘motif’. A motif is like a symbol, but symbols are widely understood by the culture, whereas a motif might be specific/unique to the work at hand. We’re learning what the motif means within the story as the story progresses. That’s why repetition is necessary.

A motif is an example of imagery, but the word ‘imagery’ suggests patterns that work visually. In fact, imagery might be something you hear. If smell-o-vision were a thing, a motif could be something you smell. Any of the following are typically repeated in a meaningful way:

  • sounds
  • actions
  • objects
  • characters
  • various literary devices
  • words/phrases
  • images (of course)

In film noir, an example of a visual motif would be the use of shadow to obscure part of a character’s face.

In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the motif of the “beast” is used to represent the fear and savagery that the characters experience as they become more isolated from civilization.

In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, the motif of the thrush is used to symbolize the longing and nostalgia of the main character, Heathcliff.

A visual motif in a film (or a story app) isn’t necessarily a static image (not moving). Hitchcock repeatedly made use of mirror shots and divided screens, which became a visual motif. He also made much use of light and shadow. There were reasons for this, which is what makes a repetition a motif.

See also: 10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime from io9.

The following video explains the strong visual motif running through Silence of the Lambs.

A leitmotif is a repeating pattern in the musical arts.

In music, a leitmotif is a recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.

In films and plays a leitmotif is a specific melody is associated to character or a given situation or a given setting. For example, a triangle which accompanies repeated actions to cumulative effect.

But how is this any different from ‘repetition’, right? As in choruses or any sort of repeated musical sequence?

First, the answer in relation to music:

When repetition in music becomes identified with a character, it is called a “leitmotif”.

Howard Suber

Next, the answer in relation to literature:

In literature leitmotifs often present as sound devices such as alliteration, rhyme and onomatopoeia:

Examples of leitmotif from Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:

“wasching the walters of, the weltering walters off. Whyte.”
“and watch her waters of her sillying waters of”
“And his dithering dathering waltzers of. Stright!”
“arride the winnerful wonders off, the winnerful wonnerful wanders off”
“baffling with the walters of, hoompsydoompsy walters of. High!”
“Amingst the living waters of, the living in giving waters of. Tight!”

Leitmotifs are also notable in the works of Samuel Beckett, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Thomas Mann, Chuck Palahniuk, and Julian Barnes, among several other writers.

The work of Annie Proulx, too, has been described in terms of the leitmotif, notably in relation to an opera adaptation of Brokeback Mountain, in which leitmotif describes actual music:

[In adapting the short story for stage] Wuorinen says that he wanted to do something that the film didn’t: instead of the beautifying effects of the cinematography on the mountainous landscape of the North American West, the opera returns to the sense of threat, of danger, of hard-fought existence that the Wyoming mountains are really about, something that’s there in the story but less apparent in Ang Lee’s film. You can hear that even in the brief excerpts from the opera that underscore this interview: the mountain looms in that ominous orchestral chord, which becomes a kind of leitmotif for the multiple threats to Jack and Ennis’ love as the opera develops.

The Guardian

But below, the word ‘leitmotif’ is used to describe not a musical but the musicality of Proulx’s prose — a voice she uses for her darkly comic stories:

One of the clues that Annie Proulx’s short stories cannot be taken too literally lies in the leitmotif of the Devil, which reappears as a character in several marvelous stories as well as in the character’s quotidian imagery and sociolect. These more comical, satirical stories casting the Devil and his demons as protagonists seem to have been born from fantasies set free by folklore, by postmodern lifestyle, and by the hellish living and natural conditions in Wyoming.

Bénédicte Meillon

In this case Meillon could probably  have simply used the word ‘motif’, but wanted to emphasise the musicality of the prose.

Then we have the mnemonic leitmotif, though I’m not sure if anyone other than James Wood uses this term. I’m not even sure if the phrase is redundant, since the whole reason for a leitmotif is to impress something upon the audience’s memory.

Tolstoy uses a method of mnemonic leitmotif — a repeated attribute or characteristic — to secure the vitality of his characters.

James Wood, How Fiction Works