I was writing along the other day, as you do, when Calliope & Co. blessed me with insight. All of my characters make horrible decisions fueled by good intentions. That sounds so h*cking fancy. What a great theme.

Or is it a motif?

It’s been a really long time since I was in an English class.

Literary devices are a writer's best friend—even if, like me, you don't write literary fiction. If it's been a while since you've been in an English class, here's a quick refresher on all the stuff that makes a book powerful—themes, motifs, and more.

Even though I don’t use a lot of the literary terms that I learned in school when I’m talking about my writing, I think that a basic, working understanding of the building blocks of literature are a good thing for a writer to have.

And I know what you’re thinking: Um, I’m not writing the next Great American Novel here. What the h*ck do I need themes and motifs for?

Well…your survival will never depend on your ability to identify the themes and motifs in your novel. But being able to talk about them sounds hella impressive.

Themes and motifs are just recurring ideas and patterns.

There’s a 98% chance that your novel’s already full of themes, motifs, allegories, etc. Big ideas get repeated. Important objects get mentioned over and over. Being able to identify them means getting a better look at how your story is working and what its central ideas really are.

And, again, it sounds hella impressive. “My novel is about family, memory, and morality” is way smarter-sounding than “My book is about a girl who goes to live in Wales with her crazy cousin.” Both statements are accurate, but one of them is way more likely to make people sit up and take notice.

Time for a crash course! Here’s everything you’ve forgotten from English class.

writer's guide to themes and motifs ruby rumsey literary terms theme motif symbol archetype motif metaphor simile theme

Those are all my thoughts—now I want to hear yours!