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How to Strengthen Your Book’s Thematic Motif Through Repetition

thematic motifOne of the easiest ways to drive home a point is through repetition. Sometimes, repetition in a novel can come across heavy-headed—to the point readers either grow bored or begin to feel manipulated. But what if you could mix the power of repetition with the effectiveness of subtlety?

This is exactly what Kurt Vonnegut teaches us to do in his revered anti-war novel Slaughterhouse-Five.

This strange novel is stripped down to stark essentials in a way that makes Vonnegut’s repetition of thematic motifs particularly striking. He repeats certain phrases and images throughout the book, with an almost poetic variation, using both the blatant repetition and the subtle reinforcement of theme to drive his motifs deep into the reader’s mind.

In particular, he repeatedly uses the phrases:

  • “Blue and ivory” to evoke cold.
  • “Mustard gas and roses” to describe foul smells.
  • “So it goes” to underline the tragedies referenced or described in the story.

Although Vonnegut perhaps repeats his phrases to the point he compromises his subtlety, his book is nonetheless a conspicuous example of how a few evocative and memorable phrasings, carefully repeated for emphasis, can take a thematic experience into deeper waters, forcing readers to look beyond the obvious to the message behind the motifs themselves.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Is there a symbolic motif in your work-in-progress that you could effectively repeat for emphasis? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I love your video blogs.
    Interesting idea, theme. I was talking to a fellow writer yesterday about it. Our conclusion was that sometimes you don’t know the theme until you have finished writing the novel. If you try to write to a theme it can become too obvious and clunky unless you are a great writer like Kurt. The theme comes from the ether like magic and guides your writing so that at the end you can see it. Then you can go back and reinforce it when you edit the work.

  2. Christopher, that’s an interesting point. Maybe that’s what first drafts are for – once you’ve found out what your theme is you can go back and strengthen it as you revise.

  3. @Christopher: I couldn’t agree more. Actually, I just finished writing a section in my upcoming book Outlining Your Novel: Plan Your Way to Success, in which I talk about how theme is something you can’t force and often can’t see until you understand the complete plot progression and character arc of your story. One of the biggest benefits of outlining is that it allows you to identify your theme before you begin that first draft. When you *do* begin the first draft, you can then sow the theme with a subtle deliberation that you wouldn’t be able to offer otherwise.

    @Elisabeth: In many ways, outlines are like first drafts. I look at outlines as my “mistake draft,” in which I have the room to explore and discover what my story is really about. First drafts, in the standard sense, work the same way for “pantsters.”

  4. I certianly have a theme in my WiP, but I’m still figuring out how it’s going to play out.

  5. Themes often have a way of surprising us. Sometimes the story ends up being about something completely different from what we originally thought it would be.

  6. Light Vs Dark in a variety of contexts seems to be a theme throughout everything I write. I try to keep it subtle, because no one enjoys being battered repeatedly by a heavy-handed meaning.

  7. Subtlety is the key. In many great stories, we might even be hard pressed to identify the theme because the authors have portrayed it with such a deft touch. But there’s no question that we’re affected by it nonetheless.

  8. “Roses” to describe foul smells? That’s a unique approach. :p

    Since I prefer subtlety when reading a novel, I’m trying to learn how to weave that into my own writing. No one likes to get slammed over the head with a sledgehammer.

  9. You need to read Vonnegut’s motifs in context to truly appreciate them. I think half the reasons subtlety is so valuable is because it’s so darn hard to pull off effectively.

  10. Nice video.

    Theme is something I keep in the back of my mind while writing. It starts to emerge through my word choices. I try not to worry too much about it.

    But the repetition element must be carefully handled, as you’ve pointed out.

    I’m currently writing an essay on Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ for my MA, and throughout the stories she repeats so many themes, symbols and motifs – so often there is almost no subtlety to it! But for Carter, who was emulating the fairy tale, those themes were never meant to be subtle.

    Definitely an interesting thing to think about when reading or writing.

  11. The most important thing for an author to realize about subtlety or blatancy is that he *needs* to be aware of which he’s striving for. Blatancy, in particular, usually only works when it’s intentional.

  12. super-interesting… and it’s possible. I’m now thinking of another recently finished MS that lends itself to this… although in a current MS, I think I did it accidentally. LOL! Oh, the happy accidents~ Thanks, hon! <3

  13. Arundhati Roy does some similar things in her novel The God of Small Things. I love her style of writing and repetition of unique phrases; it gives her prose a very poetic feel which I really enjoy.

    I used a similar phrase repetition technique in a scene of my most recent work in progress, referring to my main character as “the woman who did not deserve to have her coffee ready when she walked in the door”…I repeat the same phrasing twice, for emphasis.

    I also had another story where the narrator constantly referred to herself as “the girl who was and was not me” as she has an out of body experience and essentially “watches” herself do something she never thought she would do. It really contributed to the overall feeling and tone of the story and was pretty effective.

    I think the key here is not overusing such phrases. It’s a tricky line, though!

  14. @LTM: Always great when you can practically apply a new idea! Have fun.

    @S.: Sounds like you’ve got the hang of it: Both phrases are beautiful and evocative. I love the poetry of words. The medium of fiction gives us such a special opportunity to craft beautiful language.

  15. I love symbols. They give the reader a chance to make connections not spelled out – that is my happy place in reading.

    In the Hunger Games the smell of roses is also used to grand effect in marking evil – the character Snow….smells of roses and blood and by the end – the sight of a rose is all it takes to send shivers down the spine.

    I think Five had a top side overkill – but it had subtle underscore as well. He repeated the symbol so even the most hard to dazzle person could see the in your face “pay attention here” theme. But each, had some tiny mark of addition to the path. That was what made it so masterful. You had no choice but to pay attention – but it was not simple copy and paste exact same.
    Another Hunger Games peek – the symbol of fire – and the number 451 for Katniss squad in Mockingjay? Any idea where it came from? My daughter did a presentation on the symbolisim keys….fire – birds – death of innocents – children killing children – government control – there were 18 matching symbols – between Hunger Games and this sixty year old book…..grin.

  16. How interesting. I still haven’t read Hunger Games or its sequels, but the more I hear about it, the more I think I need to.

  17. Did you figure out the book it shadows with symbolisim? I very much have a love hate thing going on with Hunger Games – The good in them is stellar – but I don’t find them to give me an ounce of satisfaction.
    Symbolicly – they explain all there is to know about a girl about to jump out of a plane – but you never see her land. (there are no planes – thats my version of the reading experience)

    The book I name as having the same symbols was written in 1951….grin. Got it yet?

  18. Nope, you’ll have to clue me in! 😀

  19. I just figured this out a couple of days ago while writing Chapter 1 of my manuscript. I typed up something one of my characters said to my MC, and it clicked. “That’s the purpose of this novel!” I said.

    Good thing I figured it out at chapter 1.

  20. That’s fabulous! Don’t you love it when that happens?

  21. Fahrenheit 451.

    the fire is the big one – represents destruction and hope

    So strange to see the symbols in those novels – repeated in a hot new novel. Yet they still say the same thing in a new way – which makes them tie together in my mind.

    I love your post – I don’t think people consider the power of symbols. The rose – usually a sign of good – has become a thorn.

    Snow and cold and roses – all now changed – it gives the reader a dizzy feel – knocks them off balance a little.

  22. That one has been on my to-read list forever, but I haven’t gotten to it yet. I’ll keep my eyes open for the use of symbolism when I read it.

  23. I swear, you must be in tune with all my writing issues while I’m having them. At the moment, I’ve been worrying about whether my repetition is subtle and effective, or whether I was too heavy handed. I haven’t read Slaughterhouse Five… but now I’m really interested in checking it out!

  24. This is where beta readers really come in handy. Their objectivity, especially when we allow them to start reading “blind,” without giving them any hints beforehand, can help us understand where we’ve succeeded and where we’ve failed.

  25. In my W.I.P I layer a theme by coming at it in different ways, through various relationships the MC has. Is this considered repetition?

    I also have two items, a red door and a blue scarf, that symbolise lost relationships the MC grieves. These are mentioned throughout the book with the same phrases, but no explanation after the first time we learn about them.

    I also agree that the theme reveals itself in the writing.

    My mother stopped writing because she was told “Only write if you have something to say.” She didn’t know what she had to say, so she didn’t write. I think if she had written more, she would have found out!

  26. Layering a theme can produce profound effects, especially if you’re able to vary and deepen the theme with each layer. In some respects, that’s exactly what Vonnegut was able to do with is repetition.

    I agree with both your mother and you: We write because we have something to say, but sometimes we also discover what we have to say as we write.

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