There are a number of ways to answer that, depending on how narrowly or broadly you wish to make the definition. In the broadest sense, a motif is any recurring element. If your lovers always part at dawn (But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?), you might be using a motif. If you use a commonly recognizable character, such as the hardboiled detective, you might be drawing on a motif built up across multiple literary works.
But for our purposes, we're going to use a narrower definition of motif. Let's agree that just for now, a motif will be any recurring concrete object, circumstance, or convention that takes on symbolic or thematic meanings within the text.
Example of a recurring concrete object:
-- Carriages in Pride and Prejudice are always tied to transformative changes in relations between the main characters. If you see a carriage, you know a relationship is getting ready to flip itself inside out. Jane travels to London to see Bingley, and he changes from doting cavalier to the man who abandoned her. Lizzy travels by carriage to visit Charlotte, and Darcy changes from icy and withdrawn to his own special brand of tormented pursuit. And so on.
Example of a recurring circumstance:
-- Harry Potter flies an awful lot -- broomsticks, hippogriffs, those skeletal dragon things, the flying car, etc., etc., and those flights are usually connected to moments at which he is making a decision to fight, to escape, or otherwise to gain independence and strength.
Example of a recurring convention:
-- In Bridget Jones' Diary (the novel, not the movie), Bridget started every diary entry with her weight, number of drinks consumed, and number of cigarettes smoked, Something like:
February 2. Weight 132. Alcohol units 9. Smokes 4,327.
These entries are directly tied to Bridget's romantic happiness. Unhappy? Numbers go up. Happy? They go down.
Where a symbol can be established in a single occurrence, a motif is built in layers. They crop up again and again at key moments. It's the very repetitive nature of motifs that can make them a useful organizational tool for a query or synopsis.
Mind you, we're not talking about anything other than how to organize your condensed plot summaries. Writers have a hard time writing clear, focused summaries because, let's face it, it's not an easy task. If you can use the motif to create a roadmap, you might make your plot summary more lucid, more condensed, and even more entertaining.
Let's say, for example, that your serial killer villain always places a personal ad describing his victim before he strikes. How many victims are there? How many ads? Write down the ads for those victims, and then write a bullet list of the key events that occur between the ads. You now have a skeletal plot outline, and have only to flesh it out, and might end up with something like:
Detective Sandra Cornelius is called to a grisly murder scene in which a young woman was skinned alive. A personal ad is taped to the wall above the body.
SWF, 23, brunette, rides bike to work, that skin will be my trophy.
The newspaper office provides the original order for the ad, and Sandra begins following the trail of clues. The false address leads her to an abandoned farm miles from town, inhabited only by mice and spiders. But in the mailbox, she finds another ad:
SWF, 27, long blonde hair, loves to dance, those legs will be mine forever.
Sandra returns to the newspaper office, but they have no record of this ad. She begins calling dance studios and making the rounds to see if anyone has noticed suspicious behavior. Again and again, she's frustrated by a lack of evidence, but then the call comes. Another body has been found, and this time the corpse's legs have been removed.
She identifies the source of the second ad as a consumer weekly, and begins scouring all the area papers for more ads in between following other clues. No more ads appear for a week, but then in the Sunday paper, she sees an ad that chills her blood.
SWF, 32, cap of golden curls, wears a star and frequents newspaper offices and dance clubs, you will have no eyes to see me, no mouth to speak my name, and no ears to hear your own screams.
She hears footsteps on the second floor. Her weapons are up there, safely stowed in a drawer. Can she get to them before the killer gets to her? Or should she use a weapon from the first floor -- a fireplace poker, a kitchen knife? As she's deciding, a hood drops over her head from behind, and strong hands twist the fabric until she cannot breathe. The fight is on. But she knows her home better than the killer does, and she is able to back him toward a basement door with a weak latch. She counts the steps until they are right at the threshold, and then she launches them both backward just as she's about to lose consciousness. The fall breaks his grip, and she uses a hammer to knock him out and a clothesline to tie him up.
Now, this is far from a good plot summary. It's too long for a query, and not developed enough for a synopsis -- and it's a shaky plot with no motive, etc. -- but for our purposes, it will serve as a decent illustration. You see how the personal ads are used to act as transitions between the pieces of plot? And you see how they illustrate something meaningful about the story? Using the motif elements as touchstones like this can create a sense of unity and coherence in the plot summary.
It doesn't have to be something that would be offset and italicized like the personal ads. Above we mentioned that carriages are a recurring motif in Pride and Prejudice, and are associated with major change. For those of you familiar with the story, try this exercise:
- List the carriage trips that occur in the book
- Between the carriage trips, list the major events that occur in each location.
- String the ideas together in paragraph form. Whenever you get to a carriage trip, start a new paragraph. (You might have other new paragraphs besides these, but to highlight the motif and let it do its organizing job in the plot summary, make sure it always appears at the start of new paragraphs.)
This isn't a cookie cutter method and it won't work for all stories, not even for all stories with strong motifs. But perhaps it will work on one of yours. Give it a try and see how it goes.