Arcs vs. Tropes vs. Motifs

This post is now a podcast episode! You can learn more about the podcast in this post.

I’m sure you’ve heard the words “arc” and “trope” and “motif” thrown around, but… what do they mean? What’s the difference? Is there a difference? Yes there is, which is why I decided to make a post about it. Here are what those words mean, and why you should care as a creator.


An arc is the shape of a story, the rises and falls of the various plot elements (which I cover in this post). In a standalone novel, there’s a major arc that lasts the length of the book, and maybe a few smaller arcs throughout. Think of them as “arches” of a sort, bridging the distance from introduction to resolution and covering everything in between.

Arcs can also bridge multiple books if you’re working within a series. There’s usually the biggest arc that serves as an umbrella for the whole series, and then each book has an arc that glues it together. However, you can have arcs that only cross a few books and overlap them however you please. For example, maybe a key character doesn’t cross paths with your protagonist until book three of your five-book series. In that case, their arc doesn’t start until they show up. Or you can have a character that joins the protagonist from book one, but is phased out in book three of five.

I encourage you to play with arcs for each character and plot point, and have them overlap instead of proceeding in perfect tandem. It gives more variety to the story and helps your characters grow more organically. Try mapping out each arc separately, setting milestones throughout, and then it’s just a matter of fitting the milestones of each arc together in chronological order. Maybe milestone one of Character A’s arc happens at the same time as the second milestone of Character B’s arc. Play with it and see what happens, you’re the author which means there’s no wrong answer.


A trope is a recognizable element of a story, whether it’s an image or a concept. For example, “enemies to lovers” is a trope. Some people shy away from tropes because they’re considered cliché, but there’s a difference between the two: a trope is familiar, a cliché is overdone to the point where it’s annoying and doesn’t actually serve any purpose. Enemies to lovers as a trope is a familiar dynamic with countless varieties, which means it’s constantly reinvented and spun to mean new things despite still classifying as enemies to lovers.

If a trope is repeated over and over with no variety, then it becomes at risk for turning into a cliché. For example, a common cliché in movies is having an unpopular girl get a dramatic makeover and landing the love interest. It’s been done so many times with so little variety, that it’s now made fun of and doesn’t carry any of the charm it did the first five times we experienced it. In being repeated ad nauseam, it lost all meaning and now annoys viewers. It used to be a trope, but now it is a cliché.

Here’s an exercise to get you more familiar with tropes, that might help you recognize them in your own story. Think of your favorite book or movie. Got it? Now try to identify any common tropes that drive the story. Once you have a handful of tropes, try to think of other media that has the same tropes and see how many you can come up with. Practice identifying tropes and evaluating them to see if they’re a cliché or not. If you personally think that a trope is overdone, then you’re definitely not the only one and maybe you should steer clear of it in your own work. Or, try to put a spin on it to lift it out of cliché territory.


A motif is one of my favorite literary elements to incorporate into my work. They’re repeated ideas or imagery that helps set a mood or even establish foreshadowing. For example, let’s say there’s a black cat somewhere in your story. Maybe your protagonist keeps seeing it in front of a particular house. This draws attention to the house without immediately alerting readers that the house holds significance. By focusing on the cat, you get to point out the house repeatedly so that it sticks in the reader’s mind while still flying under the plot radar.

Similarly, maybe your protagonist keeps seeing the same black cat in their city, almost like it’s been following them. This creates a sense of unease connected to the black cat, or paranoia if you decide to go to an extreme, which then primes your reader for extra dramatic flair when it turns out that their friends invited them to The Black Cat Café. Having the black cat showing up over and over again, in its various forms, gives the imagery more power over the reader.

This doesn’t have to be done with a black cat, of course, and can be done with just about any imagery or idea you can think of. Maybe you pick the color blue. You can have the color blue show up in all kinds of ways: stained glass, the sky, a lake, a painted door, a coffee mug, etc. Having blue throughout will tint your reader’s view to have a generally blue feel. This could then give contrast to the antagonist’s bright yellow rain boots and make them stand out even more than just having them be bright yellow. Give your readers a motif, and they’ll latch on in a way that lets you play with their expectations and emotions.

In Conclusion

Arcs, tropes, and motifs are powerful storytelling tools that enrish the reader’s experience. Writing with purpose always shines through the story, whether elements like these were present from the outline or if they were added in a later round of edits. Good storytelling has layers. Write with purpose and use the tools at your disposal, and your story will be better for it.

What do you think? Do you like overlapping arcs in your stories? What’s your favorite trope? What do you associate with black cats or the color blue? Let me know in the comments! And if you don’t want to miss out on any Author Rescue content, join the monthly newsletter!


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