Today I have two very special guests. Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi are here to talk about a more advanced concept in fiction—symbol. Take it way, ladies!
We all want our writing to be layered. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. In stories, this depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, I think symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful in representing what you’re trying to get across in your story; readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute, but as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize it for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer of depth to a character or story. But where do we find these symbols? How do we choose which object or thing should represent the important theme in a story? Well, it may not be the first answer that comes to mind, but…
The setting is actually the perfect place to find symbols—because they’re built into every location.
Sometimes, the setting itself can stand for something. Kristen touched on this in her excellent post last week, where she used Shutter Island as an example. The prison is a prison, yes, but it also represents the guilt that keeps US Marshall Teddy Daniels locked away inside his own mind.
Other setting symbols?
A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary. A church could symbolize either hope or corruption, depending on the prevailing culture or the character’s experience. A city, a business, a natural landmark—whether you’ve chosen a rural or urban setting for your scene, the location can often represent an important idea that you want to reinforce for readers.
But more often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live in another town or thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize.
Choosing something closer to home within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently.
In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
As you can see, whatever settings you choose for your story can be mined for emotionally charged symbols and motifs. Sometimes it can be tough to figure out which one to go with, though; the good news is that symbols can be added at any point in the writing process.
If you know beforehand what your theme will be, consider choosing settings that could reinforce that idea. If your theme emerges organically as you write, you can bolster it by adding motifs later with objects that naturally inhabit the locations you’ve chosen. Either way, if you need a little help coming up with symbols for your story, you can always check out the “Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus” at One Stop for Writers, which explores a boatload of popular themes and possible symbols that can be used for them.
The setting is such a versatile tool that most of us frankly underuse. Make it pull its own weight by unearthing the symbols within it. And for more information on making your setting work harder for your story, see our latest books, The Urban Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to City Spaces and The Rural Setting Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Personal and Natural Spaces.
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
Thank you Angela and Becca! remember that comment love for guests counts double for my ongoing contest.
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To prove it and show my love, for the month of JUNE, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
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Guest blog is wonderful, and the topic is worthy of more discussion. It seems to me symbolism is underused these days in favor of quicker-impact devices like plot twists, unreliable narrators, fast pacing.
I agree. Or if it is used, it’s often very heavy-handed. To be effective, we need to be subtle and have faith in our ability to get the point across the readers.
I like that you pointed out about the symbol’s potential importance to the character. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I had mostly thought of symbols just for the reader, or “universally obvious.”
Universal symbols are the most obvious, but it’s the personal ones that add oomph, imo, because they mean something specific to THIS character in THIS story. Individualizing our writing to fit the character and story is always going to make the end product stronger.
Symbolism is underused, particularly in fiction. As a freelance editor, I see very little symbolism in the manuscripts that I edit. Symbolism takes longer to establish in the reader’s mind, unlike other, quicker plot devices. Perhaps writers are aiming at the shorter attention span readers and feel they need to use plot devices resembling hammers rather than a subtle one a reader may miss such as symbolism.
I think you’ve hit on one of the main reasons why symbolism isn’t used very often. It takes time to develop. It often needs to be used repeatedly, but in an easy way, so as not to beat readers over the head with it. It does take some practice, but once the techniques are mastered, symbolism adds so much.
I love your circle graphs! I think this is very accurate! Symbolism is so much better tool to leave in a manuscript than cliches, and serves the purpose far better.
Love the discussion, especially this: “In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.” Not just a symbol of abuse, but an added layer of conflict.
And I especially love the graphic – what the English teacher says vs what the author meant!
Reblogged this on Jeannie Hall Suspense and commented:
Layering in symbolism
Reblogged this on Erotic Vampire.
Thank you, Ellen!
I’m a big fan of Angela and Becca. Plan to share this post on FB. Thanks.
Wow. This gave me many ideas. Thanks!
Thank you for sharing this one. I remember a story in the Bible where God instructed the Israelites to destroy the inhabitants of Cannan before their entry to the promise land or else it will cause them trouble. Destroying those inhabitants symbolize destroying the negative emotions I keep within because I read that at the time I was struggling with the monster I keep being an incest victim 🙂
Reblogged this on Swamp Sass and commented:
These are the nuances that make so much difference in a story you experience or one that you read.
Symbolism, one of the toughest things for me to master. It makes a difference between a story you experience or a story you just read.
This is a good point. Symbolism does add to that sense of experience :).
I think a lot of symbolism appeals to the subconscious.
Reblogged this on dave94015 and commented:
adding motifs & symbols to your story can add to the character’s depth
You’re right. very, very different from the symbolism my English teachers taught!
Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog.
Thank you as always Kristen for having us by. We love it here–you always post the best pictures as we all know, and your readers have the best comments and questions. 🙂
Thanks for the article and explaining how symbolism contributes layers to story. I think other symbols can be found in activities, i.e., a character who starts scratching her arm every time she sees her father, or a man who can’t take public transportation. The scratching, the bus can show up in multiple scenes, sometimes by chance, and expose complex character psychology and neuroses.
Yes, and this is a good example of how symbolism can be made really personal. We tend to think of symbols in terms of objects, because that’s often how symbolism is used. But branching out into more abstract symbols that are meaningful to the character can give you something truly original—a smell, a color, a word, a quirk like the ones you mentioned.
I loved this post. Symbolism is a daily part of my life and my characters. e.g in the Suleskerry novels to say to someone “For, you I would steal the moon,” shows how much you love someone so when our hero Kieran sees a moon on Earth, he remembers his family and lovers on his own world of Fomor. It has also become a saying of love between my wife and I.
Reblogged this on firefly465 and commented:
A great post from warriorwriters.wordpress.com
Reblogged this on Kate McClelland.
Nice Post…thank for sharing. thanks once again
Until I read your post, I didn’t even realize I was using symbolism. Certain scenes in my ms ‘fit’ just right, while I have to struggle with others, and I realized that I’d unconsciously embedded symbolism in the scenes that fit. Mind blown! Thank you so much!