Friday, November 13, 2015

Symbolism in Writing

As promised several weeks ago, I'm sharing some notes from the class I taught in Maryland--"Beyond the Basics: Five Ways to Bring Your Writing to the Next Level."

Symbolism is one of my favorite ways to enhance a story. Symbols can convey complex ideas with few words--a great way to "show" instead of "tell."

Symbolism adds another layer, deepens the writer's theme, bypassing the conscious mind of the reader going straight to her emotional core. While some people will not "get" the symbolism, the good thing is that it won't interfere with those particular readers' appreciation of the story. Yet for those who do understand the symbolism, the story is much, much richer.

There are three types of symbols:

  • Common symbols, which are those most people understand--think red means anger or a ring fidelity.
  • Uncommon symbols, those most people don't understand. The language of flowers comes to mind, popular in Victorian times. If you use symbols like these, you'll have to give the reader hints in order for him to understand.
  • Story symbols, which the writer creates in her story. Though not readily apparent, if the writer sets it up correctly, these can be quite powerful. A story symbol that comes to mind is from It's a Wonderful Life when George Bailey is tired from working so hard and he goes to climb the stairs and the top of the banister wobbles loose in his hand. The banister top symbolizes everything about his life that frustrates him.  
So how can the average writer incorporate more symbolism in his writing? Using small details works well, such as the colors your character wears or maybe giving the character an action, like repeatedly washing her hands to show guilt. Or what about the vehicle your character drives? In a recent novel I edited, the main character, in the middle of two investigations and dealing with the death of her husband, heads off to her mountain retreat home to do some soul searching. Her vehicle--a Pathfinder.

So why go to all this trouble? Symbolism often ties the whole work together. It's a great tool for enhancing and clarifying your story theme.

Try it!

Next in the series--Tension. (With a capital T on purpose.)

1 comment:

  1. Excellent suggestions and explanation. I especially like the idea of story symbols. Takes a little extra thought, but the impact would be worth it.