In this post, we’re gonna talk about symbolism and how writers can use it to tell better stories.
Symbols, motifs, and metaphors are part of the story’s image system and can be used to express tone and/or theme. It’s been said that if themes are subliminal, the image system is like subliminal advertising.
But wait, using symbols? Isn’t that pretentious?
Nope, it’s just a tool. Whether it works or not is all in how well it’s used.
So what is a symbol? It’s an object, action, word, or event used to represent an abstract idea, thereby giving it larger meaning in relation to the story. Using symbolism, theme is expressed or reinforced without becoming explicit. One might call it a hidden language or code in the story.
Symbols don’t have to be brilliant and original. They just have to be effective.
Neo’s sacrifice in the MATRIX is symbolic of Christ’s crucifixion and renewal ridding the world of corruption and creating something new and pure.
The red A in THE SCARLET LETTER symbolizes adultery and religious disapproval, but it also symbolizes the pure love Hester and John have.
The sled named Rosebud in CITIZEN KANE symbolizes innocence, the beauty of children appreciating the simple things in life.
In FOREST GUMP, the feather that floats through the air at both the beginning and end symbolizes his life, going with the flow and finding happiness wherever he goes as Mama taught him.
The scarlet letter, Rosebud, and feather are actually motifs, which are recurring symbols. We’ll talk more about that in a bit. First, let’s talk about ways you can use symbolism in your writing.
How to Use Symbolism
Look for elements that express tone or theme. For example, a story that is thematically about death might feature elements like a coffin, hourglass, bells, orchids, winter, etc. The symbol can be brazen or more subtle or assigned its own meaning.
An easy step is to start producing a symbol web. These are colors, objects, smells, weather, and setting elements that convey mood, tone, or theme. The primary purpose of these things is to advance or serve the story, but they carry the secondary thematic or tonal purpose.
Some genres provide a ready-made symbol web. In classic Western stories, you have six-guns, horses, badges, saloons, and so on. Since they are expected, you can use them freely, or you can reverse them as a twist, as in the old TV show COLUMBO, or because it serves the theme, such as in SHREK.
Symbols can be in the background, though an effective approach to conveying theme can be to have characters focus on things that have symbolic value. This should be sparing and as always, avoid overly calling attention to its importance as a symbol. The reader usually should conclude but not be told it has symbolic value.
For example, in ARRIVAL, both the story structure and the alien language are circular, showing how everything is connected and how time can be manipulated so that everything is happening at once. This idea expands in the viewer’s mind as the story reaches its conclusion. Even the protagonist’s daughter’s name, Hannah, is symbolic, as it’s a palindrome.
As with general theme, symbolism can be planned or pantsed and then tuned in a second draft. Internalize the theme and go from there. Start with a feeling.
More intentional symbols tend to show up as motifs in story. This is a recurring image, idea, or symbol that expresses or reinforces theme. The repetition is key, but that repetition must be meaningful and relevant. Motifs tend to be abstract.
In THE SIXTH SENSE, the color red shows up as a motif, representing anything connected to the spirit world, particularly a certain doorknob for a certain door that is always locked, as it leads to a room where the protagonist will learn his true nature. In GROUNDHOG DAY, the groundhog is a motif representing the protagonist repeating the same day over and over. And in THE HUNGER GAMES, the mockingjay is an accidental creation of the ruling regime that symbolizes the ability to survive in any environment and becomes the symbol of rebellion.
MacGuffins can be motifs. This is an object or event that doesn’t really do much besides drive the plot. In THE MALTESE FALCON, The Maltese Falcon itself is a MacGuffin. By making it symbolic of something important to the protagonist, it can be elevated above a mere device to be symbolic.
How to Use Motif
In THE ANATOMY OF STORY by John Truby, he recommends a few pointers for using motif.
Unless it’s a MacGuffin, introduce it in a matter-of-fact manner, and then reintroduce it later in a different context that produces a stronger feeling and communicates theme. The first and last appearances should tie together.
One approach is to connect the motif to character change. The element is introduced when the character’s need becomes known, and then reintroduce it later in a new context, maybe to hammer it home to the protagonist that they need to change, or maybe symbolic that change has happened.
THE LORD OF THE FLIES provides two great examples of motifs. In this story, a group of English schoolboys are marooned on an island and eventually become wild as they shed their civilized behavior. There are two important motifs.
One is a conch shell the boys use to hold orderly, democratic meetings, which symbolizes order and civilized behavior. When the shell is destroyed, order is destroyed, and the reader really feels it in the gut as a result. The same with Piggy’s glasses, which are used to make fire and therefore symbolize civilization and rescue. When the glasses are broken, the boys reject civilization.
A leitmotif is a recurring image associated with a person, situation, or idea. The thematic music in JAWS when the shark shows up or the horses whinnying whenever Frau Blucher’s name is mentioned in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
As a fictitious example, suppose all the dogs in the neighborhood bark whenever a monster is nearby. Then one night, the howling cuts off to become dead silence. This could signal some important change, such as tonight is the night the monster will attack.
On to Part 3, Figurative Language
And that’s symbolism! In Part 3 of “Thoughts on Theme, Symbolism, and Figurative Language,” we’re going to zero in on figurative language.