• Welcome to the Fantasy Writing Forums. Register Now to join us!

Do you think about symbolism and theme in your story?

  • Thread starter Deleted member 4265
  • Start date
D

Deleted member 4265

Guest
About a year ago I read the beginning of a story by someone in which the symbolism was really obvious and kind of beat you over the head. It got old really fast. Everything from the chapter titles to descriptions was about birds to the point where I was like "I get it. Enough already."

This got me thinking about my own story and I realized there was a lot of symbolism in it that I hadn't even noticed. I didn't think about it when I was writing those parts.

This got me thinking about symbolism and theme and all those things English teachers make you analyze and I realized that I had never thought about the deeper theme of my book anymore than I had thought about symbolism. There definitely is one. It's actually really obvious when I think about it, but I never consciously thought about it.

Do you think about symbolism and theme when you were writing your story? Did you consciously implement these into your story or did they just develop without you even realizing it?

And when does symbolism get to be "too much"?
 

DeathtoTrite

Troubadour
This brings back bad memories of high school English.

For me, I shouldn't feel like every time something symbolic happens the author doesn't go *nudge nudge wink win*. I have one story that goes out of its way to destroy symbolism (important character dies of disease? That's cause s*** happens). I have another is more focused on symbolism. Some of the themes I thought of before developing the plot. Others came with the plot.

I wanted a story that cut to the bone. Villains don't monologue. Killing an enemy tends to be the safest option. Heroes who are altruists die quickly (with one exception who is the foil to the antagonist and later the protagonist). I wanted to see what the cost was to the main character of this pragmatic world. I also wanted to make the protagonist gifted only in his knack for negotiations and scheming, without coming off as Artemis Fowl/ Dr. Who style handwaving. These things all just kind of percolated.
 

kennyc

Inkling
Stephen King in "On Writing" says don't try, but he's a pantser. If in editing he sees that it has popped up then he'll enhance it, but says he never intentionally puts symbolism in.

From Chapter 9:

Symbolism (and the other adornments, too) does serve a useful purpose, though—it’s more than just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work. I think that, when you read your manuscript over (and when you talk it over), you’ll see if symbolism, or the potential for it, exists. If it doesn’t, leave well enough alone. If it does, however—if it’s clearly a part of the fossil you’re working to unearth—go for it. Enhance it. You’re a monkey if you don’t.
 
Last edited:
If it's subtle enough and the dialog isn't trying to give the audience a sermon then it isn't a big deal.

Those who critique the stories usually find symbolism and themes, regardless of what the author may or may not have intended.
 

Russ

Istar
I think about it all the time. Used in the right amounts I think it can really elevate the quality of a work. A theme can unify a work like nothing else can.

Miskatonic is quite correct that people will often find symbolism in works even where the author did not intend it. I have a friend who is a successful spec fic author whose work was taught in part of a university course. In the course they taught that one of his books was really about he plight of Native Americans. My friend will tell you that the plight of Native Americans didn't cross his mind once while writing that book.
 
LOTR is a perfect example. Tolkien was adamant that his story was not an allegory that was drawing parallels to the world wars.

However some people still seem to think the opposite.
 

kennyc

Inkling
I think that sort of thing is often due to tapping in to our common fears, beliefs, experiences, etc. (what Jung called the collective unconscious). This happens on both the reader and the writer sides of the fence. :)
 

Russ

Istar
I think that sort of thing is often due to tapping in to our common fears, beliefs, experiences, etc. (what Jung called the collective unconscious). This happens on both the reader and the writer sides of the fence. :)

I never thought about it that way, but I think you might be on to something significant there.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
I do it. I try to find a theme that is important to me, then I do create symbols and metaphors and my story around it. Then I forget about it when I'm writing so that it isn't too obvious.

For me it is important. I never clued into it when I was a kid, but I was blown away when I realized the significance of the crocodile in Peter Pan who had swallowed the clock. The entire story of Peter Pan is about being afraid of growing up. Staying a kid forever. Wendy has to learn that she can't be a child forever. She doesn't even want to be. She is excited to grow up. Captain Hook, however, is the most miserable person in Neverland (and also a symbol of her father) and what is he being chased by? Time itself. A predator that goes "tick-tock" and is dying to eat him alive…

So yeah, I do use stuff like that in my stories.

I try to use the logic sequence, if a=b and a=c then c=b type stuff. So in my WOP

Act 1
a=b …. There is one treasure that can never be stolen, and everyone has it. This is my opening 'question' or 'hook' get the reader wondering… what treasure can never be stolen? What do we all have that couldn't be stolen? Similar to Peter Pan "There is one boy who never grows up.." or "I am the invisible man"… put the question in the reader's head.

Cue cynical street kid whose sole purpose is survival, believes that anything can be stolen, and who chastises others (especially her young brother) for their idealisms and hopes.

Act 2

a = c …. dreams are a type of treasure. The whole point of Act 2 is to prove that dreams are a type of treasure. I have Aztec dreamers who have sacrificed themselves to protect the treasure of dreams in the dreamworld…Their whole purpose was to take the dreams of humanity, and turn them into treasures, which it was then their responsibility to protect. If the treasure of dreams is stolen from humanity then humanity will not have the ability to dream, or hope, and all that will be left is decay and sorrow and nightmares. My air ship pirates are trying to steal this treasure (including my MC).

Act 3
so c = b Dreams are a treasure that can never be stolen.
My MC, a world hardened, skeptical and cynical street kid, must discover that there is one thing that cannot be stolen, and those are dreams. She realizes that she can, and must have hope, and nobody can take that from her… Instead of stealing the treasure, she goes on to be the sole protector. She goes on to be a beacon of hope to all the other street kids like her who have been lost and hopeless…

Etc. So yeah, I make it pretty obvious, without explicitly stating it.

For me it is what gives a story purpose. A meaning deeper then just entertainment.
 
Last edited:

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
And actually, I was just thinking, my son likes me to tell him a story at bedtime. Sometimes I just tell a random adventure story, but sometimes I'm able to tie in a moral or lesson, or have the two friends who were mad at each other learn to love each other by the end, and it is always ofter those stories that he says… "Awwww, that was a nice story." So even he knows. I think it is inherent that we turn to stories to learn valuable lessons about life.
 

kennyc

Inkling
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live...We look for the sermon in the suicide,
for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the
most workable of the multiple choices. We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by
the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have
learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience."
— Joan Didion (The White Album)
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Yes. I agree with that 100%. I think, from the beginning of time, stories have been in the human conscious to teach us something.

They say kids learn through "Play" and there is a whole "play" movement right now to get kids out of organized activities and allow them just to have unstructured "play"…


Have you ever watched kids play?

They are making up stories. They are learning through making up stories.
 

Heliotrope

Staff
Article Team
Ok, last thing…. I know, I know… don't get helio started on a topic….

I think that this is the reason why fantasy and sci fi are my favourite genres. I think that when done well, they lend themselves to this sort of thing. I never like typical sci fi, like Star Wars, or Star Trek… I like the ones that had purpose as a kid: The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, City of Ember, Peter Pan… The ones that had social commentary.

Even now, I LOVE Simon Pegg for this. He uses zombies and aliens, but to make a social statement. Shawn of the Dead was about how the regular routine of life eats your brain. At World's End was about coming home, and how everything you knew as a child can suddenly seem so alien. Hot Fuzz is about the deep set traditions and values of small towns… I love all that stuff.

I'm re-reading Kurt Vonegut again "Slaughter-house Five" and "Galapagos.." same thing, social satire, in sci fi.
 
Last edited:
I couldn't imagine writing something that means nothing more than what it is on the surface. I'm just not that kind of writer. I fill my stories up with symbols because I find it enjoyable. Most of it is stuff I come up with it on the spot while writing but I'll usually have a few ideas before I start writing. Cryptic dialogue, dream sequences, seemingly random descriptions, repetition of certain phrases, etc. I just love it.

I could write something without symbols and metaphors in a story mainly because if I'm writing just a plain adventure story, I keep thinking to myself 'what's the point?' I enjoy reading and watching things that don't have symbols but it seems pointless to write them.
 

Creed

Sage
Love love love Joan Didion's work, thanks kennyc!

Symbols are meaning made manifest in a story, they anchor the narrative to something greater than itself, they unify the sequence of action/reaction that is plot. They give a story depth and weight, make it stick.

One of my favourite examples of this is Timothy Findley's The Wars. Reading that book I could physically feel the weight of the symbolic choices he made, even if I didn't understand what they meant at the time. That isn't to say Findley was clumsy about it, but rather that I could tell the narrative was hiding some beautiful layers of abstraction beneath it. Metafiction at its best imo, I will never forget The Wars.

The White Album is a wonderful example too, I could feel the weight as I read through it.

But I agree that it should never be forced, only cultivated. Also delivery can be problematic, like at the end of Super 8 where the MC let go of his mother's memento. That was some of the clumsiest symbolism I've seen in years.
 
I never plan them, not since college at least, they just happen. I hate to agree with King, but I do on this one. Symbol and theme feedback can be worrisome, however. Such as having a religious figure referenced with "virgin".

Me: No, it has nothing to do with Christianity, I swear. None, zero, zip. The world has absolutely nothing to do with any real world religion in any specific sense.

Reader: But you used the word virgin. Just what commentary are you trying to make in respect to Christianity?

Me: Aaarrrg!
 

Tom

Istar
I usually stumble upon opportunities to use symbolism and theme by accident. I'll be thinking about my story and I'll go, "Hey, this character's arc is similar to that character's. Huh. Maybe they share a common theme." Then I'll have a lightbulb moment and suddenly see all the ways I could tie that theme in with other parts of the story.

Symbolism gets kind of tricky for me. See, I'm really bad at inferring. I tend to read books with a literal mindset, not noticing symbolism until someone points it out to me. My amazing lit/English professor has helped me out some with this problem, but I still have a huge blindspot when it comes to symbolism. I often don't realize I've written symbolism until someone tells me I have. It can be frustrating.
 

kennyc

Inkling
I never plan them, not since college at least, they just happen. I hate to agree with King, but I do on this one. Symbol and theme feedback can be worrisome, however. Such as having a religious figure referenced with "virgin".

Me: No, it has nothing to do with Christianity, I swear. None, zero, zip. The world has absolutely nothing to do with any real world religion in any specific sense.

Reader: But you used the word virgin. Just what commentary are you trying to make in respect to Christianity?

Me: Aaarrrg!

Yes!!!!
Ain't it true.
 

Caged Maiden

Staff
Article Team
In my early 20s, I was dating an actor and he invited me to a play he was in, about a woman who was dying of ovarian cancer (Wit, i think it was called). Anyways, in it, there were flashbacks of her youth and it showed a father who sat in his chair with a paper obscuring his face, while she played on the floor at his feet, reading a book. She asked him what some of the longer words meant, and I remember that scene striking me as really moving.

When he asked me after the production what I thought, I told him I loved it. Most of the audience remarked about how dedicated the lead actress was to her part because she shaved her head for the play, and everyone seemed really moved by the story of the dying woman, but I expressed how touched I was by the deeper meaning of the scenes. How she felt alone as a child and words became her comfort, and how that theme evolved in her life as she became a middle-aged single woman who I think taught English. Anyways, after I'd expressed how deeply moved I was by the greater theme of the play, he sort of looked at me with wide eyes and said, "Wow, you got a lot more outta this than I did." I was really flattered he thought so.

After that, I considered why I was more affected by the play, and I guess I never really had an explanation, except that for me, patterns and deeper meanings are important. I search them out, I suppose. I like connections, similarities, and patterns. It helps me to understand things. I'm not sure how many other people look for the same things I do, but I can tell you that I write for those people, too. I can't help it. Whenever I write a story and I have what feels like a random event happen, I make sure to hit it in editing, so it has a deeper impact on the story, the characters, and hopefully the reader.

I tend to keep my themes simple: family, social equality, being who you are, etc., but I find various ways to bring the theme out in even the most obscure adventure. One of my favorite ways is to have a main character with a certain belief or goal, and the theme is not only one of their strengths that may help them obtain their goal, but also a weakness that may stop them from achieving it. What I mean by that, is in one story, I wrote a young man who is the son of a precepts and a soldier, and he sees himself as some sort of holy knight. His quest is to root out the undead from a village terrified by the walking dead, and while his personal values is a huge reason he's on the journey in the first place, they also are keeping him from living a full life in a way. There's a girl he meets on his journey, and she's a really nice priestess, who might be perfect for him in every way, but he doesn't feel she's the kind of person he can relate to, because her religion and lifestyle aren't like his own. It takes the young man's mother telling him he's become a fanatic and to open his eyes (BTW, the priestess he likes is blind, so another double meaning), because he's dismissing too many good things for the sake of his personal creed.

Anyways, yes, I write certain kinds of symbolism into my own work, but I try not to hammer it home and punish the reader for the sake of my own cleverness. I think it can quickly turn into writerly self-pleasure (or FASTER SKATING, if you've been here long enough to remember our MS rhyming substitutions), and readers respond negatively when they see it.

Now, that being said, I've sent the same manuscripts to several betas, and some people feel the symbolism is just right and they enjoyed what they saw as foreshadowing and hints at the larger story yet to come, while others didn't notice a darn thing and seemed more confused by some lacking connectivity than they did offended by too much symbolism. There is no right answer about what is too much. The best answer I can give is to aim at a particular type of reader, and know how much is too much for them. Some folks will catch your subtle cues, and others won't. Some will feel bashed over the head with a repetitive theme, while others will only see it at the most brazen, obvious display of theme. There isn't a one-size-fits-all type of response for this, and while we can easily say generalized comments like, "It's too much when you're slapping me in the face with the theme," that's a different amount and type for each individual. Beta readers are really important to help a writer find that sweet spot of "not too much, but not too little".
 
Last edited:
Top