This article is by Jacob Gralnick.
How do you convey an entire idea, feeling, or characteristic without saying a word?
The same way you can foreshadow a future event in subtle passing, and you can do that with a little nifty thing called symbolism.
Used correctly, and at the right time, symbolism can add meaning and depth to your writing on the subconscious level and propel a simple passage to one that rivals bestseller and Hollywood quality scenes.
The best part: it’s as simple as whittling.
What is Symbolism?
Symbolism is the use of, you guessed it, symbols (such as objects, images, etc…) to convey a special meaning, idea, or feeling. Symbols can be anything from the obvious like Yin Yang to the more abstract like a cloak crafted from the scales of an ancient dragon.
The meaning of the symbol depends on whether or not it is common knowledge. If it isn’t common knowledge, then you can assign your own meaning to it. If it is common knowledge, like the olive branch, then stick with that. Having something as simple as a pair of crossed swords mounted on some guy’s wall says a lot about him, the world, and so much more.
Why Use Symbolism?
Depth? Meaning? Mystery? Come on, what’s cooler than a hidden message for people to decipher? Plus, it gives your work more dimension by adding elements.
Symbolism also makes your work seem more intentional and thought-out. The fact that you can get creative with the concept, explained soon, is all the more awesome because it’ll create a unique feel.
How To Use Symbolism
White doves. What do they mean? Arguably, they mean peace. Already, right there, I’ve got a massive theme packed into one object (or bird, rather), that I can display to send a telepathic signal to my audience. First, though, we need to figure out how we’re going to use it. For one, I could use it to characterize someone. Say I’ve got this prince seeking a peaceful end to the war. Guess what? He owns a pet white dove! I just implied he’s a peaceful man by sharing a single fact about him. Have the white dove be a rescue and make him care for it constantly and you’ll really milk the theme of peace with this character.
But there’s so much more I can do with symbolism. Let’s take a monument like Durin’s Bridge from Middle-Earth. What does that symbolize? Well, a lot, but it is a bridge, after all, so I’d say it could mean connecting two places (go deeper and it can mean connecting two people). Now, blow the bridge up. What have you done? You just cut off two places from one another, isolating them, making them alone. Furthermore, you took away a possible path to a desired location (and that is where you can get really creative with the character journey, but let’s move on).
What about the rebel fist pump? Revolution. But before we paint that baby all over the walls, let’s consider timing. Symbolism can be timed to increase impact. So, our heroine, she sneaks into the big bad king’s castle and abducts a top official, a move nobody’s made in years. Then, she leaves the fist pump symbol in the official’s quarters. It’s pretty obvious what message she sent (declared war, resurgence of the rebels, etc…), but since it was timed right, it had more impact than if she painted it willy-nilly because it seemed cool.
In another post on Mythic Scribes, Lisa Walker England mentioned that in A Game of Thrones a glass of sweetened milk was used as a prop to help convey meaning. That’s symbolism, too, except Martin created his own meaning for the milk thanks to his timing of events. Stark had trouble swallowing the drink right around the time someone was feeding him lies. This is probably a one time use, but there’s no doubt it helped give the scene depth. He simply took sugar and used it as a metaphor for sugarcoated lies.
Assign your own meaning to symbols by taking something and timing it with certain events. If the evil alchemist always puts his glasses on when he performs gruesome tests on live subjects, and then takes them off when he goes home to his family of three, then you just assigned those glasses as a symbol for his evil. Break the glasses at some point and you break the evil tendencies (or possibly reign) of the mad alchemist. You can assign your own meaning to almost any symbol, but if you do, be sure to do it early on.
But how do we use this for foreshadowing? Like this. Remember that white dove early on? Give it terminal cancer. What have you done? You’ve just conveyed that something big will happen soon to plunge the world into chaos (opposite of peace) and it can’t be stopped. Want another? A wolf symbolizes the hunt. Have one howl when the hero thinks he’s being watched and you’ll make a promise that someone is after his life. This also creates tension because a wolf can be a dark symbol, but if you want something to lighten the mood you could maybe use a candy cane (festive, jolly). That’s where it affects feelings. Like I said, get creative.
Lastly, using symbolism adds mystery. Think Dan Brown. His novels are all about symbolism and deciphering them to solve conspiracies that date back centuries. What’s more haunting than the all-seeing eye? Ever play the video game Deus Ex? All those triangles everywhere are symbols of the Illuminati and they play to that concept generously in the game’s environment. Slap a weird polygon on your briefcase-wielding G-man and everyone will wonder what secret society he’s a part of, leave cryptic symbols at the scene of a crime and people will guess what it means, inscribe some elven runes on your magical ring and all sorts of craziness will erupt over learning more about the centuries-dead language.
Add a Symbolic Flair To Your Story
Symbolism: using symbols, objects, and more to relay a hidden idea, message, or feeling without saying a word.
Display symbols on characters’ shoulders for cool ways to show off personalities. Damage or break them to signal the end of an era. Put them in tense moments to promise a future event. Stick them in scenes to darken or brighten the mood. Create your own symbols and use them the way you want. Time them with appropriate events for maximum impact.
However you decide to use symbols, show them to the audience early on and establish the meaning immediately, if it isn’t already well-known (like the olive branch, for instance). Make them crop up at important moments and you’ll add a symbolic flair to your story that will be sure to impress.
For Further Thought
What’s your favorite example of symbolism done well in literature or film? Also, can you share an example of symbolism done poorly?
How do you use symbolism in your stories?
About the Author:
Jacob Gralnick is a full-time writer of science fiction. With a few novels written and dozens more to come, he expects to be weaving tales of hope and trust’s survival in a dark world for a while yet. Connect with him on jacobgralnick.wordpress.com and find his novel Subterranean on Amazon.