The Power of Symbolism

symbolsThis 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.

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Daniel Adorno
6 years ago

Excellent article, Jacob. Lots of great information here about symbols that I will certainly keep in mind when incorporating them into my writing. I think what I found really interesting is that sometimes we put more stock in symbolism than maybe an author intended because it’s in our nature to do so. I know for myself that as I look back at things I’ve written, I’ve included symbolic objects or themes without even consciously doing so! Food for thought, I guess.

Jacob Gralnick
Reply to  Daniel Adorno
6 years ago

Thank you, I’m glad you found my article useful.

Yes, I very much agree that symbolism works mostly at the subconscious level, whether it is the use of it or the interpretation. I, too, have found many clever symbolic references where I do not remember putting them in my writing. I think that as we’re creating something we have a need to hide things that speak a certain meaning or emotion we consider important to us. If those things speak to the reader, then they see them. Plus, humans are naturally curious and we want to pick up on the subtle stuff so we can enjoy the experience in full and feel smart along the way.

Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

Good article! Love your ‘about the author’ note. I use wolves in my WIP as a foretaste of doom and also light as a symbol, either as inner light that marks a person as special and that light shining out amidst darkness that tries to overwhelm it but can’t quite. As far as literature goes, I love the use of Frodo’s inner light, that while he drowns in the darkness of the Ring and aware only of that, Sam sees his light ever increase, brightest just before the Ring overwhelms its Bearer. Also love the light that shines out as Gandalf rides down with the Rohirrim in the movie to the aid of Helm’s Deep.

God bless, Anne Marie 🙂

Jacob Gralnick
Reply to  Anne Marie Gazzolo
6 years ago

Thank you. Light is a very common symbol and an especially powerful one in a story like LOTR where a central theme is darkness and its effects on the characters. Indeed, Tolkien and Jackson used light to great effect.

S.E. Hood
6 years ago

I think it’s interesting when a character’s name acts as a symbol. Like in The Hunger Games. Katniss is an archer and her name is a common name for the sagittaria plant (aka “archer”), Peeta is a baker and his name sounds like pita bread, and Gale is passionate and emotional like a weather gale. There’s a character in another trilogy I read (The Staff and the Sword, Patrick W. Carr) who’s a mysterious assassin-type warrior. His name is Merodach, a name (or word) associated with death. I know not every reader will pick up on the symbolism in a name, but for etymology geeks like me, 🙂 it adds even more meaning and shows the author really put some thought into the names.

Jacob Gralnick
Reply to  S.E. Hood
6 years ago

Indeed it is quite interesting. Names are one of the hardest things to choose in a story (and in real life) and often when they are finally chosen they are picked precisely because of their meaning, or what they symbolize. A bright, happy name like Jasmine (flower) or Summer (season) is most likely a play on the character’s personality or outlook, or maybe even when/how they were born (i.e., a reflection of the character).

In the case of your example in the Hunger Games, it comes as no surprise the characters within bear names symbolic of who they are or what they do. Ms. Collins got creative with her choices by using onomatopoeias, foreign languages, mythological beings, etc… as a way to conceal these symbols and add a layer of mystery to them. Sometimes they register with us subconsciously, sometimes we have to actively seek the meaning ourselves. It’s quite possible we’re even interpreting them incorrectly. Another dimension of symbolism is that they could mean anything we want them to mean.

But, yes, it’s cool when you realize there’s more to something than meets the eye. Humans are naturally curious, and symbols allow us to satiate that curiosity by deciphering the true or implied meaning of things in a deep and mysterious way.

doctor jon
doctor jon
6 years ago

I enjoyed your article, it was a good read, well written.

What about flags and banners as symbols?

Jacob Gralnick
Reply to  doctor jon
6 years ago

Thank you, I’m glad you found it to your liking.

Flags and banners are great examples of symbolism. In fact, that’s exactly what they are: symbols. In times of old, kings and queens would create their heraldry to symbolize a particular quality about their house (family), their country, their people, or themselves. England was best known for using the lion as a symbol, and lions symbolize traits like pride, ferocity, and freedom (think A Game of Thrones, the Lannister banner is a lion, and the Lannisters are a very proud family). The colors mean a lot, too. Gold lions give it a regal feeling so as to show authority, plus many lions are actually golden-haired. The red background is probably blood or sacrifice, meaning they won’t give up without a fight. The positioning and the quantity are laced with meaning, as well. If the lion is supporting the heraldry, it perhaps means the country favors a strong army. Or maybe the lion is posed to attack, indicating a battle-hardy nature. Maybe it’s dormant, showing peaceful intentions. If it’s holding a weapon, you can bet somebody’s going to war, or will in the near future. More than one lion could mean multiple territories, kings, armies, etc… or even just milking what the symbol stands for.

That’s the beauty (and perhaps downfall) of symbolism. It can be interpreted a million different ways. The important thing is that we get the point across by playing to the obvious. In the case of the lion, it’s those three traits I described, and in the case of A Game of Thrones, pride is what Martin uses it for to describe the Lannister family. For everything else on a flag or banner you might need to spell it out for the observer, which is fine in stories so long as you don’t go overboard. I mean, who the heck knows what the Scottish flag means? I don’t off the top of my head; I’d have to look it up. All I have to go on is some crossed lines and a couple colors.

Andrew Hall
Andrew Hall
Reply to  Jacob Gralnick
6 years ago

Really liked the article and it got me thinking.

The Scottish flag is the cross of St Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland. He was crucified, but didn’t want to be crucified in the same traditional way as Jesus was, so he asked that the wooden boards be diagonal instead of horizontal and vertical. He felt that he was not worthy of dying in the same way as Jesus.

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