With some understanding of what symbolism is and the important part it can play in your fiction, how does a writer use it to his or her advantage, and more importantly, when should it be used?
Symbolism is about representation and interpretation, so the inclusion of it should be carefully considered. It’s not one of those things a writer can make up on the spot. And more often than not, these elements don’t make themselves known until the second or third draft, when the narrative has been edited and the story arc becomes clear. By then, themes and motifs will have emerged to strengthen the story, and any symbolism you have in mind will be closely related to the themes running through the story.
In short, symbols need to mean something within the story; they have to have a purpose and they should link to the themes within the narrative.
You may find that some symbols become apparent while writing, while others emerge during the editing process.
Placing symbolism first requires the writer to fully understand the depth of their story, to instinctively know when to place any symbols. For instance, you may have a character that keeps seeing certain things – perhaps a bird keeps appearing at heightened emotional moments. Or maybe a certain colour triggers a memory it time he or she sees it, and the colour represents something in the character’s past.
Certain moments within the story undoubtedly benefit from symbolism, a key moment perhaps, a revelation or a subtle undercurrent of hints in more atmospheric moments.
They don’t need to be overt or obvious. Sometimes the best examples of symbolism are the subtle ones. You can be as specific or as vague as you want, it is entirely up to you, but as long as the reader is able to notice them and reference them.
The ring in the Lord of the Rings could be interpreted as a symbol of power. In the Harry Potter books, the snake that reoccurs throughout the story could be seen as a symbol of evil. Animal Farm is packed with symbolism, but the most evident is that of the power of the pigs and the ruling class that symbolise the growth and emergence of Communism is Russia.
In a recent short story, I used a clock to symbolise not just the passage of time, but the importance of an impending event by having the main character constantly check the time as it ticked towards the inevitable outcome. The clock an inanimate object, yet it plays a significant role within the story.
The way to use any symbol effectively is to have it appear in the story several times at key moments (any more than three or four times over the space of an average 80,000 word novel would be overkill). So in an important moment you could reference the symbol, then further into the story you could place it again to add a little depth, and then towards the end where its meaning gains the most momentum and strength.
Of course, where you place them is entirely down to you, but they should never be placed randomly, otherwise their meaning is lost on the reader. All symbolism should relate directly to the key moment you want to reference.
As with many literary devices, writers should never overuse them, because if the narrative becomes littered with symbolic references, they simply lose their impact with the reader. Less is always more.
Also remember that you should never force symbolism into the narrative to try to create an impact, because the result is always trite and somewhat mechanical (or ‘machina’, as per deus ex machina). Let the symbols emerge naturally from the narrative.
But what if they don’t emerge? Don’t worry too much. Symbolism isn’t always apparent on the first or even the second draft. Sometimes they become clear after several edits. There may even be occasions when symbolism just doesn’t happen for the writer. Sometimes that happens. If does and those symbols remain elusive, then don’t worry, there are plenty of other literary narrative devices to help boost and strengthen your story.
So, whether you use a sunrise to show a sense of hope, withered flowers to show something in decline or a ticking clock – whatever the symbol – make sure it’s relatable to the themes and story and that it’s repeated in the narrative, but above all, make it mean something.
Next week: How to Improve Your Writing Skills