How much symbolism do you use in your fiction? Some? Not much? None at all?
In truth, many writers don’t bother with symbolism, it’s absent from their fiction, simply because they don’t really understand much about it or why it should be there in the first place.
Literary devices such as symbolism aren’t a must. Writers don’t have to have to use it in their writing. There is no rule to say you should. But like most literary devices, it adds those ‘brush strokes’ or layers of depth to the finished story, those subtle nuances that readers really like, but don’t always realise are there.
But what is it? What does it do for fiction?
Symbolism is an extremely useful device that contains hidden, deeper meaning to the narrative, but represents many aspects of the story. In the context of any story there is the literal meaning to the narrative, but also a symbolic meaning, if the writer chooses. This is done using objects, people, colours, shapes, words, actions and even the senses…practically anything can be used for symbolism.
Symbolism works because it gives readers the chance to peel back the layers of a story and take a sneak peak below the surface, to find the stuff that isn’t so overt.
The Power of Suggestion
Symbolism is a powerful tool if used correctly. It’s a great way to hint at things beyond the surface level. We all know what ‘read between the lines’ means, and adding symbolism helps the reader understand much more than is being said in the narrative. It helps them to read between the lines and discover the hidden meanings in the story.
In simple terms, the writer has the power of suggestion, so all good novels/stories should contain at least some symbolism.
Colours are often used to great effect in novels. Think of the association we have with the colour red – it can symbolise love but it can also symbolise blood, life or death, depending how the author uses it. Black has many different connotations, particularly with death or foreboding. It’s an effective colour to show impending doom or depression. Blue is said to be a relaxing colour and green evokes a sense of nature or renewal etc.
Writers often use nature and the elements to symbolise different things, be it rain or water, which is generally associated with cleansing, fire, which has many cultural and social connotations such as regeneration or renewal and the weather is used by many writers, for example a faraway storm to symbolise a rough road ahead for your main character or an ice cold frost which may mean a place is unfriendly or uninviting. And how many of us have read about ravens? They are usually a symbol of death and foreboding whenever they appear.
Of course, the most obvious ones are used on a regular basis – daylight symbolises rebirth, goodness. Night symbolises death or evil.
Metaphor is also used as symbolism. For instance, caged birds could be used as a metaphor for repression or captivity, of feeling imprisoned.
Motifs are another way of creating symbolism. A motif is a repeated element throughout the story and is more obvious than more subtle, hidden symbols. I use the colour red – symbolising blood – throughout one of my stories, especially when it’s starkly contrasted against pristine snow. The motif is the colour itself and the blood symbolises the struggle of life and death for the main character.
Does Symbolism Matter?
It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye. It should matter if you want your fiction to stand out. Symbols allow a writer to show the reader so much more beneath the narrative, that there is more to the story than meets the eye.
The whole story is something that the reader can scratch or peel away to reveal more. They are part of the process – as writers we want them not only to read what we have written, but to interpret what we have said. That way, reading a good yarn takes on a whole new meaning.
Next week we’ll look at when to use symbolism in fiction writing and how to use it effectively.
Next week: Symbolism – Part 2