Saturday, March 23, 2013

Reflections: Symbolism

I'm spending the month reflecting on the the topic of theme, but I find I want to expand a little. Theme isn't like developing a plot, fleshing out characters or filling out the setting. Theme is about adding deep complex layers to storytelling. These layers must remain invisible and move readers. I've talked about theme, but another way to add abstract layers is through symbolism. This week I jumping to theme's close cousin.

Symbolism is all about tokens, emblem, signs that take on extra meaning within the confines of your work.  Red balloons, gold rings, ringing bells, blue skies, gusty winds, chicken legs, umbrellas -- you know the list of symbols is endless. I find that symbols are a good way to cut through the slog of exposition, toss it aside, and find the binding threads underneath your story.

These symbolic threads are tangled up with your theme threads. Plot, character and setting are intertwined forming a woven fabric. Symbolism and theme are pressed together forming a non-woven fabric -- a felt. Have you ever tried to cut felt with scissors? Not an easy thing. Felt is very dense; all the fibers are so tightly interlocked. In a similar way, theme and symbolism twine together forming this dense layer underpinning your story. You can pick apart plot, character and setting -- the weave is looser -- but it is much more difficult to dig into symbolism and theme of your story.

Symbolism often serves as a handy tool to ditch long narrative explanations from main characters.  Perhaps you character finds a penny the day her mother dies. She keeps this penny in her pocket as she faces the monsters threatening her life.  She pulls out that penny in quiet moments.  Instead of digging into the mother's death, the penny serves a symbol for readers, it brings your readers' thoughts into play. They assign meaning to the penny.  You are inviting them into your story.

Using symbolism means you don't have hook your reader through the nose and tell them, "Hey, the main character is suffering and pay attention." A powerful symbol will whip all kinds of thoughts up in your reader. Your reader will insert their own take on the meaning. Good books have a hidden conversation going on between the reader and the writer. Never forget that.

Look for opportunities in your work to cut down the exposition by giving some of the weight of meaning to symbolic elements. Think about thematic and symbolic elements as your write but don't dig.  Just let the weight of the story press together your elements forming that rich texture. I hope this little discussion speaks to you and gives you an idea or two.  I'll be back next week with more stuff.

Here is a doodle for you -- "Pink Bunny."

The most important thing in a work of art is that it should have a kind of focus; that is, there should be some place where all the rays meet or from which they issue. Leo Tolstoy


Mirka Breen said...

Lack of a coherent focus/theme has sunk many livingly written stories. It's that thread that gives the readers those AH-HA! moments.
You and Tolstoy got that right.

Janet Lee Carey said...

Yes to this Molly. And I love, "Using symbolism means you don't have hook your reader through the nose and tell them, "Hey, the main character is suffering and pay attention."

Now to find the Proverbial Penny that perfectly fits the book and the character. I always believe the setting shows me, that the perfect symbol is right in front of my nose. I need only look around.
Thanks again for another brilliant post, Molly

MollyMom103 said...

Hi Mirka, I have struggled with a group of recent books I've read. I love those Ah-ah! moments and am sad if they don't come.

MollyMom103 said...

Hi Janet,

I like that you search the setting for the Proverbial Penny. I do think that forging a connection between the seen and unseen in the story is spot on.

Miss you, Janet. Really do. Glad you liked the post.

Candilynn Fite said...

When I was in school, learning about symbolism used to drive me nutty. A teacher or professor would point out symbolism in a story that I'd missed, and I'd just sit there thinking, "Hey, dummy--how could you miss that?" Of course, now that I'm older, I have the ah-ha moments a bit more often. ;)

Trudi Trueit said...

Molly, I'm really enjoying your posts on theme. I love weaving symbolism into my stories in small ways with things that we all notice but don't really see - like shoes!

MollyMom103 said...


I suspect you have always been a smart cookie. Though I'm glad you are having more ah-ha moments.

MollyMom103 said...

Hi, Trudi! Great advice, keeping an eye on the little things to add meaning to you story.

Claudine G. said...

My favourite moments in reading are when I spot the imagery, metaphors and symbols. Priceless!

SCBWI REP said...

Hi, Claudine. I so agree.