Sunday, October 31, 2010


[sim-buh-liz-uh m]
1. the practice of representing things by symbols, or of investing things with a symbolic meaning or character.
2. a set or system of symbols.
3. symbolic meaning or character.
4. the principles and practice of symbolists in art or literature.

The use of symbols in fiction is closely related to the development of theme in a narrative. When a writer sets out to pen the story of all sorts of interesting people pitted against escalatating conflict— and if you’ve read any manuals on how to grab a reader by the shirt collar and not let go, you know it’s of some importance to give your characters a fair amount of hell— she is keenly aware of two things. One, the story has got to be good. It’s gotta have meat. It’s gotta make readers cry, feel, laugh, deem the experience worthy of turning the page to see how it all pans out in the end. But, lo, there is two.

What does the story mean?

In life, and therefore in art, the human mind craves meaning. At the very least, it does when forking over hard-earned cash for upmarket commerical art. Readers pay to come away from completely voluntary participation in something which is not vital— and the appreciation of any art form, including literature, is not as vital to survival as say, food, oxygen, affection and coffee— with some sense that the experience was worth the trip, that it promoted fresh insight. Sometimes it’s as powerful as a full-on paradigm shift. Other times, it’s a lingering sense that something subtle, but nevertheless real, has changed within as a result of having engaged the text with not only the mind but the heart. One of the ways in which a writer accomplishes this strange magic is through the use of symbols— but herein lies the rub.

The introduction of a persistent symbology in any text must be subtle. I would be unhappy to stand corrected on this as I like to believe that readers don’t enjoy having theme crammed down their throats. Much as in the art of seduction, there must be a sort of waltz with the reader which can be spoiled— sometimes sadly beyond redemption— with coming on too strong. All of the masters have grappled with this. So we apprentices must, too. Having said that, it has been my experience that something ineffable happens through the process of simply putting the pen to page.

Have you ever broken ground on a story only to realize a hundred pages in that you have begun to cultivate theme through the use of a particular set of symbols without even realizing it? The bane comes when you recognize what is happening and then proceed to crush the fragile life out of the thing by deliberately trying to develop it. You go back and think to yourself, ‘hey, this part here is a perfect place for me to expound on this concept which has already insinuated itself so seamlessly later in the text.’

Might I make a suggestion?

Don’t do it. Don’t go back, once you recognize motif emerging organically in part by the use of symbols, and try to pepper the text with more. For the love of Wollstonecraft, Hawthorne and Fitzgerald— please— resist the urge to try. Just. Write. Write your story, from the most genuine place within you, and see if meaning doesn’t alight like a skittish elf owl on the cactus of your imagination.

In asking which came first, the execution or the idea, I propose the inquiry is not ‘one for the ages’ but rather a matter of watching something take shape beneath your nimble fingertips as you tap into the night, convinced that your own existence will be imbued with meaning if only you can flesh out that minor masterpiece and, hence, secure representation.

It’ll happen, scribe. Just dance. Until next time, dear reader.



  1. Nice insight, Aurora. I think symbolism is essential to a manuscript, and you're right. If it's not handled properly then it seems like an obvious destructive element in your novel. It's the whole idea of not hitting the reader over the head, but instead, making them go, "What!!" at the end of your story, simply because you surprised the heck out of them. But in a very good way!

  2. I am fond of symbolic imagery in literature, but only critics and Lit teachers are aware of it. Most readers will find symbols in our writing that we were not even aware existed. Or worse,they might bypass or never notice our carefully crafted symbolic structure. Symbolism, unless is blatantly obvious (an ill advised technique), is too personal to truly convey it to the reader. So, if a particular image or motif unconsciously creeps up in your writing let it stay and see where it goes. It won´t harm your story, but don´t exhaust yourself developing an icon-laden plot because it might be a waste of time. Again, that is just my humble view.

  3. Interesting topic, Aurora. The truth is I haven't thought much about symbolism in my own work, but it so happens that, like Violante says, people have found symbolism in my novels that I was not aware existed (I blame my subconscious for it!) I agree that it cannot be too heavy handed or it will lose its magic, but then the question is: does all "planned" symbolism come out as contrived? Can you all think of examples of effective symbolism in literature?

  4. I agree 100%. Symbolism and underlying meaning are best when left to happen organically and if they come from the heart. That way they'll be seamlessly imparted to the entire work and seem a natural extension of the other story elements.

    I've read advice recently about how writers should try to introduce more symbolism to their work, and I have to say I think that is missing the point.

    Good post.

  5. Thank you, Adina. Lorena- I actually thought the one thing missing from this post was an example of a successful symbology (in terms of being introduced and sustained with subtlety and finesse.) Happy to read other writers' thoughts on that point.

  6. Wow, Aurora. Great post. I can feel you passion reaching out to me. Thank you for caring and sharing.

    ~Elizabeth :)

  7. Great post, and you're so right about symbolism having to be subtle. That's one of the things that turns me off a book - the use of blatant symbolism that comes across as preachy and false.

    Great piece of advice about letting the symbolism develop naturally too, will keep that in mind in my own writing. I've actually noticed that myself actually - I try to write as un-symbolically as possible, and it's only later that I occasionally find a bit of unintentional symbolism has crept in :)


  8. Aurora, this is well done. I agree with Rach that a theme and symbolism that "hits the reader over the head" time and time again can seem preachy and will interfere with the flow of the story. If I'm too busy noticing the "writing" I will not be carried by the plot or get lost in the characters. The effect? I won't enjoy the book as much as I could have. Thanks! christy

  9. Thanks so much for your commentary, everyone. I guess I chose a topic that's easy for writers of all stripes to agree with. Nobody wants to be the hack who abuses literary device in their work and imagines they're doing readers a favor. ;) Keep on keepin' on, out there.


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