Award-winning author DiAnn Mills is a fiction writer who combines an adventuresome spirit with unforgettable characters to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn’s first book was published in 1998. She currently has more than fifty books published. Her titles have appeared on the CBA and ECPA bestseller lists and have won placements through the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Carol Awards and Inspirational Reader’s Choice awards. DiAnn won the Christy Award in 2010 and 2011. DiAnn is a founding board member for American Christian Fiction Writers and a member of Inspirational Writers Alive, Romance Writers of America, and Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country. DiAnn is also the Craftsman mentor for the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild. She and her husband live in sunny Houston, Texas. Website: www.diannmills.com
Symbolism in Writing: Part I
Writers often struggle to incorporate symbolism into their manuscripts. This month we’ll begin discussing symbolism, why it’s an important tool in creating quality fiction, and how to successfully incorporate this literary device into a manuscript.
Story is about characters trying to solve a problem, a journey with twists and turns. Symbolism touches the reader with subtle understanding. Suddenly the weather, rushing water, color, or stars lighting up the night mean something more.
Symbolism provides meaning beyond what is being described. Plot and action take place on one level while symbolism acts on another to enhance the story. This technique uses concrete or physical objects to create an abstract meaning. For example, a wedding ring is a physical item but it symbolizes love, commitment, respect, and more. Another example is the occurrence of a storm when emotions are high or conflict is great. Similarly, a transition from day to night, or spring to winter symbolizes a move from goodness to evil, or hope to despair. A river represents the flow of life from birth to death. Flowers symbolize youth or beauty.
Eudora Welty said, “Symbols have to spring from the work direct, and stay alive. Symbols for the sake of symbols are counterfeit, and were they all stamped on the page in red they couldn’t have any more quickly given themselves away.”
Storytellers use symbolism to add depth to their tales. Writers create stories with character, plot, setting, dialogue, and narrative. Each area holds the potential for a physical symbol to add psychological meaning. Symbolism enhances premise, theme, and meaning by adding a deeper dimension and building on the story’s premise. Through evocative and emotive experience, the reader identifies an element of story that is beyond the written word.
Not everything in a story is symbolic. Sometimes a sunset is merely a sunset, or a character slips on a banana peel, or a character eats a favorite food―and it means nothing else.
The key is to incorporate symbolism without leaving a reader bewildered and confused.
Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting states: “A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself.” The meaning is not stated, but through repetition the reader grasps a psychological depth.
Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles, and Ends suggests a sensitive reader will conclude the story with a sense of recognition and meaning through the use of symbols.
A symbol influences the psychological impact. In the premise “love conquers hate,” the visual picture of good overcoming evil or a triumphant army overcoming incredible odds to claim victory motivates the writer to create a powerful story line.
Donald Maass instructs in Writing the Breakout Novel, “The most effective pattern to follow is that of a single symbol.” Maass points out the importance of the ring in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The story would not have the impact if several symbols were used.
Sometimes a writer, often a novice writer, becomes enamored with symbolism and peppers the manuscript with figurative language instead of first creating a good story.
The symbol can influence the spiritual realm of a story. For the Christian, the cross has long been a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice, for the Muslim, a crescent moon. A spiritual symbol does not have to be obvious. Consider a scarf that a character’s mother wore to church, or a rocking chair the character’s father sat in when he read the Bible. The key is for the writer to understand what the story symbolizes. The reader may enjoy the story regardless of the symbol’s psychological meaning.
A character’s name signifies who that character is and his/her role in the story. A character’s name must mean something, if only for the writer. Stories from mythology, the Bible, and other cultures depict the importance of naming a child according to events, visions, culture, and family history.
A protagonist who sacrifices to feed the poor; an antagonist gives to the poor for selfish reasons: In both instances, food symbolizes the character’s motivation. For the protagonist, it is a vehicle to aid the hungry. For the antagonist, it is a vehicle of manipulation.
Characters may refrain from saying how they feel about a situation, but through narrative, the reader learns about the thought process and emotions. A symbol cleverly inserted in the narrative—a word or phrase that points to a deeper meaning—provides a subtle way for the reader to understand the character’s internal workings. McClanahan says, “A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself.” She refers to the symbol of blood in The Red Badge of Courage. The symbol is not courage (intangible) but the stain of blood. Although the blood symbolizes courage in this novel, blood means something entirely different in another novel.
James Scott Bell states, “From the start, we have a connection . . .” A symbol is about character(s) and readers forming an attachment to an object that no longer means its original definition. Bell discusses Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. The setting is a river in Montana, and religion and trout fishing are considered one in the same. “The motif was literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end. It frames and defines the story.”
A winding road may indicate a journey. A fork in the road may mean a choice. A straight road may symbolize determination or perseverance.
Symbolism in dialogue is a way to weave the theme of a story. Dialogue is birthed in character: what a character says along with body language demonstrates who she is. A character who stutters or uses flamboyant gestures or curses provides the reader with a glimpse into that character’s life.
What a character sees becomes a symbolic nuance, whether it is physical or in his mind. In Charles Frazier’s novel Cold Mountain, the mountain is home to the characters, but the mountain represents the harshness and unfairness of life.
What a character hears influences the story’s meaning. The call of a bird is pleasant, unless the bird is a predator. In that case, the sound is frightening. A mother’s voice is soothing, signifying love and caring. However, an abusive mother’s sound is foreboding or implies impending danger.
What a character tastes affects theme. Imagine a team feasting on pizza before the big game. What usually stands for enthusiasm and a commitment to win changes to defeat if the players fall ill to food poisoning.
Consider the power behind the sense of smell. A character wears a particular perfume. Whenever the male lead catches that scent, he associates it with beauty, charm, and grace.
Touch can affect a story’s theme with a wide array of emotional responses. McClanahan states: “Touch, by definition, is an intimate sense . . . A well-written description that employs the sense of touch bridges physical and emotional distances.” Consider the parent who disciplines a child with a time-out. The parent then talks with the child about the inappropriate behavior and reinforces love; the child is emotionally and physically touched. McClanahan adds that people are stimulated by what they see, hear, taste, or smell, but the sensation of touch invites intimacy.
Next month, we’ll continue our discussion. Until then, consider how to add symbolism to your story.