Amber Morn
Brandilyn Collins

Brandilyn Collins is a best-selling novelist known for her trademark Seatbelt Suspense™. These harrowing crime thrillers have earned her the tagline “Don’t forget to b r e a t h e …®”. She writes for Zondervan, the Christian division of HarperCollins Publishers, and is currently at work on her 19th book. Her first, A Question of Innocence, was a true crime published by Avon in 1995 and landed her on local and national TV and radio, including the Phil Donahue and Leeza talk shows. She’s also known for her distinctive book on fiction-writing techniques, Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn From Actors (John Wiley & Sons), and often teaches at writers conferences.
Visit her blog at Forensics and Faith, and her website at Brandilyn to read the first chapters of all her books.


This month we’re looking at ways to study the use of symbolism in others’ works so we can better employ it in our own. How best to study symbolism? This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem, I’ll admit. You have to understand symbolism to study it in stories; you have to able to find symbolism in stories to study it. Give yourself time; understanding of the concept doesn’t come overnight.

One way to study symbolism is to watch for it in movies, because not all novels employ symbolism, but movies usually do. Remember, you’ll have to watch carefully to see it. Symbolism is supposed to be subtle.

Always Watching

One tip—if you’re going to a movie, don’t miss the opening credits. The way these credits are presented are often full of symbolism that will lead you to at least one aspect to watch for in the movie itself. Take for example the movie Insomnia from a few years ago, starring Al Pacino and Robin Williams. As the letters came upon the screen, they went from blurry to focused to blurry again, fading into each other. Now you can bet this was purposeful. This presentation was symbolic of the blurred lines between morally right and morally wrong that would be portrayed through Al Pacino’s character of a cop gone . . . bad? Well, maybe. Even as the letters blurred from one name to the next, behind them were these dots that never went away. I couldn’t tell what the dots were (more of the “blurring” symbolism), but their constancy told me that if they ever became clear enough for me to perceive, whatever they were would be of constant background importance to the entire story. Turned out these “dots” became the title of the movie—Insomnia. I hadn’t known why the movie carried that title. But seeing this, I knew insomnia would somehow form a constant backdrop to the story. And, indeed, it did. During the five to six days in which the story takes place—summer in Alaska, when there’s twenty-four hours of daylight—Pacino’s character doesn’t sleep at all. You see how this plays into the symbol of blurring? Day and night become indistinguishable. On the first day Pacino arrives in Alaska, he wants to go to a high school and has to be reminded it’s 10:00 p.m.

Besides movies, of course, you can look for the use of symbolism in novels. Remember, many novels don’t use symbolism, so don’t try to “read” something into the writing that’s not there. If you’re not used to knowing what to look for, it may be best to look through the novel after you’ve read it to see what you might pick up. What recurring places, things or events enhance the message or aura of the story? Or perhaps foreshadow what happens at the end of the book?

Many novels these days run discussion questions for book clubs at the end. These often include questions that deal with the symbolism of the story. (On my own Web site I have discussion

questions for quite a few of my books. If they’re available you’ll find the link under the book cover on the main page for each book.) These questions can tend to be spoilers, so wait to read them after you’ve read the novel. But they’re often great tools for helping you dig for symbolism within the story.

If you read Exposure, my latest release, you’ll see that that this suspense is about fear. The surface plot focuses on Kaycee and Lorraine, and how their fears drive them. If you look a little more closely, you’ll notice that many of the supporting characters have some particular fear that affects their choices. And you’ll see that even as characters can easily spot each others’ fears and the negative results, they’re less apt to spot how they succumb to their own.

Or take Amber Morn, final in my Kanner Lake series. This is a hostage situation. You’ve got the bad guys—the hostage takers—and the good guys—the hostages. Easy enough to figure out. But what is the book’s deeper message about spiritual truth and deception, and how we sometimes willfully refuse to embrace the former? How do various characters symbolize those who will see and those who won’t? And the penultimate chapter—how do its events deepen the symbolism?

In my ten-year journey to publication in fiction, I studied symbolism in books and movies constantly. At movies I paid attention to everything. In books I read with pen in hand, marking symbolic aspects, noting when I first noticed each, then going back to see if there had been an earlier occurrence that I’d missed. The more I studied, the more I was able to see symbolic occurrences right away. And the more effectively I was able to employ the technique myself.

Next month—how to use symbolism in your own writing.