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.


Symbolism is often a vague, esoteric aspect of fiction. We novelists hear about it, but we can’t quite define it, much less know how to use it. So let’s talk a bit about what symbolism is, how we can study its use in others’ works, and how we might apply it to our own novels.

By the way, symbolism may also be called “imagery” or a story’s “image system.”

Always Watching A simple working definition of symbolism in fiction could be: the subtle and recurring use of places, things, or events to convey a subliminal message that deepens and enhances the story’s action and message.

Let’s break this definition into sections:

(A) The subtle and recurring use. Symbolism should be used repeatedly throughout the story but not in a heavy-handed way. The average reader isn’t supposed to say, “Ah, here’s a piece of symbolism.” Whatever is used in a symbolic manner should seem very natural to the story. In fact, if symbolism begins to stick out, it loses its purpose, for only in subtlety can it be effective. A good analogy would be the playing of background music in a fine restaurant. The music adds ambiance, but it’s low enough that diners can enjoy the food and conversation without paying conscious attention to it.

(B) Of places, things, or events. A “place” might include a specific location—a certain bridge or building, or a general location, such as the use of different schools. “Things” can run the gamut—anything from potted plants to roads, wind to water, a certain color to a certain texture. “Events” can be an occurrence—a sunset or party—or they can be actions—running, or playing the piano.

(C) To convey a subliminal message. This springs from Point A. The subtlety of the symbolism sends an unconscious message to the reader. Again, to use the analogy of music in a restaurant, a fine Italian restaurant may quietly play Italian opera, conveying the message not only of being in an Italian atmosphere, but also of being in a cultured, elegant atmosphere, because opera is viewed as cultured music. If the restaurant wanted to convey a more lively “Italian family” atmosphere, it might play Italian classic songs along the lines of “O Solo Mio” rather than operatic arias.

(D) That deepens and enhances the story’s action and message. The continued and logical use of symbolism in your novel makes the story stand out, become bigger than itself. It helps your reader experience the conflict and action within the

story, and it can also help the underlying message resonate more deeply within the reader. Just as the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so can a symbol be worth a thousand words by suggesting far more meaning than its own definition.

Symbolism falls into two general categories, which I call “definitive” and “non-definitive.” Definitive symbolism means those places, things, or events that have become a known and easily recognized symbol for some bigger concept. For example, a flag or the Fourth of July stands for patriotism, a church for Christianity or God, the swastika for genocide or hatred of the Jews. A few words of caution about using definitive symbols: They can often seem trite because there’s nothing fresh about them. And they’re hardly subtle. Better to steer clear of them unless you can employ them in a truly unique way.

“Non-definitive” symbolism is the use of places, things, or events to mean something entirely different from their traditional meaning. For example, my women’s fiction novel Color the Sidewalk for Me uses two non-definitive symbols: sidewalks and water. Sidewalks are symbolic of both the action and the message of the story; water is symbolic only of the action. Sidewalks stand for the constant and solid importance of certain relationships in the protagonist’s life, even though those relationships may seem hopelessly broken. On a larger scale, the sidewalks also stand for similar relationships within the lives of the readers, because I want my readers to take away from that novel the message that broken relationships within their lives can be mended with God’s help. The water is symbolic of the inconstancy in the life of Celia, the protagonist. The irony is Celia would see these two symbols as the opposite—that is, she would think of water as positive and sidewalks as negative—until she learns all she has to learn.

In Part II next month, we’ll look at how to study the use of symbolism in other works—so we can use it more effectively in our own.