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 II
Last month we began a discussion about symbolism and how a writer can incorporate meaning into her storyline. A symbol is a physical item than takes on a psychological meaning.
One way symbolism is used to deepen the meaning of fiction is through animals and nature. David Colbert writes: “Early Christianity reveals a Celtic pagan belief that a ‘stag lost and regrew its horns, which was a symbol of resurrection and immorality.’” Pliny, the ancient Roman historian, wrote that a “stag was capable of destroying snakes.” When the early monks sought to evangelize the Celtics, they used the story of the stag to depict Christ’s resurrection. It also paved the way for Lewis to incorporate the white stag into The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.
In nature, the four seasons are often used to add symbolic meaning to a person’s lifespan. As a child is born and journeys into adulthood and on to the end of his years, so do the seasons move from spring to summer to fall and to winter. A May-December wedding indicates the bride is much younger than the groom. A character experiencing the brink of adulthood may be symbolized by the summer of his life.
Symbols can be evident in color to create mood and meaning to a scene. Color can mean different things in different cultures. We discussed these in our discussion about emotive conflict in the December 2011 edition of CFOM: HERE
Numbers have always been symbolic. Dr. Hensley states: “One indicates wholeness. Three represents the Holy Trinity. Six means incompleteness, as in 666 represents the Antichrist, the False Prophet, and Satan, who wants to be like God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Seven indicates completeness, as in finishing the creation of the world in seven days. Twelve is the number of fulfilled judgment, as in twelve months in a year and twelve jurors deciding the fate of someone accused of breaking the law.”
The significance of symbolism is often seen through the different genres. Horror, romance, suspense, western, historical, science-fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels use specific symbols to set the tone and the voice of the story.
Horror stories use the prominent colors red and black to symbolize death, evil, fear, savagery, and torture. Shadows and repugnant smells along with rusty chains, knives, and ropes indicate the horror certain to come.
Romance and many literary novels use flowers and the beauty of nature to represent love and how the characters feel about each other. Everything is filtered through the eyes of caring and affection.
Suspense novels often use a ticking clock, a dripping faucet, nature’s fury, or other tangible items to create edginess.
Westerns and historicals use items of the era to symbolize the essence of their stories. Barbed wire can indicate danger or an impending range war. A rusty star can mean a lawman who has sold out to the outlaws or a man too old for the job. Tumbleweed may indicate a restless character, and a curtain over a window may represent a woman’s touch.
Science-fiction and fantasy stories often use terrain to establish the meaning of the story. Bigger than life creatures can symbolize obstacles that need to be overcome. Daring feats of heroism often indicate the insecurity in a character’s life.
Mystery stories demonstrate the power of an unanswered question through locked doors, bodies, missing weapons, and the characteristics of an unlikely sleuth.
Just as symbolism in different genres requires tangible objects that take on abstract meaning, so does figurative language in different genres set the stage for story type. Alliteration, the hiss sound of s, and soft and hard consonants play a role in the type of object used. Creativity sparks in symbolism and suggests a challenge in developing symbols that fit into the storyline like pieces to a puzzle.
Horror stories draw their impact in symbolism from words that evoke intense fear, dread, and pain.
Romance and literary novels draw their symbolism from the poetic view of life and love. The phrasing is often lyrical, and the symbol resonates with intensity. The feel of the word
choice is graceful, sensitive, and contains a flowing rhythm. The metaphors and similes that lead to define symbolism paint exquisite pictures from physical objects that may or may not have a meaning of beauty.
Suspense novels use words and phrases symbolically to keep the reader on the edge, to keep them turning pages by use of action, and to leave the reader breathless with anticipation. Garfield points out that the figurative language in choosing symbols is to select the tangible item that represents a narrowing of space and time, then squeeze the time limit even more. The objects and the language used to describe them, such as an ambulance, a car that always refuses to start, or a watch that stops, propel the suspense.
Westerns and historicals use language that combines culture and setting into dialogue and narrative that reveal the characters living life according to their environment. How the characters earn their living—from the town sheriff to the local prostitute—influence the words they use and thus the symbolism in their lives.
Science-fiction and fantasy novels also pull from the unique culture and setting to establish figurative language in symbolism. In many instances, the writer is free to develop not only an environment but also a vocabulary that reflects culture, government, and a society.
Mystery novels involve a crime, a sleuth, clues, and a red herring. Stephen D. Rogers states: “A red herring is something that appears to be a clue but in fact, it is not. Just as smoked herrings were used to lead fox hounds on a merry chase, red herrings give mystery readers false trails to follow.” Figurative language in symbolism generally involves the clues to solve the mystery; however, the objects and the description can confuse the sleuth but not the reader. Word choice revolves around the type of crime, the setting, and the clues.
Readers expect to be entertained, inspired, or helped in some way. If any of these three criteria are met, the writer has done his or her job.
Some writers carefully plan the symbolism in their works, while others do not, but the physical object that takes an abstract meaning happens in the writing of the story. For many writers, symbols are difficult to plan, and the best ones come from situations and characters within the story. By using a physical object symbolically, the reoccurrence of the concrete items shows that the character views them on a different level, and the reader may too. Even if the reader is unaware of the symbolism, the entertainment value of the novel is not changed.
To the fiction writer, the possibilities of using symbolism are endless. The subtly and artfully placed objects providing lasting meaning to the story stretch the writer, but the lasting quality to the reader is worth the challenge.
In the words of Stephen King: “Symbolism does serve a useful purpose, though—it’s more than just chrome on the grille. It can serve as a focusing device for both you and your reader, helping to create a more unified and pleasing work.”