Enhance your Writing with Symbolism

An earlier version of this post appeared on Let the Words Flow, but I’ve gone back and updated it for Pub(lishing) Crawl, because I find myself thinking about the power of symbolism a lot lately. This post makes a nice companion to my recent post on motifs, which you can find here.

Symbolism is an aspect of literature that makes a lot of people groan. Perhaps it takes us back to those days of high school English class when we were told about symbols that seemed to exist only in the mind of our teacher. For instance, I loved The Great Gatsby, but I snickered when my teacher told us that Gatsby was a Christ figure. Really? I scoffed. Only an over-analyzing English teacher would come to that absurd conclusion! (By the way, I now realize that Gatsby is, in fact, a Christ figure, and I apologize wholeheartedly to my English teacher, who will remain anonymous.)

Of course, since leaving high school, I’ve learned that symbolism isn’t just confined to the books I was required to read for class. Symbolism is everywhere, even in my favorite YA reads. Here are two examples:

  • In an interview about her debut, Across the Universe, Beth Revis talked about her use of the generation ship Godspeed as a symbol for small town life, and her use of stars as a symbol of hope. (Interestingly, Revis, a former English teacher, had been teaching Dante’s Inferno and got the idea for the use of stars as symbols from that book. English teachers sure know their symbolism!)
  • In The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan, the ocean serves as a powerful symbol throughout the book. Early on it represents the main character’s memories of  her mother as well as the time before the apocalypse.  As the book progresses and the main character changes, the symbolism of the ocean also evolves and changes.

Just to demonstrate how symbolism can enhance widely varied books, let’s take an in depth look at two more books that employ symbols to the great advantage of the story. The first is The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss. The second is The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.

In The Lorax, Dr. Seuss tells us about a fantastical place where the beautiful Truffula Trees grow. Soon the Once-ler arrives, and begins to chop down the trees to use their foliage to knit “Thneeds,” a product that is apparently incredibly versatile. The Lorax is a creature who takes up an argument with the Once-ler, in an attempt to stop him from destroying the Truffula Tree forest with his efforts to make innumerous Thneeds.

If anyone ever attempts to convince you that symbolism only exists in the minds of English teachers and literature professors, steer him or her directly to Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. The symbolism is fairly impossible to miss. The Once-ler symbolizes industry, the Thneeds he makes (Thneed=The Need?) represent consumerism, and the Lorax symbolizes the environment. Despite the heavy use of symbolism, The Lorax succeeds as a piece of fiction (just ask any pre-schooler!) because it is an entertaining story first and foremost. The symbols are there; the theme is there.  But you don’t have to “get it” to enjoy the book.

The Hunger Games is another book that is enjoyed by many readers regardless of the theme or the symbols that enrich it. I’ve discussed the theme of the HG trilogy with many writers and readers, and some have stated the theme and the symbols made the book richer, while others have said they’d rather not analyze the books, because it takes away from their enjoyment of the story at the trilogy’s core. I won’t argue that analysis makes the books better or more interesting, (although looking at the symbolism does increase my own appreciation of the books,) but I will argue that symbolism is undeniably present in the series.

With great pains to not “spoil” the story for any readers who haven’t gotten around to reading The Hunger Games yet, I think I can mention a few symbols that Suzanne Collins employs in the first book. One of these symbols is right on the cover—an arrow. The book’s main character, Katniss, is very skilled with a bow. Arrows and archery are a major component of her character. Looking at an arrow as a symbol, it can be argued that they are only effective if they are straight, and shot with accuracy at the proper target. Those of you who have read the book will see that this symbol certainly fits Katniss. Another symbol exists in Katniss’s own name. She tells the reader that her name, Katniss, is also the name of a wild, edible plant that her father taught her to recognize when foraging for food. Her father told her that, as long as she can find “herself,” she’ll always survive. Lastly, I’ll mention the oppressive President of the country of Panem, President Snow. Katniss describes how she realized, one early spring day, that her family could survive on her skills at hunting and foraging when she saw the yellow of an early dandelion (another edible plant,) emerging from the snow. The fact that this memory contains a reference to the name of the President is more than coincidence and is arguably quite symbolic.

Symbolism is a fantastic tool for enhancing and clarifying your story’s theme. It can weave subtle shades of meaning into your writing, turning what began as a simple rug into a rich tapestry. So why does it seem so difficult to incorporate symbolism into your own writing? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that most of us start a new project based on a new character we’ve created or a plot idea that we feel compelled to explore. I would venture that few of us start a new project because a theme is keeping us awake at night.

By the way, this is a good thing! Starting with theme rather than character or plot sets you on a path toward a moralistic, preachy story faster than almost any other technique. That’s not to say it would be impossible to start with theme and finish with a wildly entertaining and fascinating story; I’m just saying you may be taking the more difficult road with that method.

So how does a writer incorporate meaningful symbols into a piece of fiction? By being patient. By waiting out the first and maybe even the second draft. By getting a piece of writing to the point where the theme begins to emerge and resonate louder with each new revision. Perhaps for the first time, you, the writer, might have that moment of epiphany where the real meaning of a piece of your own writing becomes clear to you. Finally you know why your subconscious pushed you to write this story to begin with. A theme has revealed itself. Now, with the next round of revisions, you have the tools to add the symbolism you didn’t have when you started the first draft.

You may find that symbols that had lain unseen until your theme became clear are already present in your piece. If you realize that the theme of renewal is woven into your work, you may discover that you already, perhaps subconsciously, have included references to the leaves budding on the trees in spring. You may decide to incorporate more specific references according to the progress of your main character’s journey, perhaps mentioning the drips falling from melting icicles, the greening of the grass, and the return of songbirds to the trees. You may decide to alter the names of characters during a revision that is focused on symbolism.

Does symbolism in the books you read interest you or turn you off? Do you use symbolism in your own writing? Have you ever discovered a symbol you hadn’t consciously intended to include? Please share your thoughts in the comments!


9 Responses to Enhance your Writing with Symbolism

  1. Natalie Aguirre Jul 16 2012 at 6:44 am #

    Great post on symbolism. I loved the examples from books I read. I hadn’t heard of the symbolism in Across the Universe but it makes sense. I’m not the best at symbolism but I’ll have to take your advice and be patient through draft 1 and 2.

    • Julie Jul 16 2012 at 6:51 am #

      Hi Natalie! I’m glad you liked the post! Hang in there – eventually you’ll read through your draft and the opportunities to employ symbols will start to show themselves. Best of luck! 🙂

  2. Alexa @ Alexa Loves Jul 16 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I think this post is quite insightful. I usually love exploring the symbolism and themes in stories. They always come across quite clear to me when I’ve finished a book. Thanks for sharing!

    • Julie Jul 16 2012 at 10:20 am #

      Hey Alexa! It’s awesome that the symbols and themes become clear to you like that. For me, they really add to the enjoyment of a book. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  3. Rowenna Jul 16 2012 at 6:35 pm #

    I love symbols, and not just as something for English teachers to geek out about 🙂 I love how they can become a way to tie plot and theme together in a meaningful way, plus they’re such a treat to find. And who doesn’t appreciate something physical to hold onto in the midst of a rolling plot? They’re like Easter eggs and those “oh crap” handles they put in cars all at the same time!

    • Julie Jul 16 2012 at 7:15 pm #

      Wow Rowenna you are SO RIGHT! I love your comparison to those handles in cars! Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

  4. Rosie G Jul 16 2012 at 8:15 pm #

    Hey Julie, I love this post I love learning about symbolism in books especially if they are quite subtle symbols! I find that on reading a book for the first time I get sucked into the story and the symbolism generally goes over my head in favour of finding out what happens next, but often i find when i re-read books the symbolism becomes more obvious and you can pick up on the themes present in that book. When writing myself (not that I write much seriously) I find i often tie myself in knots trying to work out names for my characters as i like having the meaning of their name to be a symbol of the character or a theme in the story. I tend to spend hours trawling baby name websites looking at the meanings of names….. perhaps if i learned to get over the obsession with naming characters i would actually write a bit more and it would become a more ‘serious’ hobby than the occasional creation of a scene or two! Anyway sorry for the rambling comment I will stop now……

    • Julie Jul 16 2012 at 9:40 pm #

      Hey Rosie! First of all, rambling comments are always welcome. 😀 Secondly, I’m just like you when it comes to the names – I definitely feel the need to tie the meaning of a name to a character trait. (I also feel the sound of the name needs to “fit” the character, so finding a name with the right meaning and the right sound can be pretty tricky sometimes!) Lastly, I’m glad you mentioned that it’s on the second or third read of a book that the symbols and themes come to the surface. That’s one of the things that I love best about re-reading a book. (I tend to go back and re-read favorite sections of books a lot, too, and I’ll find things I missed the first time through.) Thanks for commenting! <3

  5. Myra Jul 18 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Wonderful article, Julie! Now that I find myself in the middle of revisions, I’m thinking about symbols and themes and motifs more and more. One symbol that I’ve found, and mean to improve upon further in the revisions, is the season as a reflection of my MC. That is, the winter is symbolic of her character at the beginning of the story, and with the turning of seasons from winter to spring, that mirrors my character’s arc. 🙂

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