One of the words you hear a lot about when it comes to literature is symbolism. Whether you're in an English class reading through the classics, or attempting to write your own novel, you may be wondering what symbolism is and why it's important.
Symbolism is the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities. These can be words, people, markings, locations, or abstract ideas. Anything that demonstrates an idea beyond its literal meaning. It can also refer to the symbolic meaning of natural objects or facts. It exists not only in literature, but in our everyday lives through things like signs, art, religious objects, logos, slogans, gifs, emojis- the list goes on. A symbol can also be subtle or obvious depending on its use.
One of the biggest benefits of using symbolism is that it automatically elevates your story. Being able to use one device that allows you to say multiple things while using fewer words is not only efficient, but also effective. It can be used to say both the literal and figurative simultaneously, allowing readers to gain insight into a situation or conversation that they otherwise might overlook.
Here are 4 reasons you should use symbolism in your writing:
Show not tell: Every writer has heard this piece of advice numerous times, but what does it mean in terms of symbolism? To put it simply, it means that you use a specific image or object to represent an underlying message or theme. For example, the raven in Edgar Allen Poe's famous poem, The Raven. In his poem the raven is an obvious symbol for "mournful, never-ending remembrance", or the loss of his love, Lenore. Here rather then telling his readers directly about his grief, Poe uses the symbol of the raven to help get his point across.
Connect Themes: Symbols are the vehicle through which themes are said. Think of them as the main mode of transportation that connects your readers to your theme or main point of your novel. An example is the green light from The Great Gatsby. In the story the green light represents Gatsby's pursuit of Daisy, but under the surface it also represents his pursuit of the American Dream. Fitzgerald uses a green light to represent this because the color green is associated with money, power, and materialism.
Add imagery: The number one reason we use symbols is because they are visual. Where concepts, ideas, themes, and messages are abstract, having a tangible representation helps a lot. Readers are at their core, visual. They count on us to paint a picture in their mind that they can then explore. One novel that does this particularly well is Lord of the Flies. In this one novel there are several examples of visual representation, such as the conch shell which represents authority and order, a pig head that symbolizes pure evil, and the island itself which represents the Garden of Eden.
Deeper meanings: Symbolism is also used to communicate the darker themes of stories, the unpleasant truths that otherwise would be too on-the-nose or too depressing to say directly. In The Scarlett Letter, Pearl symbolizes her mother's supposed sin. In Game of Thrones, Tyrion represents the ugliness of society and the mistreatment of those who are viewed as different. In Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, the Fold represents the oppressive nature of the Darkling and the end of society as it is currently known.
Start with your story and characters
Begin in the brainstorming phase. Form your characters and your outline. See what you have to work with and learn about the types of people that make up said story. Don't worry about adding in symbolism until after you have your basics covered. Once you do, there are opportunities to sneak in some tiny symbolic details that will help make your story more interesting overall. In Harry Potter, Harry's lightning-shaped scar is a symbol of his lifelong struggle against Voldemort as well as of his mother's love. In The Lightning Thief, Percy associates a trident with his father's presence, and you see this symbol appear throughout the series as their relationship develops.
Use small and large-scale symbolism
Symbolism can take two forms: small and large-scale. Using a balance of these two can help bring depth and deeper meaning to your work in both a subtle and obvious way. Small-scale symbolism focuses on the details. For example, the way a person dresses, a specific object that holds meaning for them (like a locket or picture), etc. These are used to help your readers understand the inner workings of your character's mind and personality. Large-scale symbolism serves to indicate general moods and physical location. Examples of this are weather events and physical descriptions of cities and buildings. They generally make statements about broader, all-encompassing themes such as death, love, grief, power etc. You should strive to use both of these methods to place further emphasis on your story's theme.
Don't use common symbols
This is where you need to challenge your creative mind and put it to the test. There are certain symbols that are universally the same regardless of cultural differences. Roses (love), doves (peace), sunrise (new beginning), rain (sadness), we see these all the time in movies and literature. While they communicate what the author is trying to convey, it becomes boring to see these symbols repeated. That's why you must challenge yourself to come up with your own brand of symbolism rather than following the crowd. Some of the best instances of symbolism are the ones that are unique to the circumstance and meaning of the story it appears in, like the pig representing Joseph Stalin in Animal Farm. Here the comparison is brilliant because it was fitting but also had never been done before.
Create emotional resonance
Last but not least, it all comes down to emotional relevance. Symbols can be used to represent deep emotional impacts that linger after traumatic events. In Macbeth, the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth is tortured by a spot of blood on her hands that will not wash clean after she kills King Duncan. In The Secret Garden, Mary Lennox keeps a white ivory elephant as the only keepsake after she is orphaned. It represents the emotional pain she feels over the lack of relationship she shared with her mother and her grief after she is dead. These stories retain their emotional depth and significance long after a reader finishes reading because these symbols are so effective.
Symbolism is a powerful literary tool. There are multiple ways it can be used, and depending on how well you succeed, they can help you to create stories that remain timeless and true despite the passing decades.