Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Symbols



Traffic light photo by alvimann at Morguefile.com    
Do you notice symbols when you are reading? Or, for that matter, in the world around you? They can sometimes be easy to overlook, I think. 

Do you incorporate them into your writing? Symbols can add meaning, highlight the underlying theme, or even nudge a reader to make certain connections. I like symbols best when they occur organically and throughout a story, as long as they are not stuffed into the text with a heavy, over-enthusiastic hand. Like mine. When I revise, I often have to delete a symbol or two (or three) that I like too much.

I love coming across symbols while I am reading. Maybe a character has a beloved bicycle that she rides in the beginning of a story. The bicycle ends up at the back of the garage as the story rolls along. This could be a subtle indicator of what is going on in the character’s life. Maybe the bike symbolizes the character being neglected or distracted from what she loves. Maybe the bicycle shows that she’s growing out of a bicycle-riding stage. The bicycle could be just a bike, or it could be a symbol or reflection of what is going on in the character’s life.


Ring photo by lisafanucchi at Morguefile.com
Symbols don’t have to be objects, either. They can be phrases, gestures, or character traits. The trick, for writers, is to be sure that the symbols sprout in a natural way from the story. Whenever I force a symbol into a story, it’s obvious. As in there’s an orangutan sitting at the kitchen table obvious. It’s best to pull symbols from what the story offers.

What are some of your favorite symbols from your reading and writing? I still think about that famous pie from The Help. And, of course, who could forget Frodo’s quest for that symbol of all symbols—the ring?

66 comments:

  1. For some reason the first literary symbol I thought of is The Scarlet Letter!

    I think the use of symbols effectively definitely enhances the text! Take care
    x

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    1. The Scarlet Letter is a great example, Old Kitty! Thanks! : )

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  2. I thought of the Scarlet Letter, as well. Symbols are quite important, and I do agree with you that they can't be forced. :)

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    1. Thanks, Danielle! A forced symbol is kind of obvious, isn't it?

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  3. I look for symbolism in every book. Is that weird? I suppose that's because I write with a lot of symbols. It's fun!

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    1. Not weird at all, Emily! Symbols are tons of fun!

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  4. I do enjoy symbols to an unhealthy level. In life and in writing. :)

    Like you, I think I'm a little heavy handed on the symbolism when I write. I love double meanings and metaphor too, so I often have to scale things back on revision.

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    1. Symbols and imagery really are such fun to write. Thus, the need for revision and trimming. : )

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  5. But what does the orangutan MEAN??? LOL! Great post. I find my symbolism comes across best when it actually comes from my subconscious when I'm writing. I love when my brain works like that. When I purposely add things they can get overdone.

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    1. Hmmm, what does that orangutan mean? : ) Wonderful point about the subconscious, Lisa. My subconscious is hugely helpful with symbols and imagery.

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  6. Oooh, what about the whale in Moby Dick?

    I do use symbols in my writing. Actually, the name of a main character in one of my books is a huge symbol. I hope to share it one day.

    Great thinking post.

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    1. Loree, the whale is an excellent example! My Lit professor would be disgusted with me for not sticking that in my post. ; )

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  7. I'm terrible at this kind of thing. I'm just really straight forward. But it's something I'm trying to learn and get better at.

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    1. It can be tough, I think, to use symbols gracefully, but practice noting them in reading and sliding them into writing helps.

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  8. Symbols are very important and I do notice them in novels. I find it ties a book together and can create a type of theme.

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  9. Hey Cynthia! Thanks for finding my blog! I'm so excited to find yours. :) And I agree... I love symbols and symbolism. It's awesome to have in books. I love an author who can do it well. :) I hope that one day I can!

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    1. Welcome, Leigh! Thanks for stopping by. I, too, really admire authors who handle symbolism well. They make it look so easy! : )

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  10. I do love the richness that symbols add to books or movies. I'm not so good at it myself but I'm a writer in progress so I'm hoping I'll improve in this area as my writing improves.

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    1. I think we're all "in progress," Leslie. : ) Practice makes (we hope) perfect.

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  11. Yes, the Scarlet Letter is an excellent one! Because it goes from being a shameful thing to a badge of honor as Hester devotes herself to the community and helps people. I like when I've written something and a symbol emerges--I had no idea I was doing it but it just happened. Like you said, organically!

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    1. Oh, I love it when a symbol emerges without pre-planning--when the subconscious takes over.

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  12. I love symbols. Usually, I find that they've sneaked into my stories without my having planned them. I think if I planned for them, they would be heavy handed, as you said.

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    1. I agree, Ruth. It's like the subconscious knows when and where the symbols belong.

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  13. i do love them--and have included many in one of my more recent stories--cool topic!

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  14. I'm the same if I try to force a symbol. For me as a writer, I sometimes notice them after the fact and am amazed they're in place at all. As a reader, I'll notice some but not others unless I read again purposely looking for symbolism. It's easier if the story isn't really good. Otherwise, the story takes over for me, and I couldn't care less about all the other literary devices.

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    1. Carol, you make a great point about how a wonderful story can take over to the point where the reader no longer cares about symbols and such. I guess that could be called seamless writing. ; )

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  15. I don't think I put symbols into my stories, but I do think it's so cool (and creative) when authors do!

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  16. I think character traits would be my favourite. I just read a book that used a lot if relics and i found it a little tiresome to read about them over and over.

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    1. Ah, this sounds like an example of overkill on the symbols, Michelle.

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  17. I love symbols but I don't always notice them. Those are usually the best ones, and the hardest to write. Your subconscious figures them out without the author hitting you over the head. :)

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    1. Very true, Stina--the most subtle symbols can go unnoticed, which is impressive.

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  18. I love symbols. I've put them in my story but not on purpose, which is funny.

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    1. Perhaps the subconscious at work again, Lydia. It can be sneaky. ; )

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  19. My symbols in and of themselves are not so subtle as they are wormholes. Yet only a handful of people are privy to their recent discovery so therein lies the subtlety.

    I think Dan Brown does a masterful job of using symbols to drive his stories.

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  20. I seem to be drawn to symbols from nature: weather, a bird flying by at a particular moment, a spider crawling along a web, a fish jumping, a dog howling.

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    1. Bish, my mind was racing with what all these snapshots from nature might mean (symbolically) in a story. Great comment.

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  21. I'm with you on the orangutang. LOL
    Great post. :)

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  22. Thanks for mentioning that a symbol needs to occur organically. I know that I'm guilty of just "tacking things on," sometimes. You are a great teacher, Cynthia!

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  23. What a lovely compliment, Victoria. Thank you! And I think we all do a bit of tacking on here and there. : )

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  24. I believe symbols add depth to novels and I believe they work best when some readers see them and understand what the writer meant to do and yet other people read the same book and might not attribute deeper meaning to the same object. In my mind, it means the writer hasn't been too heavy handed. Good post, as always.

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    1. Thanks, J.L. I love that readers pick up on different elements in a novel. It makes reading a unique experience.

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  25. I remember reading Stephen King's ON WRITING on how writers put symbols in their book sometimes on a sub-conscious level. I truly believe that. I have just noticed symbols in my current novel and now I'm going to tweak them a little more.

    I love reading symbolism in novel as a reader. It gives the work depth.

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    1. And I love depth in a novel! : ) Thanks, Karen.

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  26. Thank you for the encouragement on the Journeys of Wonder project, Cynthia. I love trying to puzzle out the symbols in stories I read. I have to admit that I haven't eaten chocolate pie since I read The Help. Susan Sipal over at Harry Potter for Writers is scary amazing at pulling out the symbols JKR peppers through the series.

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    1. It would take me decades to find all the symbols in JKR's amazing books, but that's part of the fun, right? And I'm with you about losing my taste for chocolate pie! LOL!

      Such wonderful news about your stories in Journeys of Wonder! I can't wait to read them. ; )

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  27. I've not consciously written in symbols into my stories, but when I read through them, I notice them.

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    1. There's the subconscious at work again. : )

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  28. Today I finally realized what has happening with the opening scene of M. Night Shyamalan's movie Signs. We see a glimpse of the outside, but as the camera moves slightly we see ripples in the image that lets us know we are looking through a glass window, then the image is clear again.

    Not to give too much of a spoiler, but the main character in the movie had been a priest, he abandoned the priesthood when everything in his life became distorted and hard to understand, then at the end he's a priest again.

    Thanks, M. Night, for giving us symbolism that no normal person could figure out while watching the movie.

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    1. Great example of symbolism and foreshadowing, Mark. I love that movie, btw.

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  29. Oh, I so HATED symbols in 8th and 9th grade English! I just wanted to read a story and the teachers always harped on symbols. I love symbols now, but that's because there's no pressure attached to them.

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    1. Marcia, I was thinking the same thing when I was writing the post. But, I think I'd really enjoy those English classes now!

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  30. While reading I try to catch a symbol and try to figure out the importance before reading it in context.

    Thanks for a great post.

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  31. I do incorporate symbols. I can't say I always pick up on them when I'm reading, though! Unless they're obvious. Then I totally do. :)

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    1. I know what you mean, Peggy. I can get so into the story that I don't consciously register the symbols.

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  32. I remember the first time I "stumbled" onto symbols in a story. I think it was in The Pearl by Steinbeck. OMG. Layers! I was very excited. As to my favorites . . . rings, of course. They always get to me. And then there's bodies of water. I <B those--streams, lakes, oceans. Trees get to me, too. I'll stop because obviously I'm hooked on symbolism in literature.

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    1. Being hooked on symbolism is a good thing! They really do add depth to a story.

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  33. When I started writing as a teenager I purposefully threw in symbols. They were obvious and artificial. These days they come about naturally. Sometimes half-way or at the end of a draft I realize I put them there.

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    1. I think this falls under the category of practice makes perfect, Medeia. : )

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  34. Symbols can be great, but I don't always notice them - consciously, at least. Subconsciously, I think they can be a wonderful tool, one of those things that go into making a story richer without hitting-you-over-the-head obvious.

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  35. I agree, Caryn. It seems that most elements of writing work best when they are not hitting the reader over the head. Hmmm, maybe that's a new blog post? ; )

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