Using Symbols in Fiction Writing

At the morning session of my “What If? Writing Group” today, we got into an interesting discussion about symbols and the role they play in our stories. One of the students questioned the need for symbols at all, citing that she had never understood what teachers were talking about when she was in English class. Then she added that she never agreed with their interpretation of what the symbols in particular pieces of literature mean, anyway. She didn’t see any reason to mine her writing for possible symbols (See: Lesson #2 in Write It Right, Vol.2: Setting), and was totally resistant to the proposed exercise.

So, we talked about symbols and how they help to deepen our stories, weave inextricable connections, and clarify the underlying meaning to our readers.

Symbols, basically, are everywhere in our lives. One example Richard brought up is the wedding ring, and easily identifiable symbol of love, devotion and commitment. We also talked about the cross, used by today’s Christian society as a symbol of ultimate sacrifice: The giving one’s life for another.

Probably the best known symbol (though we rarely look at it as one) is Sex. It’s the symbol of physical perfection and allure; the symbol of being desirable; the symbol, if you will, of immortality through procreation. Advertisers use scantily-clad sex symbols of both genders to hawk cars, mouthwash, books, magazines, food, clothing, motorboats, vacation retreats—you name it, sex is part of the ads. Because sex sells.

From the time man began to walk upright, long before written records existed, symbols were our most effective form of communication. The caves in both Lascaux and Chauvet in France are filled with symbolic pictures of the story of the inhabitants’ lives. They still speak to us even thousands of years later.

Symbols are part and parcel of who we are as human beings. They touch upon the universal themes of life and impart a deeper understanding of what if means to be alive and human. When we write from our inner truth, from our subconscious mind, symbols will pepper our writing. We can’t help it; it’s how we are made, how we best communicate beneath the words and the syntax and the spelling. When we learn to analyze our writing for symbols, we can then use those symbols during the rewrite phase to strengthen those connections where needed, and add a symbolic thread where it might be missing. Since the symbols are already there, anyway, why not use them to best advantage, to communicate fully with our audience?

When we did the exercise, our protesting student discovered, to her surprise, not only one symbol as she expected, but about 8 of them in a short description of a setting she had done earlier. I don’t know if she has come around or not, but she definitely looked more thoughtful by the time class ended.

Being aware of our symbols and how they interweave through our stories help us to tell more vital and compelling tales. Symbols lift our writing from the ordinary closer to the extraordinary. They help make our writing unforgettable. And isn’t that what we want, as writers?

Here’s a great symbol: A quill pen – the symbol of a writer’s immortality…