The act of writing is an exercise in managing symbols. Every word, after all, is attached to a universe of meaning; the bit we formally agree upon is the definition. Everything else a word signifies exists in a web of personal memory, experience and emotion. If I write “moon,” your brain lights up along myriad pathways: full moons, night, mystery, howling, moonlight, tides, half-moons, lunar eclipses, Halloween, moon walks, and sticking your naked butt out a school bus window.
Slipping a telling detail into your story pins it to reality, and that’s a good thing. You want your reader to believe, and there’s nothing better than a specific, unique word or description to do the job. A symbol is the opposite of a telling detail. It spins the reader out wide, into the realm of other words, and older, bigger ideas. Symbols make a story thick with meaning.
Now you want some, huh? Okay, let’s see how you might go about it.
Symbols come in all sizes. How handy. Is the heroine’s dress red or white? Either way, it sends a signal, albeit small, so choose wisely. Larger symbols require more attention. If a single symbol is repeated throughout the book, it’s a motif, as with the numerous references to birds in Jane Eyre. My second novel, Middle of Somewhere, takes place along a hiking trail. Red tent stakes go missing and reappear. They are red. They are pointy. They are supposed to be holding things down. Woven into the plot, they mean more than a piece of gear designed to keep the tent fly taut. In this book, there’s also a symbol so large it refers to the entire story: the trail itself. I don’t indicate it directly (“Oh, life has its ups and downs!”) but rather let the reader figure it out—or not. You can’t completely control reader brain waves, but you can leave them a trail (ha!) of breadcrumbs for them to discover.
Symbolism is like sex: if you’re thinking about how you’re doing it, you’re not doing it right. Saul Bellow said, “Symbolism grows, in its own way, out of the facts.” That’s lucky, because you don’t have to plant the symbols, just recognize them. If you are planting them in the first draft, they will be obvious. Ray Bradbury, one of my favorite authors, put it well: “Good symbolism should be as natural as breathing, and as unobtrusive.” I take note of the symbolism that appears unbidden in the first draft and use the revision stage to deepen it. Or leave it as it is. Which brings me to my next point.
Symbolism is like drinking: if you’re wondering if you’re overdoing it, you’re probably already drunk and are about to fall down and hurt yourself. Less is more. If the symbolism is dead obvious, your story will feel like a cheap trick. When in doubt, leave it out.
Symbols aid the writer as well as the reader. One of my happiest moments as a writer comes from discovering elements in my story that make sense beyond what I had intended. It’s magical, a gift from my story to me. In the book I just finished writing, I found I had associated three generations of women with water: one with a lake, one with a river and a third, loosely, with the ocean. I sprinkled a little more ocean over the third character, and thanked my book for providing the title: Blue for the Water.
If you are open to it, your stories will help you understand them, often whispering through the mystery of symbols. Listen closely.
Do you consciously add symbols to your writing? If so, how do you decide on your symbol and its introduction into the story? Do you notice symbols as a reader?
Sonja Yoerg grew up in Stowe, Vermont, where she financed her college education by waitressing at the Trapp Family Lodge. She earned her Ph.D. in Biological Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley and published a nonfiction book about animal intelligence, Clever as a Fox (Bloomsbury USA, 2001). Her novels, House Broken (January 2015) and Middle of Somewhere (September 2015) are published by Penguin/NAL. Sonja lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.