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.
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Sonja, first, I LOVED your book! People, if you want a good story, along with a study of good craft - pick this one up.
Second, I didn't get the message in the red tent stakes - consciously. But THAT'S what makes it more powerful, I think. As you said - it makes your brain light up, but the subconscious ones effect the reader the most, I think. Reader Glue.
I used a motif in the book my agent is shopping now - the symbol of 'glass' is used throughout the book - including the title - and the motif is a cheap, red glass trinket/jewerly box.
There's so much power in symbolism. Love playing with it. Thanks for the reminder to use them!
Hurry and write another book - I'm waiting....*taps fingers*
Thank you so much, Laura, for your kind words about my book. From a writer with your chops, it means that much more.
The glass motif is really intriguing. Tell you agent to sell it already so we can start reading soon! Oh, wait! That's what you said to me, lol.
Thank you Sonja, for reminding me—I love it when I pick up on those subtle symbols when reading and even more when I find them in my own writing.
Yes, Mary, there are so many joys in reading and writing, and symbolism is a special one. Thanks for stopping by!
This reminds me of my high school lit classes, where we had to look for symbolism, and when we questioned the teacher about whether the authors had consciously done this, he said "it was probably a matter of it sounding 'right' when he wrote it." I agree, if you're trying to shove symbolism into a novel, it'll sound forced. I love it when readers point out themes and symbols I had no idea I was writing.
You had a very wise high school teacher, Terry. And isn't it incredible what work the subconscious does if we just let it roll?
That's one of the most fun things about writing! I remember once, Jenny read something I wrote, and she told me about a powerful symbol I'd used....it was news to me!
More evidence that, as Stephen King says, we're not making this stuff up - we're tapping into some force. I really believe that.
Although most of what we learned to write in Mr. Holtby's class were expository essays, not 'creative writing' stuff, I still keep in mind one of the acronyms he used to mark up our papers: SWYM = Say What You Mean. It works in fiction as well as essays.
That's one of the reasons I love getting to the second draft. First draft, for me, is letting the story flow. Second draft is when the story reveals its gifts back to me (love the way you said that, Sonja!)
Hi Orly! I love second drafts, too. In fact, I love everything after the moment the first draft is over. I have such a hard time persevering to get it down the first time. It never feels quite like a real book until that's over.
Sonja, your blog reminded me of the first time I ever submitted pages to an editor. My starter book, a medieval fantasy, was, well, my first book. I knew nothing about POV or anything else about the craft, though I'd been a voracious reader all my life. The very kind editor said my book reminded her of Sleeping Beauty. I was surprised because there were no princesses, let alone sleeping ones, or dragons. I asked her why and she said, "The symbolism." Sleeping Beauty is my favorite fairy tale. Who knew I "got" those symbols and translated them into a very different story!
Thanks for sharing your knowledge.
What a fascinating story, Fae! The things we do without knowing how it happens. Sometimes I think our consciousness is just a cover story and everything of impot happens behind the curtain.
Thanks for sharing this message, Sonja! I'm still a naive novice with one published book and I'm completely energized by my WIP. I LOVE subtle symbolism. However, I used symbol in my debut novel (which is the first in a trilogy with an additional 2 novellas ... yeah, I know, nothing like being ambitious). And I had no idea how meaningful that symbol would end up being!
I make this point because the Writing Gods smiled upon me and my symbol because it SO works throughout the entire series ... subtly and not so subtly.
Call it luck. Call it fate. Call it lucky fate. Whatever it is, an heirloom, carmel-colored cameo brooch (that features 3 roses: a bud, an opening bud and a full bloom) has become the symbolic glue to the story arc ... and with an arc that needs to pull together 5 books, well, that's symbol that's got to hang in there with me and my heroine!
Because of your blog today, I'm going to ensure that my novella WIP quietly slips the brooch in. I've even added a sticky note on my monitor to remind me about the cameo symbol as I work through the rest of the "Blossom" series.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Your work seems alive with meaning, Christopher, and I'm glad if my post was helpful to you. Best of luck with your writing!
What a cool post, Sonja. And, as a biology major who never really "got" the whole motif thing, I wish I'd had you as my teacher decades ago--you put it so simply here. Thank you for giving me lots to think about today as I work on my new manuscript.
And good luck with the writing. Can't wait to see what you've got in store for us!
I agree with Saul Bellow that "symbolism grows"--out of the story, of course. Writers can't force it to happen; if we do, it will sound false to our readers.
A wonderful post, Sonja. I pinned The Middle of Somewhere to my Author Spotlight and am looking forward to reading the book. Love the title!
Thanks, Linda! I appreciate the shout out. And the title? Got it right on Iteration #245. 🙂
I love symbolism! It is magical and can't be forced. Just tweaked. 🙂 Thanks, Sonja.
Debbie, you are right about the magic, and it's a large part of what makes the strenuous aspect of writing worthwhile.
OMG. Never thought about symbols in my writing. Still trying so hard to get the plot from A to Z without losing the reader. But! I can see where you're going with this. I recently reread one of my older stories. Things leapt out at me that I never realized I had incorporated. Symbols. A good thing to keep in the back of my mind.
Well, that's the beauty of symbolism, Connie. It works best in the dark. But it's great you noticed them in retrospect, so now you can polish them a little. Only a little. Good luck!
Great post, and the beginning of a great conversation. Sonja, you hit me & my work at just the right time. I am moving from rough draft to first draft on a novella and I am noticing what I am doing, pretty much without realizing it. Thanks for helping me articulate what's going on.
Glad to be of service, James! I often don't even know what my books are about until long after I've finished them. It's a weird and wonderful process.
I love symbolism. I think it adds a layer of richness and texture that draws our subconscious deeper into story. Now you've wet my appetite and I must read your book!
Thank you, Karen! I hope you discover some symbols in there I didn't intend. 🙂
[…] and a length of twine to good use. The tent stakes also become part of the plot, and are ripe with symbolism. And the tent itself was a major constraint. When Liz and Dante fought, they had no place to go; […]