Stories should be a true experience for readers. Like a gourmet meal, we want there to be more to them than just what is seen on the surface. This depth can be added a number of ways—through subplots, character arc, subtext, theme, and symbolism. Of them all, symbolism is one of the simplest methods to employ, and it packs a serious wallop.
Symbolism is important because it turns an ordinary object, place, color, person, etc. into something that goes beyond the literal. Babies represent innocence and unlimited potential, spring is synonymous with rebirth, shackles symbolize slavery, the color white brings to mind purity.
Symbols like these are universal in nature because they mean the same thing to many people. As such, universal symbols are helpful as readers see them and understand what they literally and figuratively mean. This not only delivers another shade of meaning to whatever is being described, it also promotes word economy because, by its very nature, symbolism allows us to convey more.
But a symbol can also be personal in nature, more individual, meaning something specifically to the character. For William Wallace in the movie Braveheart, the thistle represents love since one was given to him by Murron when they were children. To most people, love in the form of a prickly weed wouldn’t typically compute. But as it’s used throughout the film at poignant moments, the audience comes to recognize this personal symbol for what it means.
So whether the symbol is universally obvious or one that’s specific to the protagonist, it can add a layer that draws readers deeper into the story. The setting itself can become a symbol as a whole should you need it to. A home could stand for safety. A river might represent a forbidden boundary.
More often than not, your symbol will be something within the setting that represents an important idea to your character. And when you look within your protagonist’s immediate world, you’re sure to find something that holds emotional value for him or her.
For instance, if your character was physically abused as a child, it might make sense for the father to be a symbol of that abuse since he was the one who perpetrated it. But the father might live thousands of miles away. The character may have little to no contact with him, which doesn’t leave many chances to symbolize. Choosing something within the protagonist’s own setting will have greater impact and offer more opportunities for conflict and tension. A better symbol might be the smell of his father’s cologne—the same kind his roommate puts on when he’s prepping for a date, the scent of which soaks into the carpet and furniture and lingers for days.
Another choice might be an object from his setting that represents the one he was beaten with: wire hangers in the closet, a heavy dictionary on the library shelf, or the tennis racquet in his daughter’s room that she recently acquired and is using for lessons. These objects won’t be exact replicas of the ones from his past, but they’re close enough to trigger unease, bad memories, or even emotional trauma.
Symbols like these have potential because not only do they clearly remind the protagonist of a painful past event, they’re in his immediate environment, where he’s forced to encounter them frequently. In the case of the tennis racquet, an extra layer of complexity is added because the object is connected to someone he dearly loves—someone he wants to keep completely separate from any thoughts of his abuse.
Connecting readers with our stories is what we all hope to achieve as authors. This is why the stories we write often contain a central message or idea—a theme—that is being conveyed through its telling. Sometimes the theme is deliberately included during the drafting stage; other times, it organically emerges during the writing process. However it occurs, the theme is often supported by certain recurring symbols that help to develop the overall message or idea throughout the course of a story. These repeated symbols are called motifs.
For example, consider the Harry Potter series. One of the motifs under-girding the theme of good vs. evil is the snake. It’s the sign for the house of Slytherin, from which so many bad wizards have emerged. Voldemort’s pet, Nagini, is a giant snake. Those who can speak Parseltongue (the language of serpents) are considered to be dark wizards. By repeatedly using this creature as a symbol for evil, Rowling creates an image that readers automatically associate with the dark side of Potter’s world.
Because motifs are pivotal in revealing your theme, it’s important to find the right ones. The setting is a natural place for these motifs to occur because it contains so many possibilities. It could be a season, an article of clothing, an animal, a weather phenomenon—it could be anything, as long as it recurs throughout the story and reinforces the overall theme.
Themes can either be planned or accidental. If you know beforehand what your theme will be, think of a location that could reinforce that idea—either through the setting itself or with objects within that place—and make sure those choices are prominently displayed throughout the story.
Need a bit of help finding the right symbol for your story?
Did you know we have a comprehensive Symbolism and Motifs Thesaurus at One Stop for Writers? Stop by sometime and explore the many possible symbols that can be used to enhance the deeper themes in your writing.
How have you used symbolism and motifs in your writing? If you haven't, how would you like to use them to enhance your writing?
Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of five bestselling writing books, including The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. She is passionate about helping writers succeed. Her site, One Stop For Writers is a powerhouse online library like no other, filled with description, story structure, and brainstorming tools to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can also find her on Twitter, Facebook and at her blog, Writers Helping Writers.
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Love, love, love this post, Angela! I have a mental block about the difference, and you've laid it out simply. Thank you!
In my book, Days Made of Glass, I used both. Symbolism is the yin-yang - two sisters took it to mean their close relationship, and glass, as a motif. It winds through the book, with many concrete meanings, but also, the fragility of life, mental health, and the transience of relationships.
Thanks so much Laura. I love symbolism, and it really is the elite of "showing" because we are hardwired to notice universal symbolism, and so it can be used to covey emotion, characterization, longings, world views, bigger ideas, and so much more. Personal symbolism is just as powerful though, because it's an intimate moment shared between the characters and the reader, and I think when it's done well, this is such a beautiful thing. 🙂
Great clarity on a subject which is usually explained rather vaguely. As always you come through for us poor struggling beginners. .
Coin rolling is one of my symbolisms and used by my protagonist who was abused as a child. While locked in a cellar he mastered the steeplechase representing tenacity. As an adult he frequently resorts to it during periods of stress.
A butterffly is my motif and appears throughout the story in a variety of ways.
It stands for freedom as well as the soulmate he is searching for.
Thank you for an excellent post.
Michelle. so very glad this was helpful. I think this can be an area of confusion for so many of us. 🙂
Great post, Angela! I write fantasy and use a lot of symbolism throughout. Your post is concise and. like your Emotion Thesaurus, an excellent resource. Thanks!
Thank you so much, HMB!
The thistle is also the national flower of Scotland, so there are layers of symbolism there beyond the personal that I think are even more significant to the film.
I certainly use symbols and they tend to appear naturally through the writing--I don't set out to use a symbol or motif and them look for places to put it. They just materialize and gel and then I can reinforce them as I continue to write and revise.
When I'm reading I love subtle symbols and motifs, the kind that, on multiple readings, you discover more and more of. But I don't like it when the symbols are too obvious because the author worried you wouldn't catch it. To me, symbols and motifs are a gift to the close reader. 🙂
"I don’t set out to use a symbol or motif and them look for places to put it. They just materialize and gel and then I can reinforce them as I continue to write and revise." This is closer to my process as well. I know some people pre-plan, but I think there's a bit of magic in letting the deeper layers of our minds allow things to bubble up, and often they might by symbols we would have never though of had we tried to force it.
"There a bit of magic in letting the deeper layers of our minds allow things to bubble up" ... YES!!!!! Loved everything about this post, Angela.
Great post. I enjoy your blog and have been able to incorporate several of your ideas into my WIP. This particular article really touches on ways to use symbolism and I think I'll get a lot of use out of it. Thanks.
That's great Terri! I don't know if you are registered at One Stop (free registration), but there's a tutorial tied to the Symbolism and Motif Thesaurus that you may also find really helpful for incorporating symbolism into your writing. 😉
Thanks for a very instructive post, Angela. As a pantser, I plan nothing and am surprised when I get comments like, "I love your symbolism." In the midst of learning from lots of revising, I'm thinking there are a few things I need to plan for. And you've very clearly laid out one of them.
Glad this helped Fae. As a former pantser, I think that there's a lot we do without realizing we're doing it, which makes educating ourselves even that much more important. Even if writers aren't big on planning, all the wheels and cogs in a writerly brain is still working to put forth the story. If the machinery is greased up with high quality knowledge, it's going to function better than if that knowledge was lacking. 😉
This is such a wonderfully clear explanation of symbols & motifs--thanks for helping me think about symbolism in an entirely new way!
Glad it helped, Holly! 🙂
A good reminder of some things so powerful.
Thanks Traci--nice to see you here 🙂
I need to get over to your site more. I do get the newsletter so I keep up that way but just get overloaded with blog emails sometimes and it's tough slogging through.
I know what you mean. 🙂 It's good a break is coming up so we can all get caught up on reading! 🙂
Yes, and I'm hoping to get some book money as well for goodies in the year ahead, lol.
Thanks, Angela. Very cool post, great description of symbols and motif.
So glad this was helpful, James. I know at first I struggled with understanding the difference between symbolism and motif. 😉
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I agree with many of the comments here, Angela. This is a clear explanation on how symbols and motifs are used in writing. Thanks so much for sharing this with Writers in the Storm followers. I've shared it online. All the best to everyone here. Have a wonderful holiday!
Thank you so much Victoria--sorry I am late commenting. The 21st was my birthday and I was whisked away by the hubs for a time and then the snowball of Christmas season hit. 🙂 Hope you had a terrific holiday!
Wow! Thank you for this most helpful post, Angela. I will be using your site for the third book in my romantic series. In my second book, I used the color blue for eyes and a hummingbird for motif with a little girl who was lost and then found (I'll admit that i didn't know it was a "motif"). She was a victim of neglect and abuse, seemingly small and fragile but really fierce and territorial. I'll admit that when writing a first draft, I tend to leave out the symbolism only to come back and add it later for that extra layer of depth.
I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and Happy New Year. I'll be frequenting your site often in 2017 🙂
Very glad it helped! Another good source for symbolism help is C.S. Lakin at Live Write Thrive. She really knows her Motif and weaves them into her fiction so well. (She's a writing coach/editor too so her blog is packed with articles on Symbolism & craft).
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