When I took literature in college, I was baffled when the professors pulled symbolism out of an author’s work. I scoffed, “How do you know the author meant for that ring to symbolize her desire for love. Ha! Please.”
Then a professor saw symbolism in my own story and I thought, “I must be subtly brilliant.”
Actually, I was naïve and stupid.
“Do you know how you did this, Rachel?” The professor referenced the symbols in my short-short story.
“Clueless.” (Clueless was the ’80s happening word.)
“If you figure it out, you have a future as a writer.”
I didn’t figure it out by the time my first book was written. On an academic level, I “got” symbolism and metaphor, yet adding it to my own writing remained a mystery.
Around my third book, I started to see and feel when something symbolic happened on the page. I’d been praying Daniel 1:17 over my writing life, asking the Lord to teach me.
Symbolism is both simple and complex. Here’s the lesson I presented at the ACFW conference in Indianapolis in September. I hope it helps you on your symbolism journey.
Often we say metaphor when we mean symbolism. Let’s get the basic definitions down.
Metaphor: A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action that does not literally denote in order to imply resemblance.
- A mighty fortress is our God.
- He is a lion in a fight.
- She’s a bear in the morning.
- His words were thunder waiting for the rain.
I like to say a metaphor is obvious, on the surface. You don’t have to be a student of literature or artsy films to understand it.
Symbolism: The disguised representation of a content, events or person in conscious or unconscious thought. The practice of representing things with symbols. Some good examples are Communion and wedding rings.
We write metaphorically often. It’s easy. “Mom’s hyena laugh gave me goose bumps.”
Symbolism is a bit more tricky because it’s deeper, and often doesn’t manifest itself until we layer our stories with more complex characters and plots.
Talking with author and editor Erin Healy about the subject, she said, “We want to write with symbolism but we can’t leave the reader behind.”
Some readers don’t see or get symbolism. They don’t want to see or get it. Just tell them a great tale.
The truth is, many writers don’t see it or get it either but still write great, bestselling stories.
Symbolism is a whisper, a layer, that causes the reader to feel something, to connect with the heart.
For a writer, a symbolic element drives us to see things in our characters and story that we might not have noticed or thought of before.
However, we don’t want symbols for symbol sake. Too much symbolism is just … too much. Symbolism is used to draw readers in and impact their hearts on a subconscious level.
In the movie, Legends of the Fall, the middle brother Tristan is a wild, fearless, tenderhearted rebel with his own rules. As a young teen, he woke a sleeping black bear so he could try to cut off one of its claws. He got slashed in the process, but he did what he set out to do: cut off one claw. Later, the Indian storyteller draws a parallel between Tristan’s “demons” and the bear. Haunted by not being able to save his younger brother in WWI, Tristan wrestles with guilt. It’s his internal bear. Drives him mad at times. When Tristan has a chance to kill the bear — literally and figuratively — he doesn’t pull the trigger. Then a small event triggers Tristan’s guilt and he’s off on a reckless adventure and loses the love of his life in the process. Others wind up dead or wounded in his wake.
Had he killed the bear — literally and figuratively — his life might have turned out very different. As well as the lives of those who loved him.
In The Proposal, book publisher Margaret Tate lives a very safe, controlled and sterile life. Why? She’s afraid to live. Orphaned at sixteen with no other family, Margaret is all about her career and keeping order to her world. Andrew Paxton, her assistant, longs to become an editor in his own right. He’s bucked his close-knit family tradition and paternal expectations to follow his dream.
In the opening scene, Margaret is riding a stationary bike in her apartment in front of a digital outdoors scene playing on her television. This depicts the world she lives in. She doesn’t like to live outside the lines, outside the doors, or to get messed up or dirty.
Later in the movie, when she’s in Alaska with Drew pretending to be his fiancée, she goes on a walk to clear her head. She finds a bicycle and takes off on a real ride through the real woods. She’s disheveled, disturbed, unable to manage the bike on the tree-rooted path.
The particular sequence is symbolic of Margaret’s inner life. And of what falling in love with Andrew is doing to her: messing up her heart.
In Dining With Joy , I tried to delve into the symbolism of food. There’s physical, emotional and spiritual food. What does food mean to us as individuals, as families, as a society?
What did food mean to my character? Why didn’t she know how to cook? Even more, why didn’t she have a desire to learn? Why did she host a cooking show if food meant nothing to her?
As I developed the story, I realized for Joy food represented a love lost: her father.
Now, you’ll have to buy the book to discover the rest.
What about the Wizard of Oz? Isn’t this magical world really Dorothy’s heart? The scarecrow her fears. The tin man her desire to love. The lion her desire for courage? Think of Dorothy before the tornado hit. She was a timid dreamer longing to know her future. She wanted to face her fears — the mean witch on the bike. She wanted to love her aunt and uncle.
The wizard is her own conscious. Her desire for someone to tell her what to do. But ultimately she had the power on her own feet to take her where she wanted to go.
The whale in Moby Dick symbolizes Ishmael’s fight with himself and God.
How do you add or notice symbolism in your own writing?
1. Ask the Lord to teach you. Pray Daniel 1:17.
2. Take time to examine your characters and their world. Is your heroine always late and messy, but drives a Ford Focus? Does she have a troubled relationship with her mother? Yet to visit her mother she has to cross the bridge over the Peace River?
I had a character take her hair out of a ponytail, and as soon as I saw the action, I felt it’s meaning. She was letting down her hair and accepting the realities and healing in her life. I left the scene as it was, but on rewriting, I think I’ll keep hair in a ponytail throughout the story, and then when she finally accepts love back into her life, I’ll take the ponytail down for the rest of the book. It’s simple. Easy. Not bonking the reader on the head, but an emotional layer on the subconscious level.
In The Sweet By and By, Sara Evans and I incorporated flashback scenes. But those didn’t start until Jade encountered her mother face-to-face. Why? Because Jade had been ignoring the pain and hurt of her past. Until her past came to her.
3. Get a good, godly dream book and study dream symbols. A car often represents the dreamer’s life journey. A house, their inner life. An airplane means spiritual or emotional heights.
Take a scene with dialogue and action, and look for symbolic action or items. Is your protagonist arguing with her mother? Does something of value break? If not, can you add it? In the midst of arguing, what if the daughter slammed a cabinet door shut and caused a treasured family porcelain statue to shatter? It could stand for breaking an unhealthy emotional inheritance in the family. Or it could show that the women are just never going to see eye-to-eye.
Can you layer this symbolic piece in other parts of the story? You only need one or two symbols woven into a story, appearing no more than five times. Don’t pile it on. We’ll get it. If we don’t, piling it on won’t help.
Then, begin to consider how metaphor and symbols can enhance your story.
Rachel Hauck is an award-winning, bestselling author. A graduate of Ohio State, she spent seventeen years in the corporate software world before leaving to write full-time. She is the past president of American Christian Fiction Writers and now serves as an advisor. She’s married and lives in central Florida.