Monday, September 29, 2014

Symbolism: A Writer's Sleight of Hand

The skull is a medieval symbol for
mortality. (Source)
During the League of Utah Writers Conference, I went to a class on symbolism taught by the unconquerable Johnny Worthen. I have to give him credit for most of the information below. Definitely a class worth attending.

Johnny argues--and I think he's right--that everything in writing--every gesture, word, syllable--is used to convey meaning. By definition, writing is symbolism. For example, the letter's d-o-g do not actually represent a dog. They're the symbols we've designated to convey the meaning of a dog. 

*Therefore, the symbol is THE main tool of a writer's trade.*

Types of Symbolism:

1) Synecdoche -- Most common. When something small represents the whole, or something on a small scale represents something on a larger scale.

2) Simile/Metaphor -- Blatant, told symbolism in the narrative.

3) Allegory -- A way to say something you can't actually say. By definition, symbols are required for allegory. It's an excellent thematic tool. 

4) Unconscious Nuance -- Symbolism that's not perceived consciously by the reader, and sometimes not even by the writer.

*Symbols only work if they have to do with the rest (the theme) of the story.*

Though it came from the mind of Suzanne Collins, this
salute has been used as a symbol for real revolutions
around the world, most recently in Thailand. (Source)
Ways to employ symbolism:

1) Introduce a system of references that will become motifs (recurring) in your novel.

2) Symbolism is a lot like jokes. (A+B+C) - B. Make them understand, even if they're missing an element.

3) Introduce a symbol, then put blood on it. If it's life and death, it's more memorable, and when you use that symbol again, it will bring something very specific to the reader's mind.

4) Context is everything. The text should offer clues for when the reader ought to look for deeper meaning.

5) To convey deeper meaning, begin a chain of connections. Be careful not to work against your story or send contradictory messages. Be consistent.

6) Use symbols in your plot construction (i.e. foreshadowing, development, allegorical connections, etc.)

7) Thematic Resonance -- So if the mood you want to convey is doom, you would use symbols like night, graves, falling, etc. If you want to convey hope, you might include dawn, birth, children, etc. If your theme is, say, abandonment, use symbols, images, and situations that reflect that.

8) Alternating chapters -- Like John Steinbeck, you could always employ entire symbolic chapters that are the keys to unlock the rest of the story.

9) Use descriptions, names, titles, and word choice as symbols.

*Symbolism requires the reader to become interactive with the story. Therefore, they elevate words from writing to literature.*

Whatever types of symbolism you choose to employ, just make sure that you do it consciously and purposely. Your book and your writing in general will be better for it.

After taking this class, I decided to add symbolism to my list of things to edit for. It ought to be present, at least subtly, in every chapter I write.

What do you do to employ symbolism in your writing?

1 comment :

  1. Not perceived even by the writer - that's me! Although I actually managed to slip some into my latest manuscript.
    Great checklist, Liesel. This is an area I'm not good at handling.