Apr 07 2010

Some Tips on Using Literary Symbols

1. I would recommend using your symbols in unexpected ways. For example, fire is most commonly used to symbolize destruction and/or Hell.  However, there are so many more options that are creative and fresh.  For example, fire represented ignorance (and possibly political correctness) in Fahrenheit 451 and civilization in the story of Prometheus. If the symbolic meaning you’re going for is the first one that comes to mind with that symbol, maybe you could be a bit more creative.

1A.  If you got your symbol from a list somewhere, it’s probably too obvious. For example, tree -> life, fire -> destruction/Hell, spring -> rebirth/life, apple -> loss of innocence, water -> atonement or cycles, etc.  Think on it some more and you’ll probably come up with something that fits your story better than these.  For example, the recurring symbol for destruction/doomsday in Watchmen is a ticking clock.  In The Godfather, death is usually preceded by an orange.  (!)

2. In a comic book script, make sure that you tell your artist how you want the symbol to appear. Otherwise, the artist may inadvertently mangle the meaning of the symbol. For example, if technology is supposed to be a sign of progress and civilization in your story, you’d probably want the cars to look shiny and new rather than grimy and decrepit. Unless you specify otherwise, it’s up to the artist’s judgment.

3. Give us context clues to evaluate the symbol and its meaning. Possible examples include what sort of setting a symbol is surrounded by, what a character or characters think about or do with the symbol, etc. For example, in Lord of the Flies, the characters do battle over a symbol of civilization (the glasses that can be used to make fire).

4. If you do symbols, do so because it adds something to the story. For example, the aforementioned grandfather clocks in Watchmen raised the stakes for the heroes by foreshadowing what would happen if they failed (nuclear apocalypse). I would not recommend using symbols because you feel like you have to or because you think it’ll make you look smart or literary.

5. Ambiguity in symbolism is alright, but make sure we at least know what the options are.  That will reduce the chance of confusing readers.

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “Some Tips on Using Literary Symbols”

  1. Henon 07 Apr 2010 at 6:38 pm

    Follow rule #5 please people! It saves us from a lot of boring discussions in English class!

  2. scribblaron 08 Apr 2010 at 2:05 am

    Hey B.Mac you get that email I sent you?

    To everyone: I just finished my novel (a nearly last draft) and I’m looking for readers to email it to, if anyone fancies reading it.

    It’s a 75k steampunk sword and sorcery novel.

    My email is (Chriskelly82) and that’s AT (aol.com)

    I’m not looking for crits or anything, I’m happy with people just reading it.

  3. Ragged Boyon 08 Apr 2010 at 12:00 pm

    Great article. I love symbolism. Although, I don’t plan on using any in Showtime. I don’t think it’s necessary given the straight-forward approach I wrote with.

    I’d like to read a steampunk novel. I’ll email you, Scribblar.

  4. Lighting Manon 08 Apr 2010 at 1:04 pm

    I found this article very interesting. I’ve partaken in a lot of discussions about symbolism over the years, and my perception of symbols have gotten me into a great deal of trouble (I had a teacher that I’m pretty sure was plotting to murder me for believing “The Cask of Amontillado” was a dark comedy) and I’ve constantly strived to incorporate a decent level of it into my works. I’ve recently temporarily stopped working on my superhero graphic novel due to writer’s block, switched to a fantasy novel and I’ve already established a few symbols I intend to be recurring, so this was very helpful, enlightening. Thanks.

  5. scribblaron 08 Apr 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Comedy? Possibly the scariest story ever written is a comedy?

    (I have a fear of being buried alive so I probably hype Cask up a bit)

    Thanks Ragged Boy.

  6. Wingson 08 Apr 2010 at 8:25 pm

    I adore symbolism, but I don’t get much of a chance to use it. I mean, pearls showed up a lot in Between Life And Darkness, but other than that…

    Probably a good thing, since I’d probably overuse it anyway. XD

    – Wings

  7. B. Macon 09 Apr 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Scribblar, I got it.

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