This article is for writers looking to learn how to use symbolism as a literary device to expand and layer meaning in their stories, by using symbolism in stories.
Symbolism can show hidden meanings and help set tones in the story to help the reader to understand and better connect with your story.
When using symbolism as part of writing your story, a balanced approach is best, so that your reader does not become confused. Symbolism, used well, should continue to advance the story forward.
By the end of this article, you’ll have a better idea of how to find hidden meanings in the art you consume, and you’ll know how to use that hidden meaning in your own work to attract and engage readers.
What is symbolism?
A simple definition of symbolism is that symbolism uses people or objects to represent a concept. These objects might be colors, animals, or parts of the setting – like the weather or lighting.
Symbols are often used to get certain aspects of a story’s mood or tone across to a reader without being too on-the-nose.
Symbolism if often used in story-telling to key the reader into important concepts like death, rebirth, love, or even doom, but the author doesn’t want to spell it out for the reader too plainly. Symbols can be used to impart these concepts to the reader while moving the plot forward.
Symbols can also be used to identify themes and subplots in a story.
Writers might give characters certain symbols which show them at different stages in their journey—following these symbols as a reader will help you understand where the character is in their journey and what sorts of changes they’re going through.
You can note these symbols on a character development worksheet for fast reference later.
Examples of Symbolism
Most symbols in a story take their roots in universal symbols. First, we’ll talk about some universal symbols and give examples, then we’ll talk about how writers work with those universal symbols in the context of their own stories.
Here are some common universal symbols, broken down by category.
You may notice that some of these have meanings that don’t seem to have anything to do with each other—that’s because one symbol rarely has one agreed-upon meaning. That meaning will often depend on how the symbol presents itself.
For example, the meaning of the color yellow changes depending on the context, and depending on whether it’s a pastel or a vibrant yellow.
Black: sophistication, elegance, formality, mourning
White: life, purity, sterility
Red: romance, passion, danger, or lust
Green: prosperity, rebirth, nature
Yellow: hazard, cowardice, dishonesty, friendship
Brown: groundedness, home, hearth, comfort
Snake: deceit, cunning
Dog: loyalty, friendship
Bear: courage, threats
Lion: courage, bravery, physical strength
Flies: decay, rot, death
Raven: prophecy, foreboding
(A quick note: you’ll notice that object symbols often combine with color symbols.)
Money: prosperity, wealth
Ladder: ascending, connecting lower and higher concepts like heaven and earth
Bridge: connectedness, togetherness
Rings/chains: restraint, joining together, commitment
Mirror: one’s own soul, beauty
Symbolism Tip: Water is almost always associated with “life”.
Writers take symbols like the ones listed above and incorporate them into their own stories when planning out the parts of the story for their book.
Example: The ‘Golden Snitch’ in Harry Potter
- ‘Gold’ symbolizes wealth or a prize, and the golden snitch symbolizes enlightenment and victory.
Example: Night by Elie Wiesel
- Throughout this book, the night is used to symbolize death, danger, and doom. Nighttime is dark, and we already associate the darkness with fear and the unknown.
Example: The green light in The Great Gatsby by Scott F Fitzgerald
- The famous green light! We associate green with prosperity and hope, and so does Gatsby. He looks out on the green light and believes he will be reunited with Daisy. However, this dream falls apart. Fitzgerald uses green a lot in this novel to symbolize wealth—notice where it comes up, and what happens to those characters who identify with it the most.
How to Identify Symbolism in Writing
If you’re completely unfamiliar with symbolism, it might be easiest to start with movies, where directors and screenwriters use visual symbols. Being able to literally see the symbols on screen is super helpful if you’re new to this sort of thing.
That said, these skills will help you out whether you’re looking for symbols in movies or in your favorite books.
1. Look for symbolism in the most important scenes
Go through a movie or book and pick out the most important scenes.
The best spots to find symbols are the introduction or beginning, the inciting incident, the climax, and the resolution. Find the moments with the most dramatic tension and identify the setting, characters, and description.
Start by searching for universal symbols. Yes, this means underlining that the curtains in the climax of the novel are blue. It might not mean anything—not every single description is going to have a symbolic meaning, and that’s okay.
Keep an eye out for what symbols pop up at important plot points will help you notice them when they resurface again.
Speaking of which…
2. Symbolism is usually found in recurring imagery
If you have a physical book, highlight every time a specific image or symbol resurfaces. Maybe you notice that one specific setting has water or bones, or specific types of animals always hang around one particular character.
What sorts of items are associated with different characters? What colors are those items? What happens to those characters, and what happens to those items? Maybe the items change hands, get lost, or take on a new presentation.
How to use symbolism in your plot
Now that you know how symbolism works and how to spot it, here are a few tips for using symbolism in your own work.
1. Worry about it on the second draft
The first and most important tip, for the sake of writing, is to get through your first draft without worrying too much about your symbols. Editing your book can wait.
This is the kind of thing that can get writers tied up in a never-ending first draft, constantly going back to make sure that everything is consistent.
Write your first draft all the way through, pausing as infrequently as possible.
Then, when you revise, take the time to work on your symbols. Make a sheet of characters, settings, and themes with their associated symbols.
2. Tie a specific universal meaning to your symbols
Make sure you keep your symbols consistent across the board.
If green represents money and greed for some characters but life, prosperity, and nature for others, the meaning will get muddled and fall apart.
If rainbows appear in times of sadness, happiness, anger, and excitement, it’s difficult to pin down the significance of that symbol.
This is where your symbolism planning sheet comes in handy.
Use that list to make sure the symbols you’ve chosen retain their meaning.
The meanings might change and evolve as the characters do, and that’s totally fine! But the meanings shouldn’t change randomly, or out of inconsistency on your part.
3. Using symbols for foreshadowing
Symbols are a great way to foreshadow events in your story. After all, the whole point of symbolism is getting across figurative meaning without being too direct.
Stories aren’t fun if the writer is spoon-feeding it to you.
It’s fun to be able to go back and notice that actually, the flies in chapter one signaled that character’s oncoming death.
If you want to use your symbols to foreshadowing, double-check your symbols when you revise.
Make sure you’ve set that symbol up with that character or theme so that when it reappears later, your reader can recognize it.
Also, you don’t want to beat your reader over the head with symbolism. Which leads me to…
How to Avoid Heavy-Handed Symbolism in Your Writing
Say chapter one opens with a horrible storm approaching. A character arrives to the scene in a black car. A flock of ravens descends as he steps out, wearing black from head to toe. A skull and crossbones decorates his bumper. He walks up to our main characters as thunder rumbles, and we’re thinking, oh, gee, I wonder if this guy is going to end up dying or killing someone else.
This is an example of heavy-handed imagery.
We don’t need all of this to get across a sense of foreboding or doom. We could pick any one of these symbols to suffice on its own.
It’s also important to be aware of clichés. Sometimes using cliché is helpful, but relying on it to get information across will make the story fall flat.
A dark and stormy night, a black cat crossing a character’s path, a raven squawking in the background, a red-lipped seductress in a little black dress, a sweet little girl in a white dress—these are all cliché images.
If you want to use them, you need to do something with them.
Maybe the sweet girl in a white dress is actually a murderous villain, or after the black cat crosses a character’s path, that character receives some great news.
In both instances, the writer is aware of the symbol they’re using, but they’re subverting the expectation to make for an interesting, engaging story.
Want to learn more about how and where to use symbolism in your story?
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