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Symbolism & Enriching Your Writing

By Rukhsana Khan

My thoughts on symbolism:

Symbolism occurs when the theme or emotions underlying a story are also represented on a physical level.

Symbolism deals with the background of a story. It’s the wallpaper on the walls where the characters are having their scene. It’s not something you immediately notice (or at least it shouldn’t be or it’s too obvious) but it’s definitely there making its presence felt.

Without symbolism a story is all plot and action. Don’t get me wrong, plot and action are important but too much of it leaves your story reading like a screenplay. For a novel the characters have to have time to just exist. The reader needs to have a chance to catch their breath.

There is not a lot of information on symbolism in any of the books on writing I consulted. It seems to be a subject pretty much left to the individual.

The whole concept of enriching a scene using symbolism occurred to me when a good friend mentioned a trick she used. She said that if some characters were having an argument or confrontation where their relationship was going to be severed it was good to represent what was happening emotionally on a physical level. If they were in a kitchen, one of them would drop a dish and the dish would break, symbolizing the breakup of the relationship.

When I’m writing ironically, I try not to think of symbolism. If you consciously put something in as symbolic then the drawback and pitfall to this is that it can also come across as being ‘contrived’, ‘set up’ too easily.

The mistake a lot of beginning writers make is that too often they have their characters just sitting around talking. People sit around and talk all the time, but just as dialogue isn’t exactly real speech (it should be much tighter), stories are not exactly reality. Why have your characters sit around and talk when they can be doing something which on another level, mirrors what’s happening in the story?

I can sense when characters are doing something symbolic when the action does not tend to bog down the story. It seems germane, and relevant. It doesn’t bore.

In one scene I wrote, the character is coming to a realization. Slowly he comes to understand that his father is going to do something heinous. But he loves his father and doesn’t want to believe and accept what his common sense is telling him. While he was walking, I had insects harassing him. Gnats, mosquitoes and flies buzzing around him and biting him. It was a way of symbolizing the ideas that were flitting at the edges of his consciousness.

In one of my favourite stories, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen. The author mentions the dances and balls that Elizabeth Bennett and her family go to. In fact one of the key scenes of conversation occur when Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy are dancing. In reading it, the dance in no way hinders the story. It does not bog down the plot, it actually helps propel it forward. That’s what good symbolism can do. The dance represents in a physical way, the elaborate social dance and etiquette of the time. The way people would not be blunt and frank with each other. They would dance around the issue in the hope of appearing civilized.

But the key to symbolism is understatement. This cannot be stressed enough. If the symbolism is too obvious or too cliché, then it will distract from the plot, rather than enhancing it.

And yet you can use cliché in a physical sense that does not appear cliché.

What if you had a story about an athlete who is trying to seduce a girl, but the girl is smart enough to see through him. We have expressions that vividly portray what is happening in a common sort of way. i.e. He didn’t get to first base, he struck out, he didn’t ‘score’. Things like that. If you were to verbalize the athlete’s struggle to get his girl with any of these clichés, the reader would be put off. But what if you didn’t verbalize it. You symbolized it instead with him having trouble in the sport. You effectively hide the cliché in the physical things that are happening in the story. Perhaps the athlete is in an important game, he’s up at the plate and the team is counting on him to get a hit, but at the critical moment, his mind wanders, he thinks of the girl, and he strikes out.

Or you could use football. He gets the pass, and he fumbles. Or gets tackled. I think you get the idea.

Think of different instances of symbolism that you can recognize in some favourite stories you’ve encountered.

Especially think back to when the story went on a tangent, but an interesting tangent, that somehow ‘felt’ right.

An example I can come up with is with the Lion King movie by Disney. There was one instance where Rafiki (the baboon) has come back and told Simba that his father is still alive, then he gets Simba to chase him through all this underbrush.

The time that Simba is crawling through that dense underbrush I kept asking myself, why isn’t it slowing down the story. (Whenever I watch movies and read books, I can’t help analyze how the story works and what they’ve done with it.) I thought that if I’d been writing the story, I’d have been afraid to take the time for Simba to do this. But somehow it worked. My attention did not wander. This going through the dense underbrush kept my interest and in fact seemed important to the plot and the story. Then I realized that the underbrush symbolized the tangled past that Simba was running away from. The issues regarding his feelings of guilt in his father’s death that Simba wasn’t facing.

It was a moment of epiphany for me. Good symbolism is like that. You don’t get it right away. Sometimes you don’t even get the symbolism for a very long time, or never. It kind of haunts you. And it feels right.

With one of my stories, The Roses in My Carpets some of the symbolism escaped me till many years after I’d written the story.

It wasn’t until a few months ago, where I was using the story as an exercise in story structure, that I realized the symbolism of the bread that I’d used.

In the beginning of the story, there is a scene where the main character and his little sister are having lunch and because his little sister has finished her bread first, she looks hungrily at his. He ends up giving her some of his bread though he’s clearly still hungry. After disaster strikes, they are at home in the night and his mother ‘rips the bread into three pieces before she realizes there are only two of us." She gives him his sister’s share but he gives half of it back. And when he’s eating, every bite sticks in his throat, no amount of water helps the bread to go down. At this point he has gotten back his share and then some, but he cannot enjoy it because he misses his sister.

When I was writing the story I didn’t know why that scene at the end was important. I just knew the story needed it. And I didn’t realize what I had done with completing the symbolism of the bread at the beginning. It just felt right. That’s how good symbolism comes across.

Try writing a scene using symbolism to underscore the emotional or thematic content of the story.

There are some symbols that I lace through a story. Returning to them often to enhance a point or to reinforce a comparison.

This is an excerpt from a work in progress. Given the topic, I'm sure the symbolism I used will be apparent.


The Chief's hands are blunt, like mine. The skin on top a tarnished copper, with calluses on the second and third fingers where he pulls the notched arrow on his bowstring tight. They are strong fingers, capable of squeezing the life out of an enemy's throat, capable of subduing anyone who defies him.

He has black wavy hair that flows like a banner from his face. His beard is trimmed short. His eyes are remarkable. Black as obsidian and just as hard. Glassy when he talks about his wild dreams of conquering all of Arabia, opaque when he listens to my mother's entreaties, wild when he is angry and lashing out. They are the eyes of a hawk, half-hidden by wrinkles, from squinting in the desert sun.

My eyes are not like his I am told. And I keep my hair trimmed short. But still they remark on our resemblance. How annoying. At least my looks are all he can lay claim to.

His brothers, my uncles, each throw the die for their turns, and all of them lose. It is the Chief's turn again. He cups the die in his hand, as if it is something precious. Whispering a prayer to one of the goddesses--I can't hear which--he lets loose the die. Before it lands we hear the lusty cry of a new born. The Chief and the others jump up, abandoning the game. I am the only one to notice he's lost again. (From novel in progress: When They Ask the Girl Child)


With the Chief's description in the above piece, I often will use adjectives and descriptions that correspond with the hawk metaphor. And paint him as a predator. He is.

I think a motif is something more subtle than symbolism. Some deeper symbol who's likeness to the situation is not as apparent as the hawk metaphor.

Something like the yellow brick road in The Wizard of Oz. In a way that motif is a metaphor for life. That we go down a road to our destination. And it was also a convenient plot device.

To establish a motif you need to return to it at least three times.

A Writing Exercise:

Write a scene with two characters where one of the following is occurring and have them doing something that symbolizes the underlying situation.

a) One character is hiding a secret from the other.

b) One character is hiding a secret from the other, but the other one knows it, but is pretending not to know.

c) One character is attracted to the other.

d) One character despises his boss, but can't afford to show it.

e) One character is black mailing the other.

Pick any one of these scenarios or create your own.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the characters should be involved in some action that is symbolic of the underlying conflict in the scene, or there should be some symbolic background or description that lends tension to the scene.

This article is copyrighted by Rukhsana Khan and cannot be transmitted or produced without her express written permission.