Wordsmith Wednesday–Symbolism

Pink Tulips Lit by Afternoon Sun

Image by danagraves via Flickr

Our writing prompt on Monday asked us to look at symbolism in dreams and this got me to thinking about the value of symbols as a tool to enrich our creative writing, whether prose or poetry.

Let’s take a look at the definition of symbol as found in dictionary.com:

  • something used for or regarded as representing something else; a material object representing something, often something immaterial; emblem, token, or sign.
  • a word, phrase, image, or the like having a complex of associated meanings and perceived as having inherent value separable from that which is symbolized, as being part of that which is symbolized, and as performing its normal function of standing for or representing that which is symbolized: usually conceived as deriving its meaning chiefly from the structure in which it appears, and generally distinguished from a sign.

Here a few examples of how cinema and fiction have used this device.

  • Remember the role of music in Jaws? There are a few bars that are repeated as a herald of an up-coming shark attack and every time the viewer hears those chords, he grips the arms of the chair.
  • I recall a movie from when I was quite young (don’t ask me the name) when the scent of gardenia forwarned that someone was about to die.
  • The entire premise of Moby Dick is based on the whale as a symbol of a life-goal that as yet to be achieved.

I offer you another example from my second novel, The Sin of His Father. This scene takes place immediately after the protagonist’s mother has died. On her deathbed, Matt’s mother tells him a secret she has kept from him–that he was conceived in rape. He is standing outside the nursing facility where she had been a patient:

Across the lawn, large crows helped themselves to bread crumbs. Matt knew that it had been Edward Riley, a resident of the facility, who’d scattered them. One of the birds interrupted breakfast to stare at Matt—Matt would have sworn it was so—and his skin tingled at the thought of stories his mother used to tell him of dead people coming back as black birds. Beside the predator, strewn feathers told of a smaller bird that had lost its struggle to keep on living. Matt’s grief came pouring out. That it was because of a fragile creature stunned him at first before he recognized the similitude. Like the wren, his mother fought her whole life for food and survival. She’d known a dark monster, too. Not one that would destroy her suddenly, mercifully, but one that most likely haunted every moment of her adult life. One that tore her down from the inside-out and in the end defeated her.

In prose, symbols should emerge from the writing process itself. It’s important not to force it. That is to say, most often you don’t choose a symbol and write your manuscript to fit. Just the opposite. The symbol grows as you seek to express a character’s feeling in metaphor.

The opposite may be true in poetry where the poet chooses a symbol first and takes it from there.

If you are looking for help in finding an effective symbol, a website or book dealing with dream imagery can help.

You may be surprised to find that a theme grows out of your choices of symbolism, even though you are not conscious of it. That happened for me the first time I brought the opening chapters of Winter is Past to a workshop. One of the other participants pointed out the role that tulips in Claire’s garden played:

My breath fogged the window panes but in amber light cast by late afternoon sun I saw tips of irises. Spent gold and purple crocuses spattered the flowerbed in between tulips that had tried to open, but had frozen, stunted in their voluminous leaves.

This image recurs in the novel as Claire struggles to come to grips with her own insufficiency until the flower at last comes into full bloom.

  • Can you give examples of how you’ve used a symbol in your own prose or poetry?
  • Did it develop on its own, or did you choose it consciously?
  • What other works can you cite that use a symbol to create texture and atmosphere?

Next week I will be traveling so this article will not be up on Wednesday and I trust, if I can’t make it happen, you will understand.

Happy Writing…enjoy the process.

6 thoughts on “Wordsmith Wednesday–Symbolism

  1. […] Wordsmith Wednesday – Symbolism (liv2write2day.wordpress.com) […]


  2. Bodhirose says:

    Symbolism often times gives the “heft” or juiciness of a story.


  3. trisha says:

    i have seen this stunning use of music in The Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Carribean movies.

    some use scenes symbolising actions, it was quite common a practice in old indian movies- bees hovering on flowers, butterflies hovering on flowers, lamp being extinguished…..


  4. To me rain is usually a symbol of loneliness and the scent of jasmine is symbol of love, symbol for Egypt.


    • Cool. Rain does bring out those kind of feelings. For me it is cleansing. I love jasmine and didn’t know it was a symbol for Egypt. I’m thinking that is a special place for you, Blaga.


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