Friday, May 15, 2009

Symbols and Stories

I think a lot of writers are automatically put off by the word symbolism. It's an idea a lot of people misunderstand, and to discuss the symbolism in a novel is--to some people--tantamount to announcing that the novel is difficult and likely very dull. "Oh, it's got metaphors," people groan. So I'm going to discuss symbols and symbolism and attempt to demystify this subject. I want to talk more about symbols in stories in the future, so this post is sort of an introduction to terms and general ideas.

A symbol is something that stands for something else. A stop sign is a symbol to drivers that they have to hit the brakes. A red cross is a symbol for a hospital. The color white means purity in some countries, mourning in others, death in yet others. In some cultures, lambs symbolize innocence. The '*' key on an adding machine means "multiplication." Et cetera. A symbol is one thing that stands in place of something else. We all use symbols, every day.

Symbols in literature fall into three types: simile, metaphor and allegory. Let's have a look at them.


A simile is a statement that compares one object to another, using the word "like." This thing is like this other thing is the basic formula.

His head is like a football is a simile. Similes are the most common form of symbolism. They are also arguably the least creative way of comparing things, because they are the most obvious and prone to cliche. His love for her was like a red rose is a cliche. Excuse me while I yawn.


This is the one that causes people confusion. It is essentially a simile without the word "like." The writer says that an object is another object, usually something not commonly associated with the first object:

His head is a football.
His love for her is a red, red rose.

Those are lame examples (especially the love/rose), but I've already used them so I'm sticking with them. The thing about metaphor as opposed to simile is that metaphors can be extended, stretched, to deepen the commentary about your subject:

His head was a football, hard and full of air. Real life was going to kick him into the goal on more than one occasion.
His love for her was a red, red rose, splendid for but a few days and then falling apart, petal by petal.

Metaphors can also represent things that aren't directly identified by the writer. This is where things get tricky. Suppose that you read a story in which every time a man told a certain woman that he was faithful to her, her candle would blow out. When it turns out that the man is NOT faithful to the woman, she is alone while he's off dallying elsewhere and her candle keeps going out. The flame going out becomes--through repetition in a single context--a symbol for his infidelity. This symbol is never apparent to the characters; it exists for the reader.

In my last book, the behavior of birds, singly or in flocks, mirrors the behavior of characters in the book. The condition of a garden represents the political situation (I stole that image from Shakespeare; thanks, old man!). In "The Lord of the Rings," the ring represents power which corrupts absolutely. The Ents personify nature lashing back at technology. The elven race, possibly, represents religion. Et cetera.


Allegory is a form of story where the characters act as stand-ins for other characters. Fables are frequently allegories, with talking animals standing in for types of people. "The Ant and the Grasshopper" is an allegory. "The Tortoise and the Hare" is an allegory. Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" is a retelling of "The Myth of Sisyphus," so you could say it's an allegory of a metaphor. The play-within-the-play in "Hamlet" is an allegory.

There is a special type of allegory called a Roman a clef, which translates literally as "novel with a key." Romans a clef are allegories about real people, and the identities of those people are kept secret to avoid things like libel suits. These novels include a "key"--a clue, basically--to let clever readers "unlock" the secret and find out who the real people being discussed are. Political figures are sometimes written about via roman a clef, though nowadays it's becoming rare.

Why use symbols?

We use symbols for a variety of reasons. Similes are used primarily to describe things and people. Allegory is primarily used to teach a lesson (usually a moral one). Metaphor, the most slippery of symbols, has many uses. Metaphor can:

describe something in a poetic or lyrical way

be extended to add depth and dimension to the description

foreshadow events (in the love/roses example, if there are actual rose bushes in the story, they might catch a blight before the love story goes bad; or see the big storm in Act One of "Jane Eyre")

reinforce plot and character (the candle flame example, as well as all the references in "Hamlet" to poison and ears throughout the play)

bring out theme (in "The Overcoat," Gogol uses Akaky's overcoat to symbolize his place in society, and the treatment of his overcoat parallels the treatment Akaky receives).

All of this deepens the story, adding layers of meaning and understanding for the reader, even if the reader doesn't notice the symbolism (and maybe it's better if it's all subliminal anyway). Character, plot and theme can all be reinforced in subtle ways, so you aren't beating the reader over the head through repetition of dialog or events.

Symbolism is sort of a magic trick that allows you to tell the story in several languages at once. Don't be afraid of using it. If you make any use of symbolism (especially in a way I've neglected to mention here), tell us about it!



  1. I'm more likely to use a simile than a metaphor, because I think metaphors can unnecessarily confuse a situation. And, honestly, aren't people confused enough as it is?

    Story time:

    I went to a fast food place yesterday (shame on me!) with my wife and ordered some yummy burritos. The cashier, named "Amanda," asked if she could have a name. I replied, "'Justus.' Or 'Amanda,' if you prefer that one." Instead of laughing at my amazing joke, she looked confused, crossed out the J she had written, glanced at my wife, and said, "Oh! Sorry. My name's Amanda too."

    My wife blamed the incident on me, saying, "You mumble all the time and talk too fast." I mumbled disagreeably, because I'm just that freakin' clever.

    Oh, and Dr. Scott, I noticed how much you used "Et cetera." Too cool to use "etc" like the rest of us, eh? Your head's a big balloon.

    1. Confusion is a great tool for getting the logical, conscious mind out of the way so the real driver, the subconscious can play (be accessed more fully).

  2. Ok. so Justus is cracking me up. It's nice to see someone using their Latin correctly though.

    Scott, Very well stated, man! I love symbolism. It makes the story so much richer for me. I think of Crime and Punishment and the plays of light and darkness. It would not have been as moving without the symbolism. The same with so many books that I've read. I like the idea of telling the story in several languages at once.

  3. I have a confession. I usually don't try to use symbols. I'm also using metaphors and similes less and less. All of the elements are still in my writing, but, for me, it's harder to write without them, and I tend to be drawn to things that make my life harder. What I love, though, is then a reader finds a symbol in my book that I didn't intend. Sometimes what they point out makes sense, and sometimes it doesn't. When the symbol works, though, I get excited because I feel like I've tapped into my subconscious, I've written something on the page that still allows me to read it and discover something about myself. For me, the ultimate thrill is to write something that I'd enjoy reading. That's so hard when I am so intimately involved in the story that all I see is the technical aspect of it. Finding things I didn't intend allows me to read it from a greater distance.

  4. Justus is being very clever with his reversed symbolism metaphor. Est homo literarum. And yes, I do my old schoolmasters proud to write "cetera" out in full.

    Lotus: The Russians were masters of symbolism, and I think that's because they were aware of the metaphors all around them, in daily life. The sybolism of church and state certainly pervades their work, and as you say, Dostoyevski was a master of light and dark. Turgenov brilliantly used location and weather. Dickens, too, used metaphors to foreshadow events and his character names have always struck me as symbolic even when they seem like pure nonsense.

  5. Davin: I tried very hard to write my last book using no similes at all. I'd decided that similes were a lazy way to describe things, and I should attempt to have the readers see the things themselves, not my comparisons.

    What I like is to find that I'm using an image as a symbol and then go back in later drafts and draw that symbol out through the length of the tale. I don't try to impose symbols so much as I like to discover what connections my own subconscious is making between ideas and then expand upon them. That's how food and weather and Horatio's clothing became so important, so intertwined into the action. I think it's another set of cues and clues for the reader, another way of pulling everything together in the story and achieving narrative and thematic unity.

    I'm also sure that there is imagery in my stories that I'm completely unaware of. I'm always delighted when readers see things in my work that I didn't realize I'd put there.

  6. Are you suggesting the wonderful phrase "it tastes like chicken" doesn't do justice to the "it"?!

  7. Janet Fitch is a master of this in White Oleander. I've re-read it so many times just in hopes her method would somehow rub off on me lol.

  8. T. Anne, I had the chance to have dinner with Janet Fitch once. She's an amazing person. She's so generous with her knowledge and very caring too. I'm glad you like her!

  9. Awesome post. I like to use symbolism in my writing from time to time, but more often than not I find myself using too many similes instead of metaphors. Oh well, back to the drawing board. Oh, and thanks for the laugh Justus. And thanks for the post, Davin.

  10. Great post--and yes, I took notes. The comments were as informative as the article! General consensus: similes=lazy writing. Got it!

  11. Eric,
    Scott actually wrote this post. Here's an easy guide so that you can tell the three of us apart.

    Scott's posts often contain unabbreviated Latin.
    Michelle's posts usually have really nice images.
    Davin's posts have that rushed-off-at-the-last-minute feel to them.

  12. Jill, I wasn't sure if you were being sarcastic. Similes aren't always a sign of lazy writing, of course. There are some great similes out there and some writers who are real masters of using them. You just have to be in tune to why you've decided to call upon one in a particular scene or description.

  13. I thought this post was going to be about Dan Brown, Robert Langdon, Angels & Demons, DaVinci Code, etc. Boy was I wrong.

    Ha ha! All kidding aside (temporarily), this was a very useful post. Thank you for taking to time to outline this.

  14. I love symbols--it what attracts me most to both reading and writing.

  15. Justus: I think what you really mean is this:

    Bowman looked up at his nemesis. He had tasted defeat in the past. It tasted like chicken, and while he liked chicken, he did not like defeat. He spat to get the taste of chicken out of his mouth.

    "Spit all you want," his nemesis said. "I still have beaten you."

    "No way," Bowman said. "Come back and I'll give you a lickin'."

    "You have already tasted defeat," the nemesis said.

    "Chicken!" Bowman cried.

  16. I don't use symbolism, because I think that takes away from the story and puts more emphasis on the writer. If I said that right. :)

  17. Scott: Let me too write something insane:

    Scott took a gander at his goosey rival. Goosebumps rose on his forearms, reminding him of his favorite author, R.L. Stein (and friends). "Git on outta chere, ya foul fowl."

    The goose laughed, as much as a goose can laugh, and said, as much as a goose can say, "You're just a big chicken, ya dog. And I spank chickens and sneeze at dogs."

    Scott roared with laughter and slapped his leg. "It's 'bout time ya wise up, poultry face, to the plan poetical truth 'round these parts; chickens for eatin', ducks for beatin', but geese, well they's for knowin'."

    The goose died.

    Scott shook his head and chuckled. 'Work every time.'

  18. Great double entendre in your comment to Justus! Heehee! You two are too much. Ambo homines literarum et iocorum estis.

  19. I love symbols! I don't always write them on purpose, though, because it feels too forced.

    Another symbol I found in Jane Eyre is when the chestnut tree is struck by lightning and split in two. The very tree where Rochester proposed to Jane. Yeah, I'm obsessed.

  20. The two warriors squared off, weapons ready. Both had struck a blow, but neither drew blood.

    The tension in the air cast a cloud over the sunny day as the opponents prepared for another round. Neither wanted to chicken out, even though they both knew their goose was cooked.

  21. Should it be "geese were cooked"?

  22. No, it should be "they each knew their goose was cooked." Work every time.

  23. Mariah: Yes, that's just the storm I meant. Strong images and foreshadowing all through that book.

    Jill: A good simile is hard to find (didn't Flannery O'Connor say that?), but if you come up with something that's both original and actually appropriate, use it!

    Robyn: Layers of images and symbols, if done well, add to the story without drawing attention away from it.

    In "Little Red Riding Hood," imagine that the wolf isn't just a wolf, but a representation of hunger. Red goes to visit her grandmother (with food) but she's already starved. The huntsman, a provider of food, symbolically slays the wolf because by hunting, he defeats hunger. Then again, there are other interpretations of that story. I try not to think about the Freudian ones.

  24. Scott, this is a great post, thank you. I have often thought this is what sets apart my writing from the "commercial" themes I choose - if that makes any sense. Many readers don't think to look for deep symbols amidst explosions and double-crossed spies.

    My problem is that I either make the symbolism too obvious or too subtle. Subtle is okay if it ends up adding that extra layer more careful readers pick up on. But it's not working in my later writing and I can't seem to figure out what the problem is. Your post has helped, though, as I can now see that the main issues lie within my flawed symbolism.

  25. Mariah:That's one of my favorite symbols in classic literature.

    Jill:As Davin says, I don't think similes are bad. Nobody seems to have banished them from the English writing world that I know of. They're just easy targets for cliches. I've found that the more and more I write the less similes I use. I often go back in later drafts and change many similes to metaphors, or get rid of them altogether. They can help me in initial drafts to help me visualize the world I'm writing.

  26. Good reminders. These things can add texture to our work - but, overdone, they can make it trite. It's walking that fine line that can be so difficult.

  27. Michelle: I fight constant battles with myself about how much to tell the reader, never knowing if I've reinforced ideas too much or not enough. I've decided to assume that my readers are at least as smart as I am, so I tend towards subletly these days.

    Finding symbols that actually work, and not mixing them up or using them inconsistantly is tricky. In a scene I'm editing now, I wanted to have a heron fly overhead, until I realized that in two other scenes, herons sort of herald one type of action, and this scene had none of that. I like unity in my books, so I had to come up with a different bird. It's a little thing, but it all adds up, I think.

    I have a thought about the opening image of "Monarch." I'll tell it to you elsewhere, though.

  28. Scott, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about it. :)

  29. Want to come give my ninth graders a crash course : ) ?

  30. KLo: All children except my nieces frighten me. But I hopefully speak for the three of us when I say that if something at the Literary Lab would be helpful in a classroom, feel free to use it. Unless you were just being polite, in which case I'll thank you not to disabuse me.

  31. Thanks Scott. :) Educational and entertaining. Alice Hoffman stone and feathered my world in Skylight Confessions. Symbolism all over the place but it was lovely.

    And thanks for stopping by my blog and for the kinds words.

  32. This is a really helpful explanation of the differences. I am a fan of the simile. Therefore, I love many cliches, not all, but many. I often invent my own. I am learning to edit them out of my final draft even though I'd rather keep them.

  33. "Symbolism is sort of a magic trick that allows you to tell the story in several languages at once"

    I love this sentence.

  34. I found this post very interesting Scott. I love using symbolism in my writing; my challenge is to make it invisible so that the story flows easily through all those layers (languages) you spoke of.

  35. Symbolism is important and it's the best when it comes out unplanned and just happens.

    Good breakdown. I especially liked "His head was a football."

    Thanks! : )

  36. *Phew* I just read 37 comments, because I'm always interested in what others think. Geesh! Curse my curiosity! Then again, this was a really helpful post. I'm going to take notes too. I never really thought much about symbolism, but I have to admit I do love to read it. I'll give it a shot. :)


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