Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Word On Symbols

Have you ever witnessed it done right? It truly is a privilege to read a book or watch a movie woven with intentional and subtle symbols. Immediately I think of the praying mantis in The Hour I First Believed and I breathe a sigh of contentment as I remember how expertly Leif Enger laced symbols throughout Peace Like a River.

A quick lesson:

Another term used for incorporating symbols into your work is leitmotif. Beautiful word, isn’t it? It was originally used to define musical themes (maybe that’s why I enjoy it so much. Tie music into writing and I’m sold). Leitmotif stands for symbols that define characters and defines the situation he/she is in, or defines both. Essentially it’s when you try to introduce a recurring theme.

Let’s say you want rain to symbolize something in your WIP. It’s important that each time you introduce rain, you ratchet up the intensity. This doesn’t mean that it’s droplets in the beginning of the novel and a thunderstorm at the end. What works is when the character (better yet, the reader) is more involved and cognizant of the rain toward the end. The impact or awareness of the symbol should be greater as the novel moves along. This is difficult to do well. That’s why I treasure when a movie or novel delicately and intelligently deals with the use of symbols. I adore symbols.

In a Writer’s Digest article Karen S. Wiesner wrote, “Whether you make symbols subtle or well defined, they take on layers of meaning each time they’re mentioned, and they become an integral part of the story. As a general rule, every character should have only one associated symbol, but if you have a total of two in the book, one of them should be subtle, while the other should be well defined. The point is to enhance or contrast, not take over the story so the symbol becomes the focal point when you have no desire for it to be.”

Are you currently writing a character with a particular symbol, a mannerism, trait, hobby, scar, or working one into your novel as something tangible like a token, mirror, blade of grass or ladybug?

Also, I’d love to know if you recall a book or movie that blew you away with the eloquent use of symbolism.

“If there is any one thing I love about writing more than the rest, it’s that sudden flash of insight when you see how everything connects.” Stephen King

*photos by flickr (for those of you who are new to my blog, the intentional play on words was just for fun…I’m aware of the spelling difference for symbol. You don’t need to worry about me)


  1. I'm also a fan of symbols...not very good at writing them though. Whenever I try, they come out all forced and way too obvious. I like subtle symbols.

  2. Yet another element I'll have to work in my story. My current WIP is a mystery and i think I'll have to write it in layers to get right. It's so hard! Much harder than i believed.

  3. Hey, Wendy!!! Great post!

    A lot of times, my symbols come out by accident. That's a lot of fun at the end when I notice them and and realize that they work. Right now I'm re-reading Harry Potter (about to finish book 5, so your mention of a scar reminded me of that)!

  4. Thanks for the beautiful teaching today. I am not a writer, but I love to read your words!

    Blessings from Costa Rica,
    Sarah Dawn

  5. Great post. I'm actually working on a symbol in my work right now. Not sure it's working, though.

  6. I have a couple of symbols in my work. They are subtle, so I'm interested in seeing if my crit partners pick up on them.

  7. Harry Potter and the Scar is the one that stands out but then again it's the kids favorite movie and when they get to listen to it the book... K and B are to young to read it. LOL

  8. Angela's Ashes comes to mind, and the feather from Forrest Gump.

    My MC wears a necklace her ex-boyfriend/almost fiancee gave her, and she never takes it off. She loses it, and the very next day meets a new man! Symbolic - oh, I think so!!!

  9. I'm not sure if I've intentionally started out with symbols in my novels. But usually I try to have an item that is important to my MC. In my last novel it was an indulgence. Eventually the indulgence was burned and went on to symbolize my MC letting go of her own efforts to earn God's love. Great thoughts, Wendy!

  10. Excellent post, and I loved the play on words/photos you included.

    One movie I love to bits is "Babette's Feast" which uses food as a primary symbol, but has underlying symbols of music and soldiering. You would love it, Wendy!

  11. Jeanette, I haven't seen "Babette's Feast in ages. It would be good to see it again, and watch for those symbols.

    Wendy, I love symbols, and wove them throughout the biblical novel I wrote. You've really intrigued me with the thought of main characters each having primary and secondary symbols. I really, REALLY like this.

    And for anyone who loves the connection of writing and music, you absolutely cannot miss Singer-Scribe ( by my friend and neighbor Gwen Stewart. She's a music teacher and a writer, and depending on the topic, I swear you can hear her words sing.

  12. Wow, interesting post. I'm not real good at picking up on symbols, I don't think, so I'm pretty sure they're not in my stories. Or if they are, they're subconscious.
    I loved learning the new word and about how to use the rain! Interesting!

  13. Great thoughts again! The one and only fiction I've attempted--and still is the attempt stage--has a bicycle with an American flag taped to the back. I think now I can add more layers with that. THANKS

  14. I can't remember the name of the book, but I read one where you knew that any type of attention to water signaled something omnious.

  15. Very informative! This is definitely something that doesn't come naturally to me. I'm going to work on it!

  16. Katie, I believe that is the art and the trick. I hope to grow more and more accomplished at using them b/c I respect them so.

    T.Anne, the beautiful thing that I've read is that it is never too late to incorporate them into your work. Hope that is encouraging.

    Kristen, sometimes the ones that come out by accident are the most potent.

    Sarah Dawn, what a lovely encouragement that was to read. Thank you.

    Suzanne, pie works. Are there birds flying out of it? :D

    Heather, it's worth the shot. I find it very much fun to play around with them, even if I end of extracting several.

    Lazy Writer, now you've got ME interested to see if they pick up on worthy!

    Doodles, I've heard great things about Harry. Haven't gone there...yet.

    Beth, ohhh, the necklace! Who could forget that feather? Excellent and you know, I'm beginning to believe we really are twins...I almost mentioned Angela's Ashes.

    Jody, interesting...having the item of significance destroyed in order to bring character to new conflicted state. Nice!

    Jeanette, where have I read something on that? It does sound delicious! :D And thanks for mentioning my brilliant choice of photos. :D :D

    Anne L.B., followed Gwen. I think I read she wrote one book within days??? Don't quote me, but that is impressive. Thank YOU for the encouragement. It's always nice to learn what you write is making some sort of impact. I'd love to know more about your biblical novel (even what constitutes as a biblical novel???).

    Jessica, I delight in that word too much not to throw it into one of my posts.

    Karen, I don't know why, but you made me think of how I practically lived on the back of my mom's bike during my youngest years.

    Tara, water is supposed to be sort of a universal one authors often use. Fire, water, light...etc. I'm greatly intrigued by all of them.

    Jill, I'm a little thankful to hear this seeing as SO VERY MUCH seems to come naturally for you. Wow, your post today about planning blew me away!!! Excellent.

    Well, we are officially back in the swing of things here at the Miller, soccer, brownies to wipe off faces. I hold it all dear! As I breathe in this very moment I am ecstatic to be alive (and that is quite a big deal b/c that word ecstatic is a weird one to spell).

    Rest knowing you are held and treasured, and that if you're quiet might just hear God singing over you!

    ~ Wendy

  17. Hi Wendy,
    I happened upon your blog from another and am blushing a bit. (Thank you, dear Anne.) Yes, I wrote a book in ten days...but this writer had twenty years of writing stored up, and the book was...well, horrible. :) But it was the book of my heart, and I'm eternally grateful that God remembered what grace and joy I find in the writing.

    As for symbols...I guess I'm a bit like Stephen King in ONE thing. I don't assign my characters symbols, but like to see what unfolds in the writing. Later, I will discover what my writerly mind came up with, and hone those symbols as they appear.

    Indeed, I need to be more proactive and thoughtful in my writing. I leave much to the "deep places". Sometimes great things happen because of it, but sometimes the "deep places" are just a mess, too.

    I really enjoy this blog, Wendy. I'll be back often!

  18. Gwen, geyser writing, excellent! I thought just the other day, if I could just getaway I wonder how much damage I could do! Ah, to think...I doubt your book was horrible, but the humility is precious.

    Sometimes I'll begin thinking a character will have one, but as you wrote, a new one surfaces as I write. It's truly like opening a Christmas present when that happens.

    Great quote, "Sometimes the 'deep places' are just a mess, too." Amen and thanks be to God for cleaning all our messes.

    Thank you so much for your encouragement and I'm glad to have you along for the ride.
    ~ Wendy

  19. I love the use of symbols...when I catch them. I'm a little dense sometimes. One that I really like is in the recent movie version of Mansfield Park...the bird(s)! It's very obvious, but very well done.


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