How to incorporate symbolism into your writing

Our goal in publishing these writers’ helps is to provide practical, clear and concise tips so that beginning and intermediate writers may quickly gain professional skills.

Therefore we’re going to simplify the exceedingly complex topic of symbolism by confining our discussion to just one manifestation of a literary symbol:

When a material image represents a nonmaterial idea, that is a symbol.

  • In this poem by William Blake, the rose is a conventional literary symbol, representing love.

The Sick Rose

O Rose thou art sick.
The invisible worm,
That flies in the night
In the howling storm:
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy:
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.

How does an image link to an idea to become a symbol?

  1. There might be an inherent resemblance which everyone excepts. For example, life is like a journey; indifference is as hard and as cold as ice.
  2. Repetition can create association. Chevalier does this. It is the judicious repetition of the color yellow in her novel that creates the symbolism. One flash of yellow would not have accomplished this feat.
  3. Images may be widely understood as symbolic by implication of their occurrence in myth, religion, tradition or convention. Spring may represent renewal or fertility. A garden may represent paradise. A turkey may represent the giving of thanks. A rose nearly always represents love.
  4. A practiced writer may successfully build or invent a symbolic connection by structuring internal relationships within a work. Robert Frost, in his poem The Mending Wall, causes the wall to stand in for the division between what is primitive and what is civilized. 

So how can a writer incorporate meaningful symbols into a piece of writing?

  • Beware of beginning with a highfalutin’ theme, message or symbol, unless you’re aiming for a preachy, moralistic tone. Start with the specifics of the story or event, and don’t think about symbolism. Symbols are added during revision. If a symbol comes forth during inspiration, they will be disguised as an ordinary material image (a visible object, a scent, a sound, a tactile impression). In the first inspiration, symbols should be unrecognizable as symbols.
  • Be patient. Don’t even try to incorporate symbolism in the second draft. Maybe the symbol won’t emerge until the 5th or 6th draft, or later. When you begin to get a glimmer of why your subconscious pushed you to write this story, the answer may suggest a theme. Now you possess the symbol-making tool you didn’t have when you started the first draft.
  • And now you can look for symbols that have been hidden in clear sight. After you recognize that a theme of renewal is woven into your work, you may discover that you already, perhaps subconsciously, have included the sounds, sights or smells of spring time. Then you might consciously incorporate more specific references to your symbol. You may even decide to alter the names of characters or places during a symbolism-focused revision.

Because we want to know whether we’re achieving our goal, to give you practical, concise and immediate writing help, please tell us how and/or why this article does or does not help and inspire you.

(some parts of this article are a summary of the topic “Symbol,” pp. 1250-53, The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, edited by Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan, Princeton University Press, 1993.)
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2 comments

  1. This is very helpful Ken. I had not thought about the idea of symbolism being a part of the revision process. It’s a new thought and makes a whole lot of sense. So let me ask, when you are guiding writers through their revision process do you often encourage them to find symbols that they may have inadvertently placed in their piece?

    1. I think it’s the editors’ job to point out how informed readers are likely read symbolism into an image, by pointing out literary and religious/cultural associations that the author may not have been thinking about. And I think advance writers who work together, serve as editors for one another. Also, it’s the job of the editor to point out where symbolism might be developed and enhanced. So, in short, yes.

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