Anyone Here Experienced in the Art of Symbolism?

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  • #199218
    Tom Tucker
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    I’m working on a short story right now. I’m new to the game. I’ve never finished a story before and this one has turned into something with meaning. I’m thinking about expounding on certain aspects of the world I created and using symbolism. Another thing, I want certain things that my characters do be symbolic. An example related to what I mean, would be like something in Plato’s Phaedo. If anyone here has read that, there is a scene where he puts his feet on the ground and doesn’t move them throughout the whole discussion he has with Simmias and Cebes. This apparently represents his acceptance of material aspects of the world and their relation to the nonmaterial/more divine aspects such as immaterial things. These would be thoughts and ideas because they are more intertwined with the soul considering we accept that all learning is recollection,(an assertion made by Socrates).

    My concern is this. I’m a seat of the pants writer, which means that I’ll have to add the symbolism through my revision. This seems like a bad method to me, but when I think about my story to myself, there are parts that already seem symbolic when I think about them, which is odd because I never planned on them being so. Now, I just plan on expounding on them.

    So, does anyone have any suggestions. If anyone else writes about the same stuff as me, feel free to explain your method. Such as, how much do you explain. Is it a rule that you never explain the symbolism in the narration. As in, use the symbolism, then use some type of metaphor that illustrates it? I feel like that would be a mistake, but if I don’t do that, I run the risk of the reader not seeing the symbolism. In short, please tell your experiences with all of this.

    #210538
    BonnieRS
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    No matter what you do, some readers will not see the symbolism. Any explanation comes across as heavy-handed, so I’d strongly recommend that you not go that route. Sometimes it works to have the characters discuss the situation, but again it can come across as heavy-handed if it’s not closely tied to the story.

    As far as “adding” the symbolism — it seems to me that symbols only work as symbols if they first work on a literal level in the story. They don’t bring meaning into the story from outside, they grow meaning from the context of the story and underline the emotions, ideas, and so forth. You can add details that support or call attention to the symbol, or add references to it in other places to strengthen it, but usually trying to graft a symbol into the existing story comes across as heavy-handed. It can be done and I’m not saying don’t do it at all, just be careful.

    #210545
    Tom Tucker
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    I figured that. Plus, it would be way more meaningful if the reader figures it out on his/her own. I know what you are saying about it coming from the literal level of the story. However, it’s very common for authors to use things from the environment as symbols to represent their ideas.

    An example of what I’m doing right now, is having my main character look at the stars in the sky before she bleeds to death form the wound in her chest. She looks at Orion and pays close attention to Rigel. Rigel starts becoming dim due to her fading consciousness. I narrate and explain how Rigel was her favorite star because it is the most noticeably blue. Then I say that blue had been her favorite color for a long time.

    What I am expounding on, is her love for her partner who has recently died in the story. There is a flashback in my story about how they first got together in grade school. My MC payed more attention to the guy’s blue eyes rather than anything else and noticed how the seemed to blend in with the sky when he reached his highest points on the swing. This occurred on the playground of the school by the way.

    #210546
    BonnieRS
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    Okay, that sounds like an example of what I mean about it working in context in the story. You’ve set up the connection in her experiences so you can call it up when you need it — sounds to me like it will work.

    #210539
    Soren_Ringh
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    Hi Tom. I can give you my thoughts on the matter. I also, give some thought to symbolism in my writing. In my opinion, most symbolism is meant as something to be picked up by the subconscious mind. A character falling under a certain archetype is a form of symbolism. Another would be ensuring a scene setting matches the emotion of a character(s). The connection will be made in these examples, but many times it will be a subconscious connection. Something will just feel right about it to the reader, or the viewer.

    Some symbols can carry different meanings to different people. In that case, that should be made clear to the reader. An example would be Dan Brown’s “The Day Vinci Code”. The symbolism is Christian and Templar. It’s a mystery thriller and needs to be explained, which Brown made easier by creating the character of Robert Langdon, a symbologist, to help explain things to the reader.

    Unless you are writing this sort of a book, I wouldn’t take the time to point out the symbolism. It will only succeed in stopping a story like an infodump would. Show the symbolism enough so the readers mind will pick up on it that it is there. If it’s a strong enough symbol, their subconscious will pick it up.

    One other thing. If the symbolism is obvious, like a white knight, be careful not to beat the reader over the head with too much symbolism. For most books, just a sprinkle here and there will add just the right amount. That’s why the subconscious symbolism works the best in my opinion. The reader doesn’t consciously pick it up, but somehow the story has become more layered, even if they can’t explain why right at that moment, which you don’t want them to do anyway. You want them to be immersed in your storyworld.

    Hope this helps.

    #210540
    Tom Tucker
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    Yeah, that does help. Now that you mention it, I’ve subconsciously picked up symbolism before but didn’t know how I was doing so. You hit the nail on the head by saying that the reader will “subconsciously pick it up”.

    However, I also want the reader to be able to reread the story and then really see the symbolism better. That way the story itself is that much richer than before. I feel like the best way to accomplish this is by hiding the symbols.

    Basically, what I’m trying to do it create a central metaphor complex. I’ve done this before in creative essays, but like I said before, I’m inexperienced with stories. However, stories a free medium to write in. Essays have a lot more restrictions. So, it will probably get easier for me once I get some practice in.

    #210541
    Soren_Ringh
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    You’ll figure it out. It’s easier I think to use outlining, even if it’s just thumbnails to remind you of the direction you want to keep going in, but then again I’m becoming a heavy outliner. You said you were a panther at heart, so you’ll figure out what works for you.

    #210542
    JuneDrexler
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    • Topics - 16
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    I suggest you not try to invent symbolism for your revision. What you say about some symbols naturally appearing in the first draft is normal, and preferable. Intentionally invented symbols often feel forced and fake. Those that rise naturally in the story are usually more authentic.

    I would advise simply writing the first draft without worrying about it all too much. Then, when you reread the manuscript in preparation for revision make a note of any symbolism that seems to already be there. Decide which of these natural symbols you want to emphasize in the revision.

    Symbolism is best when it isn’t too front and center, when it’s standing quietly to the side of the other story elements. If the symbolism shouts too loudly, it feels forced to most readers. A good way to avoid this is to allow the symbols to grow naturally and only slightly embellish the really good ones in a second draft.

    Good luck
    –June

    #210543
    PoppyPoppy
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    • Topics - 0
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    I don’t always mind having a story with a strong symbol throughout. Written well, it can be powerful. The secret is to choose a symbol early on and stick with it throughout.

    Now this is my opinion as a reader but I find that abruptly introduced symbols don’t work because I either don’t notice them or I get pushed out of the story. I get a better handle on stories that have a long term symbol in them (elementals, colours, a particular song, etc)

    For readers like me, symbols (like your colour blue) need time to simmer and get fork tender.

    #210544
    albatross
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    • Topics - 4
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    You might try reading some magical realist stories — one of the hallmarks of the genre is metaphor and symbolism so strong it takes on nearly an active role in the story, whether it’s a baby so sweet bees land on her, or dead man’s blood that runs in a trickle down to his grandmother’s feet. It’s difficult to miss because it’s actually part of the story, so it doesn’t feel like it’s hitting you too hard over the head with something that’s supposed to be “meta”. (It’s also a great way to get a feel for the use of metaphor and symbolism in a story without having to step out of reader mode and go over it with a fine-toothed comb).

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