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Exercises, writing

On Using Symbolism

Writing is about communicating and one of the most common ways to communicate is through symbolism. By definition symbolism is attaching a meaning to an object or image. Not only does that show up in modern literature, but using symbols to tell a story goes as far back as cave paintings and Native American petroglyphs.

Although we’ve lost a lot of meaning to some of these early symbols, the idea behind symbolism is still strong in day-to-day communication. Think back to the last time you added an emoji to a message—a tiny image used to convey a message.  

When it comes to using symbolism in writing and storytelling, adding in motifs helps clarify your theme and attaches additional meaning. There are a number of ways you use symbols to relay ideas.

One of the primary ways is in directly using an object. Doves are famously used to represent peace. You might then, indicate a broken peace by including a bleeding or dead dove in a scene. Similarly, adding a dove into a character’s family crest or personal emblem reinforces that they are meant to be a peacekeeper.

Another method is in figurative language. Both similes and metaphors can be used to outright state the theme or symbol—i.e. calling someone brave as a lion or saying they had a river of tears. This is useful not only for describing characters but also in setting a scene: a cloud blacking out the sun as it rolls across the sky certainly gives an air of doom and impending disaster.

Regardless of how you use your these elements, the key to making them work properly is in consistency and balance. Too many symbols lose weight and become just a part of the story’s background. Even if you only have one or two that you’re using overuse calls attention to itself, especially in the case of using figurative language where you can easily run into purple prose. On the other hand, if you don’t use your symbols enough, they again become part of the background—looking like nothing more than artistic choice!

As an exercise: Write down the themes of your story and pick one or two symbols you could use to represent each theme. Then go through and find places where those symbols can be inserted. Think of ways to use them as both physical objects and in figurative language.


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