Hello my friends, today we’re covering every English teacher’s favorite subject! (cue collective eye roll). Take it from someone who started an engineering major specifically to avoid taking Lit classes: Symbols can actually be a fascinating and extremely effective technique to elicit emotional reactions from your characters and your audience. It’s one of my favorite, but poorly understood, rhetorical tools in a storyteller’s arsenal, so today I wanted to break down the topic and discuss how to write symbols that work.
What Makes The Curtains Blue? Or, When Does Symbolism Matter?
Whether a trait is a symbol depends on context: specifically in its reoccurrence and connection to the themes. A symbol needs to impact the characters and the way they interact with the world. If a protagonist remarks on the blue curtains and they’re never mentioned again, that’s setting the scene. If the curtains are closed whenever a character experiences a depressive episode, and they’re a barrier to the support system of friends and family reaching out to help, then that could be a symbol for the isolation of mental illness. A symbol is normally a physical object, though this isn’t a requirement. If a character refers in the narration to his depression as a “curtain of fog” throughout the novel, but actual curtains don’t affect the story, that would be an example of an extended metaphor or motif, rather than a symbol. So now with the definitions out of the way…
How To Make Symbols Relevant and memorable
Making an effective symbol is half about making sure readers remember it in the middle of all the other plot stuff going on. It really comes down to pattern recognition. One mention makes it a throwaway detail. Two mentions make it a coincidence. Three or more make it intentional. You also want to make sure you include the symbol in a context where it will be the most memorable, like an emotionally charged scene, rather than just setting up the environment. If you want readers to remember, the characters need to care about the symbol, and draw attention to it in some direct way that points out, “this will be back.” It’s an emotional Checkov’s Gun, where if you tie an object to an emotion, we expect the same object to return to evoke that same emotion again, or remind the character of the original occurrence. I’ll talk about this a bit more in the next section, but keep that reoccurance in mind.
It can also be interesting to compare the contexts in which you introduce the symbol is introduced. If an object is a useful tool in one situation, and serves as a damning marker in another scene, it becomes a more complex and interesting element that carries that context forward. When you introduce a symbol in different frames, not only do you draw a parallel between those two situations, you can also juxtapose them to take advantage of dramatic irony. This is the sort of setup-payoff loop associated with foreshadowing, the kind that makes the audience point at the page and go “oh! so that’s how that comes back!” Additionally, in mysteries, these can take the form of subtle clues and red herrings, to point reader attention away from the relevant details. The possibilities are as endless as your creativity!
The emotional impact of motifs and symbols
Not only can you juxtapose the context to take advantage of dramatic irony, you can also draw parallels and comparisons between the character’s mental states. A symbol can serve as a reminder of a different point in their character arc, to showcase how much they’ve grown or fallen since the last appearance. If they tie their emotions up in a physical object, and they bring that baggage with them, literally. It brings the emotion to the present to impact the reader as well. This is how you can create a mixture of anger and heartbreak to create betrayal over an ex’s ring, or bittersweet at a memento of childhood. How does the character react to the symbol when they don’t want it? Would they try to destroy or throw away the memories associated with the thing, or treasure finding it? If it’s something they keep intentionally, how would they feel if they lost it, or had to give it up?
This doesn’t have to be a simple onetime only setup/payoff event. Recurring motifs let you track those emotions through a story, each time growing more complex, harder to define, and more intense. It might not always be relevant, but each time you bring that object back into play, the reader recognizes, “oh! The symbol is back! This is important!” The trade of tension and relief between appearances also helps to keep the story moving as the audience wonders when the symbol will come back again. Does a character reject it in one scene, then rejoice at its return, only to cast it away again when they realize they are no longer tied to the past? Does the villain taunt them with their past failures, only for the hero to reclaim them as their own? These are the powerful turning points that make up the emotional beats of a story, and symbols let you leverage the backstory in a way that profoundly effects the present.
Was this a useful article for you? Do you have any symbols in your stories? Let me know! Next week, I’ll be discussing a book that uses several symbols spectacularly, to show you just how diverse they can be, and just how much range you can get from them. Until then, Happy Writing! 🙂