Symbolism if the art of using something tangible to represent a more abstract idea. Symbols can help authors suggest or denote certain moods or emotions without blatantly saying it, which can help the overall atmosphere of your story and quality of immersive writing.
When used correctly, symbolism can add emotion and imagery, connect themes in your story, define your characters and make them stand out from each other, and conceal darker meanings you’re trying to hold in suspense.
Each of these are effective and resourceful uses of symbolism, and by using one of the many types of symbolism, you can connect your readers with your story on a deeper, more meaningful level.
Types of Symbolism in Story
Metaphorical symbolism is the comparison between two unlike things without using “like” or “as” qualifiers. Metaphors aren’t literal. They’re more of a suggestion to help people conceptualize something and make something abstract more tangible and clear.
Allegorical symbolism is an extended metaphor, meaning it can encompass an entire book or poem. It often takes the entire story to denote whatever notion or idea the story is trying to get across. Another way to think of this is as a theme or motif, both of which could be used as symbols throughout your story.
Adding Symbols in the Tiniest Details
Use the tiny details in your story as symbols for other things. This could be the colors they wear, their likes and dislikes, or how they decorate their room.
For example, Rapunzel’s lavender dress from Tangled denotes her royal heritage. While this could also be just a beautiful dress, Tangled writers took something simple, like a beautiful dress, and added a hint to it.
Hidden Versus Universal Symbolism
Universal symbolism are symbols that are so ingrained in us that you might read them and use them without even thinking too deeply about it. It feels almost innate that these two ideas correspond. Weather is a common example because while a rising storm might suggest your protagonist’s defeat, the sun might denote their triumph.
The opposite of that is hidden symbolism, where the idea is so buried that readers might not recognize them on first, or even second, glance. This might suggest that the value of hidden symbolism is considerably less than that of a more blatant form, but as I stated above, these could be used as Easter eggs within your story. Something the reader might notice and something that adds value if it is noticed but isn’t necessarily necessary for the reader to understand and enjoy the story.
Each of these things could be an opportunity to add symbolism in your story. But don’t use them half-heartedly. While you can symbolize almost anything in your story, you should have a reason for using symbolism instead of simply stating it.
Small, innocuous, or invisible things could be used to add depth to characters, but you must recognize and acknowledge these things throughout your story. Make them relevant to the character you’re assigning them too.
- Darkness often represents death or evilness
- Light often represents life and purity
- Blue often represents serenity or peacefulness
- Purple is often used to represents royalty
- Red often represents blood, wickedness or danger
- Symbolism in Objects
- Rings often symbolizes infinity or foreverness
- A ladder might represent the relationships between heaven and earth
- Doves often symbolize peace
Adding Symbols to Your Story in 2 Easy Steps
The best type of symbolism supports your story and the easiest way to curate symbols that supports your story is to know your story first. Which brings us to the first step of adding symbolism into your story:
Write the First Draft of Your Story
The first draft of your story should be reserved for you to get to know your story and characters. Even if you’ve spent weeks outlining the perfect plot, you’ll need this first draft to thoroughly understand your world and befriend your characters.
While you’ll likely find ways to add symbolism naturally while you’re writing, it shouldn’t be the main focus of writing your first draft. Intentional storycraft goes through many revisions to get everything right, so don’t feel like your first draft is the be-all-end-all. It simply isn’t.
The first draft should primarily focus on creating compelling characters and engaging them within your story. You can always add the details later.
Add Symbolism During Self-Editing
Once you’ve drafted your story—and I should add that this might mean it’s your second or third overall draft—you can look for ways to insert symbols to represent different themes and motifs you want to draw specific focus toward.
When rereading your story, look for both small-scale and large-scale opportunities you could slide some relevant and engaging symbols into. Small-scale symbolism might be textural things that will help your readers understand more abstract items in your story, while large-scale symbolism might convey mood, emotion or serve your story’s main theme.
Symbolism gives the writer the freedom to give details in their story double meanings, like character names, which could add depth to your world and characters. While one meaning might be more evident, there are often underlying understanding behind the things we do or think.
Symbolism is what allows readers to develop further interest in the characters in your story and get into the writer’s head, both of which give them a firmer understanding of the story and mind of the protagonist.