Sunday, June 1, 2008

Symbolism in the story

I’ve loved symbolism ever since I took English Literature for my A’Levels and had to figure out what symbols meant in every book we studied. It was like trying to crack a code. “Annette’s wedding ring fell off – that’s an indication her marriage is ending! The conch represents democracy and the civilized world, that’s why it shatters at the same time Piggy dies!” I’ve tried to work symbols into my stories as well, with two guidelines.

The best symbols work on two levels. They’re intriguing or accomplish something in their own right, but they have a deeper meaning as well. Even if the reader doesn’t understand the symbolism, the symbol works; it doesn’t just stand there like something odd or out of place in the story, frustrating the reader who doesn’t get it. In the first example I mentioned, which is taken from Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a servant bends to pick up Annette’s ring and sees wisps of smoke creeping under a door – the house is on fire. So it’s not as though Annette’s ring just falls for no reason other than to telegraph the end of her marriage to the reader.

Telling the reader what a symbol means rarely if ever works. In Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, the selfish protagonist’s martyred brother has a harelip, and later the protagonist’s upper lip is split as he tries to protect his brother’s son from an abuser. And the narrative explicitly tells us that the scar will be just like a harelip. That was just a bit over the top for me. I might buy such a coincidental wound if the author hadn’t taken such pains to underline the symbolism of it. If the narrative had described the scar, allowed me to think about it and come to the realization myself, that would have been so much more powerful than spelling it out.

Works of speculative fiction aren’t going to be studied in the same way as classics such as Lord of the Flies, but techniques like symbolism lend depth to any work. Avoiding cliches here is a good idea. While there might still be fantasies where the good guys are associated with light while the villains wear black and call themselves the Forces of the Darkest Dark, more and more authors move beyond this. In Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, power deepens with the color of one’s Jewels, and sympathetic characters get the darkest Jewels of all.

Similarly, other symbols can have more than one clear meaning – snakes, for instance, represent deceit and death, but they are also depicted in mythology as protectors and guardians, and can symbolize medicine and wisdom as well. In one of my manuscripts, which is set in the continent of Eden, the heroine becomes lost on the Inward Way, a dimension where any misstep is deadly. Manifesting itself as a maze of white roads and grey nothingness, the Inward Way leads her to a crossroads where she sees a tree growing in the path ahead of her. A snake slithers towards her on the path which crosses hers.

The snake speaks to her, telling her how to get off the maze and escape the Inward Way, and that’s the point of the scene, but anything could have appeared and spoken to her – a bird, a signpost, a reflection. I chose a snake and a tree because I’d read that this was a well-known symbol for choice – the crossroads, the snake, the tree and a woman wearing violet (which represents indecision because as a color, it’s neither blue nor red). This tied into the name of the continent, drawing on the biblical story as well. And whether it worked or not, it was fun to imagine - and hopefully interesting to read about as well.


Angela said...

Great post. It definitely makes me realize that this is something I should utilize a bt more. I do write parallels in my stories, but these are things that I do on an unconcious level.

I read the Kite Runner too, and agree that it would have been so much better if the split lip had not been explained. I think because of the complex relationship and the comparing of the two boys' lives and choices, we readers would havce picked it up on our own without being talked down to.

Exir said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Exir said...

Great article on symbolism! I agree with everything you say, and would like to add that symbols which changes its meaning as the story progresses is especially satisfying.

Kim said...

I don't realize I've used symbolism until I've finished a manuscript - for some reason, I can't purposely do it without doing the harelip thing and going over the top! =) I soooo envy writers who do it intentionally - they're like plotters - something I'd like to be, but just can't manage it.

Luc2 said...

I just wanted to point out that sometimes symbolism is brought to the story subconsciously, and then I read Kim's post.

I'm actually fascinated by the subconscious symbolism, and then do discover it afterwards. One of my regular critfriends spots symbolism from miles away, and sometimes before I'm even conscious of it. Impressive.

Marian said...

exir : ...would like to add that symbols which changes its meaning as the story progresses is especially satisfying.

That would be interesting. For instance, slaves bearing some mark of shame, but in the land to which they flee, this mark becomes a badge of honor and a symbol of all they've gone through to get there?

Marian said...

angela : I think because of the complex relationship and the comparing of the two boys' lives and choices, we readers would havce picked it up on our own without being talked down to.

Absolutely. And even if the reader doesn't get it, let the story go on. Better for a symbol or a clever turn of phrase or a tiny, telling detail to be unnoticed than to be underlined, like the author not trusting you to get there without a signpost.

Thanks for the comments!