Symbolism in Your Writing

I am a big believer in using symbolism to breathe just a little more life into a work.

The best kind of symbolism doesn’t have to be noticed by readers in order to accomplish what it needs.  Sometimes it’s a secret that may only be shared between the writer and the prose itself.

When I wrote Glowstar, I wanted to infuse this particular story with some light fairytale elements as well as weave symbolism throughout the work, but in a very subtle way that doesn’t necessarily have to be seen to be understood.

People form moods by the secrets we keep for ourselves.  Sometimes it’s the clothes we wear on a given day, or a fragrance chosen for a particular reason known only by us.  Most people may neither notice nor even know what it is, but they sense its presence by the subtle pickup in our moods that inspires empathy and communicates a slight flavoring to the everyday-ness of our lives.

So you can think of symbolism like that.  Like a perfume, perhaps – it can be such a slight infusion that some might barely notice while speaking with you yet still sense its intangible presence in the taste of your words.  And others will sense something even from across a room where all they may discern is the way your eyes have a certain depth of knowing.  This is all assuming the perfume hasn’t been judiciously applied and isn’t a cloying scent.

Let’s take a look at the first three pages of Glowstar as an example.
















There are several pieces of symbolism on these three pages that help describe a mood without revealing their nature.  One of the meanings of the name Alannah is awakening while another is harmony.  Eamon can mean guardian or protector.  The names themselves are lovely within the context and fit inside the prose, bringing an otherness to the story opening as the characters are initially revealed with this first peek.

Water is a common symbol for birth and renewal.  Water itself is such a powerful thing that all people recognize its place in our lives.  It’s all around us as well as a part of our own selves.  It’s a vital necessity and yet still much more than that.  We see its power when it moves in a river or running body or falls from the sky in its different forms.  And we sense that despite it being so ever-present, it still holds mysteries that are hidden beneath its surface.

The lights of traffic moving across the George Washington Bridge are compared to diamonds (headlights) and rubies (tail lights).  It’s a compelling piece of imagery that is immediately identifiable to anyone who has watched lights of traffic moving far away in the darkness.  Diamonds symbolize purity of love and enduring.  Rubies define passion and devotion.  The entire first chapter of Glowstar is excerpted on my website, by the way, for anyone who would like to read just a little further to see more glimpses of the strange and rather beautiful relationship between Alannah and Eamon.

The moon is another piece of imagery that casts a certain mood with the soft light of its presence.  It’s often associated with femininity, mutability, and emotions – feelings that may churn within some of us like the tide, shifting our own moods.

Snowflakes are described as fireflies chasing one another.  Fireflies are an ethereal creature, almost like little backyard fairies.  We see them only so briefly as they flash and disappear, and reappear again somewhere else.  There is an intangibility about fireflies that I like, and they can mean different things, including awakening.

An oyster and pearl are alluded to when Eamon discovers Alannah within the depths.  Pearls have many associations both with the moon, due to their resemblance, and to water.  They include meanings such as harmony, femininity, devotion, and many others related to love and beauty in form.

Stars in the night sky are described as patterning the darkness like a field of early snowdrops.  Snowdrops are a flower associated with spring, being one of the first to arise to herald the awakening of life with the release of winter.

As Eamon kisses Alannah, his lips are described as warm like coral while her own cold lips are the color of topaz.  Coral can symbolize longevity, while topaz can mean love and devotion.

The three pages of the opening scene reveal a scene of an awakening and hint at a strangeness between the relationship of Alannah and Eamon.  Any reader can read this passage and visualize the scene while discerning all the subtleties flowing beneath the surface – and without needing to see what they all are.

The entirety of the story doesn’t contain quite the frequency of symbolism as appears in the opening scene, but it’s always handled in a very similar manner – lightly so it can fade into the background of any described scene.

Here’s an allusion to cherry blossoms which are always richly symbolic (feminism, love, mutability of life) and interlacing circles which can symbolize eternity, done within a scene that evokes contrasts of the conflicting moods that Alannah finds within herself:

CENTRAL PARK spread out before her in a scene of dark and light, shadowed trees with snow like cherry blossoms ringing their boughs, and underneath a blanket of pure white as inviting as any bed for one who wearied of what life had chosen for them.

Alannah sat on a bench staring out across the Lake. To her right, Bow Bridge spread its long arch across the frozen water, its iron adorned with designs of interlacing circles that knew neither beginning nor end. She pulled off her cap and shook her hair out, feeling confined. Her paper bag sat untouched in her lap, the warmth of the pastry inside already lost to the air.

Symbolism works best when it’s just a faint dab of perfume to inform a certain mood and communicate without needing to explain.  It’s interesting when we recognize where it’s being used and why, but it isn’t required if it finds its way into the tapestry to become a part of the overall picture.

8 thoughts on “Symbolism in Your Writing

  1. Hi Matthew,

    A thought provoking post, and on a topic not covered as often as others…

    In my latest piece I’ve used symbolism, and I wondered if I’d been to heavy handed, but then only one of my readers actually commented on it so hopefully the balance was about right. I think you’re right that it’s best used subtly, and it can add depth that hopefully readers value.

  2. Thanks for the thoughts beneath the piece, its great when you can use symbolism to help get points across and give the piece deeper meaning. All the best with it.

  3. Infusing a piece of writing with symbolism is definitely a great way to get the reader to feel the mood of a scene, or character, without it being a conscious decision. I too like to use names as an extra way of doing this, either by having the name mean something symbolic to what I’m writing about, or that the name can be used in conjunction with something else to give a different kind of symbolism.

    Good post 🙂

  4. Excellent post –very thought provoking –I really enjoy analyzing literature for symbolism…don’t consciously embed it myself in my own writing but I know it’s there for others to find 😉

  5. Thought provoking as Angela said. I don’t think about symbolism much when writing although I’m sure it’s embedded the words I write subconciously. Very interesting piece Matthew. 🙂

  6. Pingback: Choices and Themes | Matthew Lee Adams

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.