An Ultimate Guide to Symbolism; Understanding and Selecting Symbols for your Writing Career

An Ultimate Guide to Symbolism;  Understanding and Selecting Symbols for your Writing Career

This is and will be an ongoing process and hence will be updated now and then.

Intro: This blog post is for those who are interested in symbolism, using symbols in their work, or want alternative ideas for using symbolism. For instance, should a bad guy use a gun or a knife? Well on the face of it, there’s no difference, but there is a lot of room to work artistically with both options!


How to Turn a Normal Object into a Symbol

  1. Recurrence
  2. Concentrated Focus
  3. Character Engagement
  4. Dreams
  5. Dialogue


               One way you, as a writer, can change a normal every day object into a symbol is by repeating the image, whether subtly or not.

For instance, let’s say you have a story about a person who fears death. This person may have a “normal” life, but whenever they see a chair, they are


  • reminded of someone they know who died, or
  • dwell on the prospect of death etc. By repeatedly tying the chair to death, the chair will come to represent death in the context of the story. (It would be exquisite if the writer then has the main character die in a chair to complete the “circle” so-to-speak, or out of one, to show how the irrational fear of an external object does not always manifest itself and that the world is chaotic, but I digress).


Now if you do not want to tie the chair explicitly to death, you can still repeatedly introduce the chair in the story, but do not have the reader or narrator tie it directly in their mind. Instead, just leave it to the reader to question what the chair symbolizes. It is riskier, in that if the writer is not explicit, the reader may miss the chair entirely. Nevertheless, it is more challenging (and thus more fun) and I’ve always believed the reader should be engaged and forced to question parts of the story for themselves.

Just as an extra note: one does not have to restrict themselves to the same symbolism in one work. For instance, Salvador Dalí’s paintings oftentimes depict the same image to continue the use of the symbolism. For instance, the “drawer.” Many of his figures are shown having drawers emerging from them, representing the multiple parts of their subconscious mind. The same could be said of William Faulkner’s use of “panting,” which seems to recur in several of his novels, most notably Absalom, Absalom! Using the same symbol throughout your career will solidify the symbol and definitely make a fascinating read for your fans!


Concentrated Focus:

               Let’s go back to the knife at the beginning. Why would one choose a knife instead of a gun? Well let’s take a story about a man sneaking into a woman’s room and killing her. The knife could take all sorts of symbolic meaning that a gun could not (and vice versa). For instance, if you look at some of the ancient Greek vases depicting the rape of Cassandra, you would notice that many of the images on faces etc. depict Ajax (the rapist) as pointing his sword at Cassandra from a very suggestive angle. (Fascinating tangent: imagine if the roles were reversed and the female were using the phallic weapon to slay the man? Reminds me eerily of the Bacchae by Euripides, but something worth looking into).

In any case, the point is that the sword or knife, by being a long pointy object, can definitely symbolize a phallus. The knife, as a weapon, is also amazingly more intimate than a gun. It requires close content, much more blood, and involves a very ritual-like and physical act, that of thrusting the knife into the victim. Hence, if these are the reasons for choosing a knife, then, as a writer, you can dwell and extend those comparisons in ways Steven Spielberg could not.

  • Describe it as a phallic symbol, describe it as long (or short I guess?), or as intimate. Describe the act in much more detail than you would otherwise.
  • Describe the intimacy involved, or describe the ritual-like act. In any case, develop the reason you chose the object and the object will take on that significance.


Character Engagement:

For instance, let’s say you wanted to write a story about a person who is constantly anxious and you want to represent that anxiety externally. Have him look at ants scurrying around! Describe the ants’ anxiety. The ants will then take on the significance of that anxiety!

Obviously I should point out at this point that many of the tips I am suggesting are ideas I have put to use, but are also peculiar to my style of writing which is more condensed and focused. I usually do not write much about unimportant details. Hence, if I focus in detail on ants and such, they will be obviously more significant to the story. If you are a very detailed oriented writer, you may want to consider the different methods and see which works best for you. If you write a lot about everything, writing more about the ants may not drive home the point.



               One very functional way of essentially pulling meaning out of an object is putting them in your character’s dreams. While the “dream” aspect of a book will forever be ruined by Jorge Luis Borges and Christopher Nolan, they can still be useful to a novel, especially since, as Xerxes’ uncle once said, they often represent the things we worry about in life, and hence, if you write about what a character is dreaming, many readers will know to look for significance in the dream. Thanks, Sigmund, you helped too (kinda).



               Okay so you hate writing dream sequences, because they read too much like wanna-be-Faulkner/Joyce. That’s okay! There are probably support groups for that sort of thing. In the meantime, having characters discuss their dreams/symbols, can also lead to the solidifying of an object as a symbol. For instance, going back to anxiety: (following a short description of how the raindrops are crazy and nervous, by falling in random places and orders) ‘“Hey, man, you look tense” “It’s just the rain,” he said, his voice trembling as his friend slapped him heartily on the back.’


Okay that’s all I have for now, but I will update this from time to time as I think of more! Thanks for reading!


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