​About Writing     |     The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage

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Symbolism in literature is a technique allowing the use of objects, characters, settings, or events to carry deeper meanings beyond their literal representations. Specifically, symbols convey intangible ideas, emotions, or concepts in a more expressive manner because they attach themselves to these objects, characters, settings, and events in a writer’s story. These symbols often have a significance that extends beyond their immediate context and resonate with broader themes or messages within your work.

Using symbolism allows a writer to add layers of depth, complexity, and richness to their storytelling. Symbols can arouse emotions, provoke thoughts, and engage readers in a more profound exploration of your book. They provide a means for expressing complex or intangible ideas by associating them with concrete and recognizable images or concepts, such as love, death, freedom, or truth.

One common symbol in our writing is the "journey." The journey can represent more than just a physical movement from one place to another; it can symbolize personal growth, self-discovery, or the passing of time. By using this symbol, a writer can convey deeper meanings about the human experience or explore themes such as transformation and the quest for knowledge.

Symbols can vary widely depending on the context and your book itself. They can be recurrent motifs, such as a specific color or object that appears throughout the story, or they can be specific instances that carry symbolic weight within a particular scene or passage. The interpretation of symbols often relies on the reader's own understanding, experiences, and cultural background, allowing for multiple layers of meaning and personal engagement with the text.

Is there a need to explain the symbolism we use? In some cases, symbolism is subtle, allowing readers to interpret or at least derive their own meanings from the symbols within the text. This approach can create a sense of engagement and discovery for readers as they uncover various interpretations. In such instances, explaining the symbolism explicitly may undermine the artistic intent and the reader's experience.

On the other hand, there are instances where symbolism may be complex or obscure, making it difficult for some readers to fully grasp its intended meaning. In such cases, providing some explanation or context can enhance the reader's understanding and appreciation of the work. This is particularly true if the symbolism is culturally specific or relies on knowledge that may not be widely known.

Ultimately, the decision to explain symbolism or not depends on the writer's intention, the target audience, and the desired effect; it’s the writer’s choice, as in all instances of writing, really. Honestly, some of us may not use symbolism or even know if we do. That’s perfectly fine. I usually have this discussion with my editor or beta readers. They will notice and hopefully question anything and everything they don’t understand. 

If you are interested in using symbolism in your work, here are a few helpful notes:

Use images that are easy to visualize and grounded in everyday reality.

  • Show the reader exactly what the symbol looks like. The more physical detail you provide, the easier it is to explore the complexities of what your symbol represents.
  • Some symbols are universal to your work (i.e., a symbol that might apply to all characters, perhaps something like a heart as a generalized sign of love. However, most of your symbols will inevitably apply to and reveal the most about one specific character or another. These types of symbols will continue to affect that character throughout your story.
  • Don’t write with symbolism in mind, just employ imagery tactfully. Trying to muscle meaning in to your work might limit the work’s possibilities.
  • There’s no “perfect image” to represent any particular idea. We all forge our own relationships to different objects. Sure, the heart can represent love. So can the dining table, a lightning strike, the stomach, the ocean, or a pair of shoes. Be creative.