Thanks to Jennifer for stopping by and expanding on the idea of using symbolism!
Symbolism, if used effectively, can be a great way to deepen your writing and heighten your reader’s emotions. Especially in dreams. In my women’s fiction, Breaking Free, Alice, my heroine, is stuck between a rock and a hard place–to totally over-cliche her life. Married to an alcoholic gambler who’s destroying her two teenage boys, sinking their family into debt, and instigating the wrath of a couple of knuckle-scraping thugs, she’s forced to make a choice. An impossible choice, really. And as she tries to navigate her way through this no win situation, initially by hiding behind a facade, we see her subconscious poke through. A dandelion here, a fox’s tail there, the faint music of a piano playing just beyond her reach. All of these details paint a picture of Alice as she really is.
When attempting to deepen my writing with symbolism, I brainstorm using the following, or similar, questions.
When using symbolism to reveal the inner struggles of one of my characters:
1. What are they most afraid of?
In Breaking Free, Alice is most afraid of rejection, rejection she knows will come if anyone really knew her. So she hides behind a “socially acceptable” facade, preferring superficiality to isolation. Unfortunately, her image-keeping is exactly what keeps her in isolation.
2. What types of things could represent a false presentation of self?
A lot of objects could serve this purpose. In one of my scenes, I chose a flower bed full of tulips because tulips symbolize elegance and grace. And by using them in my story, I convey the idea that Alice is trying to portray an image of elegance and grace. But hidden among the flowers is a deceptively cheery dandelion–a weed. So what does she do? She quickly pulls it up and tosses it aside in the mulch to be dealt with later. Anyone whose tried to uproot a dandelion understand the futility of her actions. With the root intact deep beneath the soil, her superficial weeding produces temporary results. To get real results, she needs to deal with the root.
Now to Trent, Alice’s alcoholic gambler of a husband. He’s trying so hard to hold on. To perform, to climb up that next rung on the ladder of success, only to find himself falling deeper and deeper into the pit. Fairly early on, he notices a homeless man sitting on a street corner. This man and Trent make eye-contact. Ah, a telling seen. Using that one extended glance, I can avoid an entire paragraph of telling.
Weather is also a very effective tool. Storm clouds can represent a chaotic life. Windblown leaves a love lost. An abandoned tricycle the loss of childhood or innocence. And on a happier note–a fluttering bird can represent hope or the start of a new chapter in a characters life. A gentle breeze, also hope. Later on in my story, I used the dandelion again, but in a different sense. As Alice takes a step forward, she pauses to pluck a seeded dandelion from Beth’s yard. Closing her eyes, she blows. I’m sure you understand the symbolism in that. If you don’t, ask to borrow a friend’s preschool-aged child for a day and take them through a dandelion-filled meadow.
Scene: A young lady about to go on a first date with the man she has long admired. She is just about to graduate from college, stepping from the world of dependence to that of adulthood. She fears the unknown, and her ability to stand on her own two feet. She also doesn’t want to be alone but at the same time, she doesn’t want her love for this man to be clouded by her need for companionship. In addition, she and her mother have always had a slightly unhealthy relationship. As an only child, she has become the center of her mother’s life. As a result, she feels very responsible for her mother’s feelings, but resents this relationship at the same time. She longs to break free.
What images could you add to the story to reveal her sense of loyalty? I’m going to add a few here to get your creative juices flowing: (Obviously, some would need to be developed in the story. For example, maybe there is a song book lying on the dresser. For that to have significance, we’d need to know that her mother wanted her to play the piano.)
Perhaps a golden retriever or greyhound sits at her feet. Or even more vivid, it could be a mutt curled in a corner. This would convey multiple messages, wouldn’t it? And if the reader knew the mutt was disabled with age, that would add even another paragraph or two worth of meaning.
Since she’s caught between the world of dependance and adulthood, what items could symbolize childhood or a lingering of childlike emotions? This one seems pretty easy, but again, I’ll give an example to start things off.
A Raggedy Ann doll, tattered and torn, sewn by her mother (ouch!), sitting slumped over on a shelf. Did you catch all I threw in here? The most emotive, I think, being the fact that the doll is slumped. Even though most dolls slacken when not supported, purposefully mentioning this fact conveys a lot of meaning. And why did I choose a Raggedy Ann doll instead of an American Girl doll or a Barbie? Brainstorm that one, and the different images that the various dolls might convey, and you’ll likely get a page full of appropriate symbolism that could be used in future writings.
Our character also has hope–-in her future, not only with this man she has fallen for, but also in her journey to adulthood. What imagery could you use to show hope? My mind automatically jumps to her window, and no, not to a rainbow. That is probably way too overdone and obvious to be effective. How about a baby bird emerging from its nest? Or a butterfly resting on a leaf? Or maybe a neighbor girl soaring high on a swing?
I'd love to read your ideas. Have you used symbolism in any of your writing, and if so, care to show us?
Jennifer Slattery is a novelist, columnist, and freelance writer living in the Midwest with her husband of fifteen years and their thirteen-year-old daughter. She writes for Christ to the World, the Christian Pulse, Reflections in Hindsight and Samie Sisters and is the marketing manager for the literary Website Clash of the Titles. In 2009 she placed first in the HACWN writing contest and in 2010 she finaled in the CWG Operation First Novel contest, placed second in the Dixie Kane, and fourth in the Golden Pen. She’s written for numerous other publications and Websites, including The Breakthrough Intercessor, Afictionado, Bloom, and Granola Bar Devotions. You can find out more about her and her writing at http://