Symbols in writing a book

Novice writers may find it hard enough to dream up a good plot and convincing characters, without worrying about literary niceties. Nevertheless, there are a number of devices that can enhance a novel and symbolism is one of the most profound. What is Symbolism?

A symbol is an object, or even an animal, that represents an abstract value or entity. Traditionally, the dove is a symbol of peace, the eagle a symbol of power (hence, national power), and the lamb a symbol of innocence. Landmarks can come to symbolise a city – for example, the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the symbol of Sydney, Australia.

Symbols can be extremely potent, taking on a life of their own. What is a flag? It’s a piece of rag on a stick. Nevertheless, we stand and salute it, and treat it reverently (don’t dare burn it!), because it represents the nation and people; in times of war , soldiers are prepared to die to keep that flag fluttering on the battle field.

Symbolism in Writing

The symbols that make their way into novels don’t have to be traditional, well-recognised ones. Like allusions, they can be obvious or very subtle. For example, the fussy, delicate fine china cup and saucer that is regularly used as Grandma’s special cup may come to represent that person. If it gets broken later in the novel, it could mean that Grandma’s time is up.

That same cup and saucer, appearing on the breakfast table every morning, could represent a marriage of many years; a chip or crack could appear in it with the passage of time but it remains in service. The day Martha hears that George has been unfaithful to her, she drops the cup in disbelief or throws it at the wall , depending on her temperament.

When an item is mentioned rather regularly throughout a novel, especially a personal item belonging to one of the principal characters, the reader must ask what it might symbolise.

Using  Symbols in Creative Writing

In writing a novel, it is unlikely that the writer will sit, pen poised, and say, “Now, what symbol will I devise for John’s love or Mary’s determination?”

It is far more likely that one will emerge. The subconscious mind is an amazing hidey-hole: it will inspire the writer to throw something on the page that he or she will later realise works well as a symbol. This is hardly surprising, given that Freud and Jung consider our subconscious minds to be metaphysical black holes where shadows, symbols, and universal mythic beasties lurk.

The Value of Symbolism in Writing

When crafting a novel, the novelist takes the initial bright idea and draws up a one-sentence plot statement. From that, the writer can draw out an underlying theme (such as jealousy or crime doesn’t pay) which will then underpin the plot and subplots and create a sense of unity for the story. By assigning symbols for certain human qualities, and incorporating allusions to classical works that reflect the theme, the writer can enhance the theme and further weave elements of the story together.

Sometimes, the writer might need to go back in a second or subsequent draft and alter the plot to insert more references to the symbols that have emerged, strengthen their meaning and draw attention to them subtly. Is that cheating? No, it is just one more aspect of the writer’s craft.

If you want to learn more about crafting a novel, do so as you actually write your first draft, using Jim Parsons' excellent novel writing course.