Friday, April 15, 2011

Water, Whales, and the Letter A: Using Symbols in Stories

Do you use symbols in your stories?
I’ve always liked this quote from Flannery O’Connor about symbols: “Now the word symbol scares a good many people off, just as the word art does. They seem to feel that a symbol is some mysterious thing put in arbitrarily by the writer to frighten the common reader — sort of a literary Masonic grip that is only for the initiated …”

Yep – that’s me as a writer. A little intimidated by the idea of writing symbols into my stories. Sure that I’ll trap myself – end up making a fool out of myself when the symbol is more like a concrete block landing on the sidewalk instead of the feather I’d hoped for.

According to The American Novel section of the PBS website, a symbol is simply “something that stands for something else.”  It can be literal or abstract; generic across many forms and genre of literature, or specific to one novel or story.
WhaleYou remember the letter A in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, right? And the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick? What about Hazel Mote’s car in Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood? The list goes on and on…
I have a short story buried in my files somewhere in which I tried to use the rose and the rose bush thorns as a symbol for love and pain. (I know… Go ahead and roll your eyes at me. Concrete block, not feather– which is why you’ll notice the story is buried in files and not polished for submission!) There is a delicate balance between writing the symbol in too many times – overwhelming your reader to the point of flogging the proverbial dead horse – and delicately inserting your symbol in just the right places, at just the right times, so that it is subtle, yet still definable.
Letter AReaders should recognize that the symbol is present and meaningful without your banging them over the head with it, no? If you ask me, this is a huge challenge! As if we writers don’t have enough to think about with characterization, plot, timelines, tone, theme, etc, etc…
I found a great website with a section called “Symbols: Novel Ways to Express Universal Concepts.” It is a sort of literary geek game – showing a list of literary symbols. Click one, and you get a clue about a famous book that used that symbol. Select the correct book, and you see a brief explanation of how the symbol was used by the author.
Some of the symbols on the site: the letter A, the sea, water, magnifying glass, the color red, and shoes.
The same site also has other challenges for geeks like me – Test Your Literary IQ, a version of the game show To Tell The Truth, and interactive, multimedia discussions of context/hypertext in famous pieces of literature.
I love finding sites like this. They not only get the geek girl in my smiling, but they also stoke my creative fires, get those juices running, and make me want to write!
If you’ve used symbols in your writing – whether or not you think you were successful – tell me about it. I’m hoping we can learn from each other about strategies for deepening our stories and enriching our work by using symbols.


  1. Maybe I'll check out the website, b/c I'm really not a huge fan of symbols in the YA I read -- probably b/c I want to turn my brain off, not think about subtleties when I read. perhaps I can be persuaded otherwise... thanks for the post.

  2. Oh, yes, I love symbols! I use them in my painting and writing. In one of my novels, I used a handpainted box to symbolize contained feelings, and repressed creativity.

  3. Jessie -- I can see where you are coming from. It was actually Cassandra Clare's new release, City of Fallen Angels, that got me thinking about this. I started wondering if Jace is a "Christ" figure...which led me to thinking more about symbology in general. Obviously...I have too much time on my hands!!

    Thanks for stopping by!

  4. I guess I can't avoid using symbols in most of what I write. I enjoy those deepening moments in others' work, so I guess that' why I enjoy them in mine. You're right about "how" to use them--carefully and with skill.

  5. mmmhhh I think I will have to have a think about this - I may have done this unconsciously too- gosh I do too many thinks without thinking or intending to. Have ordered Stephen Kings ON WRITING - perhaps that may help my addled brain.
    Food for thought Karen :)

  6. That's actually something for me to think about. Thanks for this post!