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Writing

How to Use Symbolism in Your Writing

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

In literature, authors have long favored the use of symbols as a literary device. The importance of symbolism can be seen in the earliest recorded forms of human storytelling—cave paintings and hieroglyphics—which are quite literally symbols representing more complex narratives or beliefs. Symbolism allows writers to express complex ideas while giving the reader a visual, sensory experience.

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What Is Symbolism?

Symbolism is a literary device wherein words, people, markings, locations, or abstract ideas represent something beyond their literal meaning. The use of symbolism is not confined to works of literature; examples of symbolism appear in every corner of our everyday life. Road signs, logos, and emojis all employ symbolism, evoking ideas or moods.

4 Reasons to Use Symbolism in Your Writing

Symbolism can elevate writing. Symbols can give words double meanings, both literal and figurative, and writers can say more with less. Symbolism can also be a sort of secret language between the writer and the reader. Specifically, symbolism can be used in the following ways:

  1. Symbols help you show without telling. Writers use symbolism to convey complex ideas without using a ton of words. In Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, the mockingbird possesses the symbolic value of innocence and beauty—a difficult and potentially verbose concept to express literally. The same goes with the One Ring from The Lord of the Rings, which symbolizes the corruptive, all-consuming nature of a quest for absolute power.
  2. Symbols connect themes. Figurative language and symbolism can be as connective thematic tissue that runs throughout a literary work. The color green is used throughout F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a marker for the money and materialism that define the life of Jay Gatsby.
  3. Symbols add imagery. Symbols can add a visual element to complex themes. One of the great symbolists is William Golding, whose novel The Lord of the Flies is packed with good examples of symbolism as imagery. A conch shell represents authority and order, a pig’s head symbolizes pure evil, and an island stands in for the garden of Eden.
  4. Symbols hint at darker meanings. In The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Hester’s daughter Pearl symbolizes the supposed sin that led to her conception. Pearl’s difficult demeanor represents the secret at the heart of her existence—that her father is the prominent reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Only when Dimmesdale’s paternity is revealed does Pearl transition into a positive symbol with a different meaning: the freeing spirit of the natural world.
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4 Tips for Using Symbolism in Your Writing

While the subject matter of literature has varied with the ages, the definition of symbolism has remained relatively constant: a word or object representing something beyond its literal meaning. Here’s how to use symbolism to enrich your own writing:

  1. Begin with story and characters. In your first draft of a novel, short story, play, or other creative writing endeavor, focus primarily on creating a compelling main character and placing them in an engaging story. Don’t preoccupy yourself with different symbols at this stage, lest they become the central focus of your writing. Once you’ve drafted (or at least outlined) your entire story, look for ways to insert symbols to represent themes already baked into your narrative. For example, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and its follow-up sequels, Harry’s lightning bolt-shaped scar symbolizes the attempt on his life by Lord Voldemort and the love that saved him. If you intentionally craft your literary symbols to service the themes already in your story, you will make your narrative all the more vivid and meaningful, without overrunning it with cosmetic detail.
  2. Balance small-scale and large-scale symbolism. Fiction writers should try to strike a balance between different types of symbolism. Small-scale symbolism (such as the way a person dresses) can add texture to a work of literature and help your audience understand the inner life of your characters. Large-scale symbolism (such as weather events or physical descriptions of buildings or cities) can convey an overall mood or can make statements about broad themes like love, death, and power. The best works of literature combine both of these elements to imbue their story with thematic resonance and indelible imagery.
  3. Don’t just use common symbols. There are certain symbolism examples that possess an inherent meaning based on their shared cultural associations. A red rose, for instance, generally represents love or passion. A sunrise represents a new beginning, while a dove may represent peace. Yet some of the best symbols in literature gain meaning through the plot and point of view of the story itself. In Animal Farm, different animals symbolize different political groups in Russian history. Normally, we wouldn’t associate Joseph Stalin with a pig. However, the brilliance of George Orwell’s allegory is its ability to create symbols and associations that are unique to the book.
  4. Use symbolism to add emotional resonance. Symbols add emotional resonance to a story, which can create a lasting impression on a reader. For example, in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the guilt-ridden Lady Macbeth is tortured by a spot of blood on her hands that will not wash clean after she kills King Duncan. In Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, the bird represents the grief and torment of the memory of deceased loved ones. These works of English literature gain emotional depth and significance due to the symbolic meaning contained therein.

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