The potential of symbolism


Ascend the rainbow
Dec 1, 2015
We're all familiar with the classics: 'the red curtains represent romance', etc. But how do we draw the line between the cliche and the ingenious?

Without trying to be 'that guy', I've taught myself a lot through my own writing: the emotion and the insight from tying theme to plot and character development; the power of having a small core of relatively unique characters vs. a larger cast of forgettables. From the same story as I learned the latter did this next thought come to me. It was quite a while back, maybe as long as a year, but it only yesterday occurred to me to discuss it with you lot.

So, to the point...

One definition for symbolism is the act of representing an abstract noun in a concrete one. And sure, it's a good way of highlighting the abstract, but that's not the real brilliance I want to get at here. Instead, you can use the properties of and connotations with the concrete noun to highlight a different aspect of the abstract.

Here's an example: in the latter story I mentioned, John is a hard-working, arguably zealous student at secondary school, but struggles to juggle his passion for academia - and his barely-concealed intellectual arrogance - with his friends, whom he often alienates with his disdain for laziness or average intelligence. Soon, a combination of stress and accidental drug consumption (you had to be there) lead him to hallucinate, and he is later goaded into an act or two of violence. These are represented in his hallucinations by bugs, and here's where it gets interesting, copy-pasted from the Google docs spreadsheet I have on the hallucinations and their meanings: '[v]iolence: a pathetic little creature that overrules even the mightiest verbal arguments and turns people into gibbering idiots/helpless victims.'

So that, at least in popular terms, is what violence shares with bugs: they are both deemed not worth it hypothetically-speaking, but in a one-on-one situation, a large skittering spider or a punch thrown at your face may turn you into a helpless victim unable to act rationally. You may panic and/or frantically try to fight back. Either way, you're not likely to act calmly and reasonably.

So that's my take on the potential of symbolism, how we can use the representation of one noun in the form of another, not simply to say 'look at me, aren't I artsy?', but to analyse aspects of the former through characteristics of the latter.

Thinking about it, this may be like GCSE-grade English, but still. Something cool to discuss. Feel free to share your interesting symbolism too.


Cat whisperer
Nov 23, 2011
Sitting in the sun (between the rain storms)
But how do we draw the line between the cliche and the ingenious?
I think it depends on how you do it, and I am acutely aware that sounds like a cliche in itself. If your symbolism (or other potential cliche) is done well, it will work, but if done clumsily, or without 'something new' to bring it alive then your readers are probably going to dump on it as being a cliche.

I really wish I could offer some examples, one way or the other, but I can't think of any at this moment. Of course that might be because those that are done well slip by my conscious awareness, and those that aren't still have the book-mark lodged somewhere in the first few pages.

My other observation would be that if your symbolism is too obscure, or doesn't have something to point the reader the right way, it probably isn't going to work. Perhaps my head doesn't work right, but bugs=violence was not my first thought. If the context in the story makes it clearer then I would go with it, but without explanation I could see it leaving me puzzled. The sort of things that 'bugs' say to me are:
pain - but then I've been stung by both bees and wasps
industry - ants, termites bees (which we used to keep)
destruction - sawfly on our gooseberries, something similar stripping willow leaves
grace/elegance - the hover flies and dragonflies we see around here.

It may be that I am being too specific and most people just lump insects into a generic entity of 'bugs'. Many years ago, friends of ours mentioned a lesson at school for one of their daughters - recognising things from pictures. Cat, dog, chicken all fine, but she was stumped by the picture of a cow, not because she didn't recognise cows, but because the picture did not conform to any breed she knew and was trying to work out what breeds had been crossed.