We’ve identified the theme, but we need to strengthen it. We want to add depth to our narrative, but wonder how. This becomes easier when we remember that theme, mood, and atmosphere work closely together.
An important tool in our writer’s toolbox is Symbolism. It is an aspect of Story that helps create mood, atmosphere, and supports and strengthens the theme. When a little thought is applied to how you place it, symbolism becomes a subtle tool that speaks subliminally to the reader.
Intentionally placing symbolic objects in the setting influences the characters’ emotional mood. It represents the theme and will help reinforce the desired atmosphere without your having to resort to an info dump.
Words can have subtle meanings beyond the obvious, when used as allegories. Using allegory in the narrative offers images for the reading mind to see and understand.
So, what is an allegory? An allegory is an essential tool of the author who wants to convey important ideas with the least amount of words.
The storytelling in The Matrix series of movies is a brilliant example of employing heavy allegory in both the setting and conversations to drive home the multilayered theme of humankind, machine, fate, and free will. The theme is represented with heavy symbolism in:
- The names of the characters,
- The words used in conversations
- The androgynous clothes they wear
Everything on the set or mentioned in conversation underscores those themes, including the lighting. Inside The Matrix, the world is bathed in a green light, as if through a green-tinted lens. In the real world, the lighting is harsher, unfiltered.
In the movie, everything that appears or is said onscreen is symbolic and supports one of the underlying concepts. When Morpheus later asks Neo to choose between a red pill and a blue pill, he essentially offers the choice between fate and free will.
Neo chooses the red pill—real life—and learns that free will can be unpleasant. Cypher regrets choosing the red pill and ultimately chooses to return to the Matrix.
The reader/viewer infers the mood and atmosphere by virtue of embedded symbolic clues, hints that also strengthen the theme.
One of my works-in-progress that is in its infancy is a contemporary novel. I want to convey a Gothic atmosphere in this piece and yet maintain the setting and time-frame of a novel set squarely in the 21st century. I can only do this through the use of allegory. I will have to approach writing a scene as it would be portrayed in a movie, keeping the symbolism in mind.
In this novel’s case, I have several character threads that converge in the large themes of trust and fidelity. It’s a multilayered piece, and each layer has its own sub-theme
- Social responsibility.
- Ethics and the lengths we will go to achieve a goal.
- What constitutes family, nurture or nature?
Making good use of symbolism and allegory will be critical if I want to convey the mood and the atmosphere without resorting to an info dump.
Just to be clear, a plan is not always required because sometimes the flash of inspiration we begin with is a strong theme in itself.
If you are lucky, the theme develops as you write, and immediately, you see what it is. This strong theme will whisper suggestions and symbols to you as you create the world and the visual environment.
In my case, I need a plan fifty percent of the time.
Whatever the case, once you have identified the main theme, you can write the story in such a way that it is shown through:
- Symbolic settings/places
- Allegorical objects in the setting
We try to picture conversations, clothing, settings, and wider environments as if they were scenes in a movie. As you do so, consider how you can insert small allegories and symbols to support your theme.
The casual reader doesn’t notice symbolism on a conscious level. However, dedicated readers will, and that is what will keep them reading. Dedicated readers love work that holds up on closer examination, enjoying work that has layers of depth.
Yet, for the casual reader, it is all there, making the imaginary surface look and feel real, solid, and concrete.
Credits and Attributions
The Matrix movie poster, © 1999 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (US, Canada, Bahamas and Bermuda); © 1999 Village Roadshow Films Limited. (All Other Territories) Fair Use
The Temptation of St Anthony, Joos van Craesbeeck ca. 1650 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons