Tag Archives: symbolism in writing

The Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond – Symbolism #amwriting

The Word-Pond is dark, and near the bottom the waters are murky. It’s hard to find your way, but knowing the theme gives us a diver’s guide-rope to hold onto.

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:

  • Actions
  • Symbolic settings/places
  • Allegorical objects in the setting
  • Conversations

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

Comments Off on The Inferential Layer of the Word-Pond – Symbolism #amwriting

Filed under writing

Sculpting the second draft #amwriting

The end of NaNoWriMo approaches. Many novels have been written, and many are still incomplete. And when we do finally write the last words, we will get that happy-dance feeling, that moment where the world is singing.

Following that burst of joy, we have the urge to immediately share it. I know it’s tempting, but don’t do it.

We need to gain some distance from our work to see it more clearly, so put it aside. If you work on something else for a couple of weeks, or even a month or two, you will gain a better perspective on what you just finished, and your revisions will bring out the best in your work.

Writers tell me all the time how new and intriguing characters pop up and take their tale in a different direction. Sometime this works out well. Other times, not so much. I floundered for years on my first novel, only to have it never be published.

So, when we do get back to our manuscript, where do we start so we can avoid the failed novel syndrome? I didn’t know the first thing about how to write a novel, which is clear when you look at that old ms.  I didn’t know that we are like sculptors. The first draft is not the finished product–it really is our block of clay.

I know—you see a complete novel, but trust me, others won’t see what you do in it, just yet. When a sculptor sees a block of clay, she also sees what it can become. She begins scraping the layers away, and that is what we must do.

We scrape the layers away scene by scene. As you revise, keep in mind:

  1. Each chapter is made up of scenes. It might be one scene or several strung together.
  2. These scenes have an arc to them: action and reaction.
  3. These arcs of action and reaction begin at point A and end at point B.
  4. Each launching point will land on a slightly higher point of the story arc.
  5. Strung together, these scenes form the entire story arc, with a beginning, middle and end.

If somewhere near the middle you discover that you have lost the overall plot of your novel, remind yourself what the original idea was. This happens to me for several reasons.

First, it can happen because I deviate from the outline, and while my new idea is better, it lacks something. I can

  • Go back to the original idea and rewrite it so that it conforms to that outline.
  • Try to figure out why the plot has failed.

More often, I have to ask myself, did the original quest turn out to be a MacGuffin?

Every story has a quest of some sort. It can be a personal quest for enlightenment or a quest for the Holy Grail. No matter what, the characters want something, and that thing must be sharply defined.

Alfred Hitchcock popularized the name “MacGuffin” in the 1930s. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object or goal itself, but rather the effect it has on the characters and their motivations. Many times, it is inserted into the narrative with little or no explanation, as the sole purpose of the MacGuffin is to move the plot forward.

The Maltese Falcon is a classic example of a MacGuffin. The object of the quest might not be the purported “Maltese Falcon” after all, despite the obvious quest to acquire it and the lengths the characters must go to in the process. The true core of the story is the internal journey of both Sam Spade and Brigid O’Shaunessy, two people brought together by the quest, and whose lives are changed by it.

If the quest has become a MacGuffin, the effect that searching for it has on the characters must be clearly shown. The true quest is not for the object. It is for power, love, money, or personal growth and must be given more prominence.

As we are peeling back the layers of our rough draft, what symbolism have we subconsciously inserted into the story that we can work with? Once we identify the symbolic aspect of the plot, we must amplify it. Symbolism is a powerful tool and is part of the subtext that pushes the story forward. In my opinion, one of the most masterful uses of symbolism happens in the film, The Matrix.

In one of my favorite scenes, when Neo answers the door and is invited to the party, he at first declines. But then he notices that Du Jour, the woman with Choi, bears a tattoo of a white rabbit. He remembers seeing the words: follow the white rabbit, on his computer.

Curious and slightly fearful of what it all means, he changes his mind and goes to the party, setting a sequence of events in motion. The white rabbit tattoo is a symbol, an allegorical reference to Alice in Wonderland, a subliminal clue that things are not what they seem.

What is the deeper story? With each pass through our manuscript, we are sharpening the final product, scraping away from this part and adding over here, rewording and redefining as we go.

Ultimately, we will have exposed the core of our original vision, revealed the parts we couldn’t articulate at first. Some things only become clearer to us as we dig deeper.

This is why, while many people can write, not just anyone can write well. It takes patience and time to cut away the fat and bring out the true story that needs to be told. It also takes practice. Digging the deeper story out doesn’t happen overnight.

A first draft is our block of clay, and after much effort, the final draft is our finished sculpture.


Credits and Attributions:

Portrait of German-American sculptor Elisabeth Ney with a bust of King George V of Hanover, 1860, by Friedrich Kaulbach. PD|100. Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Elisabeth Ney by Friedrich Kaulbach.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Elisabeth_Ney_by_Friedrich_Kaulbach.jpg&oldid=286953027 (accessed November 27, 2018).

5 Comments

Filed under writing