We have all used symbolism in writing before; whether it was in your high school English class or your own novel. It is a simple concept to understand but can be challenging to incorporate seamlessly into your own writing. It can be defined as anything that the author gives a meaning to that is different than its literal meaning. So this “thing” can be absolutely anything, even something that you create, as long as the intended meaning is different from its actual meaning. For example, the color red often is used to symbolize anger. Although the color red does not actually signify anger, it is commonly used as a symbol.
Symbols can either be given meaning by you, as the writer, or they can be commonly used symbols (like the color red). Symbols can be used to explain broad ideas rather concepts within your story without having to do too much actual explaining. This helps with the “show, don’t tell” rule. You can also use symbolism to connect ideas or themes together within your story. Some common symbols will not require any explanation while others, specifically ones that you have created or uncommon symbols, will need some explaining.
A symbol can be anything from a small detail that may easily be missed if your reader is not analyzing each word and concept within your story, to a bigger theme that you want to make sure your readers pick up on. If you do choose have a major theme be centered around symbolism, you will want to make sure to provide your readers with a sufficient explanation of the symbol you are using. It is important to note that your story should not be dependent on whether or not your readers pick up on the symbolism. Every reader is going to have a different experience with your book or your writing and many readers may miss your symbol so it should not greatly affect the understanding your story. As a general rule, symbols should almost always be open to interpretation. Readers should be able to take whatever meaning they want or need from your symbols.
As for simplicity, you want your audience to have to think a little. Your symbols should never be too obvious. If you use symbolism to “show” instead of “tell” you will force your readers to have to think a little, and that is what they secretly want. During the editing process you should always go back to make sure to deepen your symbols and make sure they are not too obvious.
It is always a good idea to keep your symbols connected to your characters or directly to your readers. As a reader, if there is no emotional connection to either yourself or the character, it is unlikely you will care enough to stop and analyze the symbol and figure out what the author is trying to say with it. This is also the case with themes, if they are not relatable and/or emotionally connecting, you are not going to keep your readers reading.
Symbols are meant to add layers and depth to your story. They are not always necessary to make a story great, so if they are not fitting in smoothly, don’t push too hard to include them; let them come to be on their own. Be cautious of symbols that can collapse an entire storyline if they are altered – not to say don’t use them, just be aware when doing so. Most importantly, just be sure to keep them subtle. The typical recreational reader should not be able to come across a symbol in your story and be able to stop and say, ” Hey, that’s a symbol.” Symbolism, when used correctly, can be a good tool help add to the experience each reader has when reading your writing, so use it wisely.