Category Archives: Symbolism

Weaving Themes Into Stories

Year_Swallows_Came_Early_coverI’ve written from time to time about incorporating themes into stories, but I realized recently that most of my posts on the subject have been an apologetic–explaining the legitimacy, even the necessity of putting themes into stories intentionally. One of my repeated cries has been the need for authors to weave their theme naturally into the fabric of the story rather than tacking it on as an after thought or neglecting it completely in the belief that what the author holds to be dear is bound to seep through somewhere, somehow.

The natural question that arises, however is, how does a writer go about weaving a theme into the story?

There are several ways that come to mind. One is to use symbols. In the article “Symbolism, Part 5 – Final Thoughts”, I used the debut middle grade novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice, The Year The Swallows Came Early, as an example of the use of symbols. Throughout candy, particularly chocolate which hides what’s underneath, symbolizes how people appear on the outside, with the candy filling showing the way things are on the inside.

The novel begins with the chapter entitled “Coconut Flakes” and this:

And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

It ends with the chapter entitled “Caramel” and this line:

Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

A second way to weave a theme into a story is to show character development. Often times the events of a story have an impact on the protagonist, to the point that she changes in some significant way. The story may not continue on for the reader to see the change played out, but the character should take some action that demonstrates a new outlook or a change in commitment. Whatever has caused the change in the character is the key to the theme.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02One of the saddest stories, I believe, is Gone with the Wind. The main character, Scarlet, lives for years with the delusion that she is in love with a man who married someone else. Through all the pain and suffering of the civil war and the recovery she experienced, doing (and marrying) all she could to stay alive and keep her household together, Scarlet ended up alone because she killed the love of the one person still alive who knew her and had loved her anyway. She woke up to reality too late.

But her character development, her ability to finally see her relationships as they really were, comes through all the more poignantly and leaves an indelible impression on the reader, even as Scarlet repeats her mantra and prepares to return to her family estate, the one love to which she has been faithful.

A third way to build a theme into a story is to pit the worldview of the protagonist with the worldview of the antagonist and show in the end which of those two competing outlooks is the most desirable. In some cases the outlook that wins is clearly the most desirable, but in some stories the one that loses is shown to be the most noble, the most appealing. These stories are infrequent, and yet they exist.

One such was an old movie I saw on TV, I think called Remember the Alamo. In the end, as it happened in real life, all the soldiers defending the Alamo died, but the movie showed their deaths to be noble, even heroic. Consequently, though they lost their lives, their worldview still “won” in that story.

Braveheart is another such movie as is Camelot. In the former, the protagonist is sentenced to death but shouts “Freedom” before his beheading. Those who continue the fight do so in his memory. He lost, but his worldview won. The latter is similar. King Arthur’s round table is broken apart, his desire for a unified England in tatters, but a young boy shows him that the ideal will live on after him. The worldview he fought for, believed in, wins, even though he doesn’t.

Other stories show the triumph of the protagonist over the antagonist which validates his worldview. The Harry Potter series shows this kind of victory. Though for a time all seems lost, in the end, the protagonist makes the last great sacrifice and brings victory. His way of viewing the world wins, validating in the mind of the reader that grasping for power and ruling as a demigod is not the right way to live, while sacrifice and service and friendship and love are stronger in the end.

Symbolism, character development, a winning worldview all serve to embed a theme into a story. You might have other ways. If so, I’d love to hear your ideas.

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Symbolism, Part 5 – Final Thoughts

One of the concerns I’ve had about symbols is the idea that readers might miss them. I found some applicable thoughts on the subject in Oakley Hall’s The Art & Craft of Novel Writing. First his quote of Flannery O’Conner (Mysteries and Manners):

    The fact that these meanings are there makes the book significant. The reader may not see them but they have their effect upon him nonetheless.

And this quote of John Steinbeck (East of Eden):

    About the nature of the Trasks and about their symbol meanings I leave you to find out for yourself. There is a key and there are many leads. I think you will discover the story rather quickly for all its innocent sound on these pages. Now the innocent sound and the slight concealment are not done as tricks but simply so that a man can take from this book as much as he can bring to it … Your literate and understanding man will take joy of finding the secrets hidden in this book almost as though he searched for treasure, but we must never tell anyone they are there. Let them be found by accident. [emphasis added]

And I thought I was being so original in comparing symbols to treasure! 🙂

The quote from O’Conner and the Steinbeck line I emphasized take care of my “what if they miss it” concern. Too often if I let that worry drive my writing, then I produce transparent, correlative symbols. It’s like saying I’m hiding some thing, then setting it out in plain sight. Someone expecting a challenge will be disappointed.

If I write a good story and embed it with symbols, no one will be disappointed. The reader who wants a good story will have it, and the one who wants a challenge will have that too.

I conclude that symbols only work if the story itself is strong enough to stand as though the symbols did not exist.

A good example of such a story is The Year The Swallows Came Early, a middle grade novel by Kathryn Fitzmaurice.

No one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel

The author used what I’ll call book-end symbols. Chapter 1 is entitled “Coconut Flakes” and the metaphor at the bottom of the first page explains it:

    And that our house was like one of those See’s candies with beautiful swirled chocolate on the outside, but sometimes hiding coconut flakes on the inside, all gritty and hard, like undercooked white rice.

While mention of coconut occurs on several other occasions, the most memorable instance is in the last chapter entitled “Caramel”:

    Because even though he’d picked that chocolate by pure chance, it just so happened that when I bit into it, I tasted soft easy-going caramel, and no coconut flakes.

So coconut pictures the hard things in life, but by looking at chocolate candies no one can tell if the inside holds coconut or caramel.

This is a great illustration of an author creating a symbol from an object that was integral to the story. The candy was first candy. But it came to represent more to the character, then through her, to the readers.

Symbols add depth. They suggest the theme of the story. They give readers more to think about. And yes, they might be missed. But in a strong story with well crafted symbols, readers with varying levels of expectation will have a satisfying reading experience.

Much of this article was originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 4 – The Beginning Of Construction

To continue exploring symbol, I want to start with some thoughts from Rebecca McClanahan‘s Word Painting. First a little info about metaphors:

A metaphor always requires two parts, two sides, to complete its equation. The critic I.A. Richards calls these two sides the “tenor” and the “vehicle.” The tenor, the main subject or the “general drift,” is usually a thing but can also be an idea, an emotion or some other abstraction. The vehicle is the concrete image that embodies the main subject, supplying it with weight, shape and substance. For instance, in “He carried his guilt like a heavy suitcase,” guilt is the tenor and suitcase is the vehicle.

Connecting this explanation with symbolism, McClanahan says:

The tenor is the general idea that requires concreteness before it can be fully understood; the vehicle is the embodiment of the tenor. In both metaphor and simile, the tenor is stated. In symbolism, it is not. In symbolism, only the vehicle shows itself. A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself (emphasis added).

McClanahan gives some examples from classic literature:

    * a raven symbolizing death in “The Raven,” Poe
    * blood standing for courage in The Red Badge Of Courage, Crane
    * a necklace symbolizing human vanity in Guy de Maupassant’s “The Necklace”
    * laundry representing angels in “Love Calls Us To The Things Of This World,” by Richard Wilbur

Aslan is first a lion before he is a symbol for Christ

If we look at C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, we can see a number of symbols, not the least of which is Aslan himself.

Kathryn Ann Lindscoog in The Lion of Judah in Never-Never Land explains a statement by Dorothy Sayers:

She continues with the broader assertion that all language about everything is analogical and that we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.

This statement reminds me of what McClanahan said about symbols. Yes, they do stand for some meaning beyond the literal, but to be effective in a story they must first stand for the literal, concrete things that they are. Before Aslan represents Jesus, he is a lion—completely fitting in a land of talking animals.

Another writing book that addressed the subject: The Art & Craft of Novel Writing by Oakley Hall has this to say in the opening paragraph in the section dealing with symbols:

We are told by his biographer, Leon Howard, that it was Herman Melville’s practice to let his mind play with concrete details until they became “luminous with suggestive implications.” Until they turned into symbols, in fact, which then formed a conduit between the concrete and the abstract, the particular and the generalization.

In other words, a writer includes an object in the narrative because the story demands it, but a connection to an abstract suggests itself. The author ponders the connection, explores enhancing the object, and a symbol is born.

I’d conclude, then, that, unlike theme, a symbol appropriately arises from within the story, but, of course, the author must be looking for opportunities to capitalize on its presence.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 3 – Symbols in Christian Fiction, continued

Because Western culture is becoming unhinged from its past, particularly it’s Christian heritage, should Christian writers eschew the use of Biblical symbols and allusions? That, of course, is one option. In place of a lamb, a vine, a staff, any use of symbols or allusions would be connected to contemporary images, sans Christianity—9/11, Pearl Harbor, “I have a dream”; or a flower, a dolphin, a crystal.

The Ten Commandments

Another approach would be to use only the Biblical symbols and/or allusions that would be familiar to the majority—parting the Red Sea, eating the apple, killing the giant; or a manger, a cross, a stone tablet of the Decalogue.

A third option is to dispense with symbols and allusions and concentrate on story—write to entertain, to provide a few moments of escapism. I think of this as the Nancy Drew approach to fiction, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Many a reader (myself included) got hooked on stories via Nancy Drew.

The fourth way of handling Biblical symbols and/or allusions is to search for ones that are central to the story — not in some superficial way, but in a thoughtful way that causes me as a writer to dig to understand what God is saying through His Word, first and foremost to me. It is as I allow Scripture to influence and affect me that I become passionate about sharing that insight and understanding I’m gaining.

If I choose this last route, it is with the understanding that I might be the only one who “gets” the symbols I am including. But the thing about symbols, they sort of become like buried treasure. Once readers get a whiff that something’s there to be found, they start unearthing all kinds of things.

So it seems to me, one part of including symbols is to tip your hand, ever so slightly. Like beginning your novel with a line like “Call me Ishmael.”

By employing Biblical symbols or allusions in this way, is an author talking in a hidden language that will fail to reach the intended audience?

That’s a tough question. I’ll rely on my usual definitive answer—yes and no. 😉

I really do think reading can be equated to a treasure hunt, so part of the author’s job is to let the readers know there is treasure to be had. If you’ve ever hidden Easter eggs, for example, you know that it’s important to put some in the easiest places so the youngest ones can find them while hiding others in more challenging places for the older ones. So with symbols.

Finally, the symbols in the Bible were used so ordinary people would more easily grasp spiritual truth — the concrete illustrating the abstract. That fewer of us live in an agrarian society perhaps clouds some of the symbolism, but in this communication era, though we may never have tilled a vine, for instance, what is involved in that process isn’t foreign to us. In other words, I think the symbols used in the Bible translate pretty well to our culture and can still communicate those spiritual truths.

If an author chooses instead to use less well-known symbols, he should aim for clarity. This must be achieved without spelling out what symbols stand for. So I suppose the logical thing to discuss next time is technique in employing symbols.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

Christian fiction writers are often accused of being preachy, but in fact, secular authors also routinely write for the purpose of communicating some message about which they are passionate.

So why do Christians alone get tagged with the preachy label?

I think one reason is the familiarity with Christianity in the western culture. The western world has become, if you will, a Christianized culture. Not that this familiarity has resulted in the embracing of Christianity. Just the opposite. It’s as if western societies, instead, have been inoculated against Christianity by repeated exposure, because, as you know, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What does this have to do with symbolism and the preachy label? I’m postulating that this Christianization allows for ready identification of Christian symbols and rejection without contemplation of the ideas behind them.

What’s a writer to do?

One possibility is to avoid using Christian symbols. Some writers make religion or faith the centerpiece of their stories, thus avoiding the dangers of symbolism.

For the fantasy writer, this solution doesn’t offer much. In a struggle between good and evil, how does one represent God without being transparent, without using a symbol that makes the Christianized skeptic roll his eyes and go, Here comes the evangelism pitch.

CS Lewis did a masterful job in choosing a lion to represent God—one reason his fantasy series still resonates. Not that Lewis came up with the idea on his own. Scripture calls God the Lion of Judah, and certainly Lewis drew upon that image.

Perhaps that’s the secret—choosing symbols that are lesser known, not so easily identified as symbols. Ones that require contemplation first by the author himself.

Interestingly, our culture is no longer as Biblically literate as it once was, which may explain why some Christians choose the symbols they do.

“Call me Ishmael” was the opening line of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. With those words Melville announced that his story was more than just a tale about whaling.

How so? Because the name created an allusion to a familiar Biblical story. As did the name for Melville’s protagonist—Ahab. As did the White Whale antagonist.

Back in 1851 London, Melville’s readers would have been familiar with the stories about Abraham and his disinherited son Ishmael, evil king Ahab and his conflicts with God’s prophet, Job and leviathan, Jonah and the whale God used to chastise him.

Granted, rather than symbolizing, the names allude to these Biblical accounts, but they can serve my purpose.

There was a time in Western culture that the Bible was well know. The average person was familiar with Gideon, Joash, and Festus. Mention of manna, a burning bush, a lamb caught in a thicket, brought to mind whole stories and the truth contained within.

Times have changed. Through a complex set of circumstances, we now find ourselves in a society—with the exception of a core group of Christians—that is nearly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.

My guess is, what people do know is, Jesus born in a stable and dying on a cross. Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. David killing a giant. Moses parting the Red Sea. Ben Hur racing his chariot. (I did say there was near illiteracy, remember. 😉 )

Seriously, the average reader will no longer immediately recognize Biblical allusions or Biblical symbols. I am assigning no blame, just stating a fact. A pertinent fact for writers because our job is to communicate.

So what do we do if the reading public no longer recognizes Biblical allusions or symbols? Perhaps we rely on the core group of symbols and stories the audience does recognize.

And inoculation sets in.

Inoculation, when what we need to generate is contemplation. Meditation. Thoughtful self-scrutiny. Worship.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. I really do believe that the best fiction is the kind that makes us think and rethink and days later remember and talk over what we read with someone else.

Producing stories that rework the same ground over and over will not accomplish this.

Does that mean Christian writers should no longer look to the Bible as a source for symbols and allusions that will communicate the ideas we wish? I think that question is worthy of further exploration another day.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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Symbolism, Part 1

Symbolism is a writing device I believe is under-utilized today. To use symbols most powerfully, I think, a writer must develop them intentionally—something that happens best when the need of and purpose for symbols is grasped from the start.

So what is the purpose of symbolism? From Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting:

A symbol is a visible sign—an object or action—that points to a world of meaning beyond itself. Although symbolism works by the power of suggestion, a symbol is not the same as a meaning or a moral. A symbol cannot be an abstraction. Rather, a symbol is the thing that points to the abstraction.

I might add that a symbol ought not to be explained within the story. Perhaps this is the reason some writers steer away from symbols—there’s a risk that readers might miss the meaning.

Of course, there is also the risk that the symbol won’t work—that it will be clumsy or ineffective, inappropriate or too transparent. McClanahan continues:

An object or action may come to symbolize a world greater than itself, but first it must justify its existence—as an object or an action—in the world of the story … For a symbol to work effectively, the real world must precede the symbolic … A symbol means more than itself, but first it means itself … when a symbol grows organically from its source—character, setting, conflict, plot, language and from our own passions—it can enrich our writing. But when it feels forced, self-conscious or merely placed over a piece of writing, it brings the whole house down with it.

That makes a lot of sense to me, but perhaps we need to explore a little more about “transparent” symbols.

First, symbolism does not equal allegory. Quoting Rebecca McClanahan in Word Painting again:

Allegory is a story or description where each element—each person, place, thing and idea—is metaphorical. In addition to providing one-on-one correspondences, the elements “add up” to something greater than the sum of their parts, some overriding idea or message.

Such a work makes no attempt to hide the point of the story. In my opinion few people can write really good allegory. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is perhaps the most famous and the best example.

Bunyan’s main character, Christian, is on a journey, which he begins at the urging of Evangelist, from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. On his way, he bogs down in the Slough of Despond, meets friends Faithful and Hopeful, travels the King’s Highway past places like the Hill Difficulty and Vanity, and so on. At one point he is captured by the Giant Despair and taken to Doubting Castle. You get the picture. There is never a question what Bunyan is saying underneath his story because the meaning can hardly be said to have stayed underneath.

Few people that I know relish an allegory. I’m not sure why that is, but I would have to count myself in that category, though once I began reading Pilgrim’s Progress I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining the story was.

When an author uses symbolism that is transparent, I think the story borders on allegory. Transparent symbolism would be the use of an obvious symbol that the average reader would immediately understand at the abstract level. The cross is an obvious symbol, for example.

Is the use of transparent symbolism good? bad?

Neither, in my point of view, just as allegory as a kind of story is neither good nor bad. It is by the execution of the device, not its inclusion, that a story should be judged.

But there is the added point about writing to a target audience. Does the target audience appreciate or even anticipate allegory or transparent symbolism?

Here the issue is, does the work meet the expectation. If a reader does not expect transparent symbolism, and a story comes loaded with it, the reader is apt to feel duped, as if the story was a lure to bring the reader in, only to have the author deliver a truckload of message.

Obviously stories that do not utilize symbolism can fall into the same trap, but ones that rely on symbols to indicate a larger truth are most open to this predicament, perhaps more so for Christians writing in a Christianized culture.

Originally posted in a series on Symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction

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