Symbolism – How to Make it Work in Your Writing

25 Oct

by Julie Eshbaugh


Symbolism is an aspect of literature that makes a lot of people groan. Perhaps it takes us back to those days of high school English class when we were told about symbols that seemed to exist only in the mind of our teacher. For instance, I loved THE GREAT GATSBY, but I snickered when my teacher told us that Gatsby was a Christ figure. Really? I scoffed. Only an over-analyzing English teacher would come to that absurd conclusion! (By the way, I now realize that Gatsby is, in fact, a Christ figure, and I apologize wholeheartedly to my English teacher, who will remain anonymous.)

Just to demonstrate how symbolism can enhance widely varied books, let’s look at two books that employ symbols to the great advantage of the story. The first is THE LORAX, by Dr. Seuss. The second is THE HUNGER GAMES, by Suzanne Collins.

In THE LORAX, Dr. Seuss tells us about a fantastical place where the beautiful Truffula Trees grow. Soon the Once-ler arrives, and begins to chop down the trees to use their foliage to knit “Thneeds,” a product that is apparently incredibly versatile. The Lorax is a creature who takes up an argument with the Once-ler, in an attempt to stop him from destroying the Truffula Tree forest with his efforts to make innumerous Thneeds.

If anyone ever attempts to convince you that symbolism only exists in the minds of English teachers and literature professors, steer him or her directly to Dr. Seuss’s THE LORAX. The symbolism is fairly impossible to miss. The Once-ler symbolizes industry, the Thneeds he makes (Thneed=The Need?) represent consumerism, and the Lorax symbolizes the environment. Despite the heavy use of symbolism, THE LORAX succeeds as a piece of fiction (just ask any pre-schooler!) because it is an entertaining story first and foremost. The symbols are there; the theme is there.  But you don’t have to “get it” to enjoy the book.

THE HUNGER GAMES is another book that is enjoyed by many readers regardless of the theme or the symbols that enrich it. I’ve discussed the theme of the HG trilogy with many writers and readers, and some have stated the theme and the symbols made the book richer, while others have said they’d rather not analyze the books, because it takes away from their enjoyment of the story at the trilogy’s core. I won’t argue that analysis makes the books better or more interesting, (although looking at the symbolism does increase my own appreciation of the books,) but I will argue that symbolism is undeniably present in the series.

With great pains to not “spoil” the story for any readers who haven’t gotten around to reading THE HUNGER GAMES yet, I think I can mention a few symbols that Suzanne Collins employs in the first book. One of these symbols is right on the cover – an arrow. The book’s main character, Katniss, is very skilled with a bow. Arrows and archery are a major component of her character. Looking at an arrow as a symbol, it can be argued that they are only effective if they are straight, and shot with accuracy at the proper target. Those of you who have read the book will see that this symbol certainly fits Katniss. Another symbol exists in Katniss’s own name. She tells the reader that her name, Katniss, is also the name of a wild, edible plant that her father taught her to recognize when foraging for food. Her father told her that, as long as she can find “herself,” she’ll always survive. Lastly, I’ll mention the oppressive President of the country of Panem, President Snow. Katniss describes how she realized, one early spring day, that her family could survive on her skills at hunting and foraging when she saw the yellow of an early dandelion (another edible plant,) emerging from the snow. The fact that this memory contains a reference to the name of the President is more than coincidence and is arguably quite symbolic.

Symbolism is a fantastic tool for enhancing and clarifying your story’s theme. It can weave subtle shades of meaning into your writing, turning what began as a simple rug into a rich tapestry. So why does it seem so difficult to incorporate symbolism into your own writing? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that most of us start a new project based on a new character we’ve created or a plot idea that we feel compelled to explore. I would venture that few of us start a new project because a theme is keeping us awake at night.

By the way, this is a good thing! Starting with theme rather than character or plot sets you on a path toward a moralistic, preachy story faster than almost any other technique. That’s not to say it would be impossible to start with theme and finish with a wildly entertaining and fascinating story; I’m just saying you may be taking the more difficult road with that method.

So how does a writer incorporate meaningful symbols into a piece of fiction? By being patient. By waiting out the first and maybe even the second draft. By getting a piece of writing to the point where the theme begins to emerge and resonate louder with each new revision. Perhaps for the first time, you, the writer, might have that moment of epiphany where the real meaning of a piece of your own writing becomes clear to you. Finally you know why your subconscious pushed you to write this story to begin with. A theme has revealed itself. Now, with the next round of revisions, you have the tools to add the symbolism you didn’t have when you started the first draft.

You may find that symbols that had lain unseen until your theme became clear are already present in your piece. If you realize that the theme of renewal is woven into your work, you may discover that you already, perhaps subconsciously, have included references to the leaves budding on the trees in spring. You may decide to incorporate more specific references according to the progress of your main character’s journey, perhaps mentioning the drips falling from melting icicles, the greening of the grass, and the return of songbirds to the trees. You may decide to alter the names of characters during a revision that is focused on symbolism.

In my own novel, FIREFLY, I originally had only one scene that mentioned the insect referenced in the title. At that time, the novel was called STAR-CROSSED. When I had to find a new title, I immediately looked at the theme. I settled on FIREFLY because, like one of my main characters, fireflies stay for only a short time each summer, and they are impossible to keep. This realization inspired me to re-work the existing scene that mentioned a firefly, and to build extra layers of symbolism into the text.

Does symbolism in the books you read interest you or turn you off?  Do you use symbolism in your own writing?   Have you ever discovered a symbol you hadn’t consciously intended to include?


Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. You can follow her on LiveJournal here and on Twitter here.



30 Responses to “Symbolism – How to Make it Work in Your Writing”

  1. Savannah J. Foley October 25, 2010 at 9:01 AM #

    The biggest symbol in ANTEBELLUM is probably the Poetess herself -or rather, her title. She leads a revolution to free the Nameless, and yet we never truly learn her own name.

    Right before I started working on the rewrite, my agent pointed out that my characters get sick a lot… in the first draft the Poetess essentially had a cancer, and then Shae got sick with an immune system virus. She said it was like I was trying to express internal weakness with external weakness, and that made me wonder if that was really what I was trying to do. And it wasn’t! So I took out all of the sickness.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 9:10 AM #

      Wow, Savannah, I LOVE that the Poetess works on behalf of the Nameless, yet you never get to learn her name! That’s fantastic! ❤
      And I'm so interested in what you said about the sicknesses! It really makes me curious about my own writing, because the one sickness that occurs in FIREFLY is the same thing that has afflicted two people very close to me. So in my case, maybe it's in there because it's something I personally relate to and find frightening? Great comment!

  2. authorguy October 25, 2010 at 9:23 AM #

    I frequently finds symbols in my own writing, or am told by others who know more about symbolism than I do that they are there. My first novel was compared to a great Chinese myth about which I knew nothing. The whole story embodies Campbell’s Hero with 1000 faces, which I had never read. All I had going into my story was everything I had read in other people’s stories, which gave me the knack for symbolism without my being aware of it. Being aware of it, as I was in my later stories, adds depth but does make it harder to avoid being preachy. Perhaps that’s why I aim for a comic effect in my writing, to deflate that tendency.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:00 AM #

      Great comment. Marc! I COMPLETELY agree that we somehow absorb the things that work best in the writing we read, so it becomes very likely that a writer will use a “technique” that they have never been taught! Obviously, you’ve been reading the right writers, since they’ve had such an awesome impact on your style. 🙂

  3. Sarah October 25, 2010 at 9:39 AM #

    Wow, I totally loved this post. ❤ Symbolism is definitely nothing to be afraid of, yet many people seem to think it lies in the domain of genius/pretentious/'literary' writers; which you've proved it does not. Real life is full of symbols too. (Although 'TGGatsby' is an example of a literary novel that uses symbolism really, really well.) I love that you've incorporated the 'firefly' theme into your story… it sounds so cool.

    (And LOL, English Literature classes have taught me that anything long and pointy must be treated as a phallic symbol. We always roll our eyes at that.)

    Anyway, great post!

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:10 AM #

      Sarah! Your comment made me smile, mainly because I really wanted to pull the veil of literary pretentiousness away from symbolism! But… your parenthetical at the end made me laugh out loud! I have a favorite story about an English teacher in high school and her “interpretation” of a bull goring a man in a short story. 😉 That anecdote almost made it into the post, but self-restraint won out. So glad to know we’ve all had the same experience!!!)

  4. Kat Zhang October 25, 2010 at 10:19 AM #

    I LOVE symbols and extended metaphors and allusions in books! They almost seem like…”in” jokes or secret treasures. You don’t have to get them to enjoy the story, but they make the experience SO much richer.

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:25 AM #

      Kat, yes! That’s how I see them, too! To me, a symbol or an allusion is something that enriches a story, but enjoying the story shouldn’t depend on understanding all the subtext. (Isn’t that why we sometimes enjoy a book more the second time we read it?)

  5. TymCon October 25, 2010 at 10:46 AM #

    Yeah I don’t think i’ve ever noticed, wrote, acknowledged, so on so forth, simbolism.
    Some stories are carried by the simbolysm. Philip Pullmans’s series (in my opinion) has a very dull naration. The actual literal writing is quite…dull.
    That’s all I have to say about simbolysm (I spelt it three diffrent ways. Thrice wrong. Oh yeahhhhhh.)

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:50 AM #

      LOL Tim thanks for the comment! I bet there’s more symbolism in your stories than you realize! AND, I have always appreciated “creative spelling.” 😉

  6. Gabriela Da Silva October 25, 2010 at 2:26 PM #

    I really haven’t had time to post here lately, but I really like what you’ve posted lately, Julie 🙂

    On symbollism, you’re totally right it’s a difficult thing to pull off. Either you get a very muddy, obscure text, or you end up with some underlaying moral… which are boring.

    I sometimes feel that symbollism is chosen by the readers. With my own book, I really never intended to put any symbollism… and yet, people keep finding it. Which means I must have done something right, but I can’t say what.

    My next book, however, is heavy with symbollism, even from the outline. None of the symbols I’m working with are too heavy, though, so I hope they won’t drag down the story…

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 2:59 PM #

      Thanks Gabriela! I’m glad you’re enjoying my posts! What you say here is so true; symbols really can add weight to a book that can make it drag. But I do believe – maybe because of the way our brains work – that we sometimes include symbols completely subconsciously, which evidently you did with your book!
      I cannot wait to read your next book! What you say here about the symbolism is very intriguing! 🙂

  7. Cassie October 25, 2010 at 5:50 PM #

    Personally, I feel like the smartest person in the world when I realize I’ve just discovered symbolism in something I’m reading!

    But as for actually placing it in my writing, it’s a lot harder for me. I guess I need to learn to trust my readers more, because whenever I try to add something symbolic, I tend to make it really, really obvious…which negates the purpose of adding it in the first place.

    And before this article I never really thought of things other than colors, animals, plants, or even seasons as symbolic. Whenever I read about the main character wearing a yellow sundress, I’d automatically assume it was symbolic of her cheery disposition. Or maybe the field of daisies she’s currently frolicking through represents her innocence. But I probably would have never caught on to the symbolism of innocence lost if that field of daisies was destroyed in a fire or something. Unless someone pointed it out, of course…

    I’m now going to look over my WIP and see if I can spot any subconscious symbols or if I can add some to a scene that would fare better with it. This is was such a great article, thank you for writing about it because it honestly is such a cool and interesting topic!!

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 6:07 PM #

      Hey Cassie! I’m so glad you got so much out of the post! I’m just like you – I worry that I hammer readers over the head so they don’t miss a symbol! And I love what you said about feeling smart when you notice one. That is SO true!
      But hold on… when you said “But I probably would have never caught on to the symbolism of innocence lost if that field of daisies was destroyed in a fire or something,” I suddenly realized another symbol in THG that I had missed. Doh! And now it seems so obvious! 😉 Thanks for the comment!

  8. Rowenna October 25, 2010 at 8:52 PM #

    I love “discovering” symbolism in writing. To me, it adds another layer through which I can see the characters and the conflicts in another, more nuanced way. Plus some authors do such amazing things with language when using symbolism! In one project, I use birds a lot–the main character describes his love interest as like a bird, and she embroiders a bird on a piece of cloth that he comes by accidentally. It sounds heavy-handed, but the whole thing was really more about aesthetics than cramming the symbol in there–it happened organically in the writing. Plus I, um, like birds. Great post–it’s fun to read everyone’s uses of symbolism!

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:27 PM #

      Hey Rowenna! I like birds too! I would love to read that piece you describe; the symbolism doesn’t sound heavy-handed at all. It sounds very romantic. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  9. Armith-Greenleaf October 25, 2010 at 9:57 PM #

    Niiiice. Even though I didn’t read the examples–because I haven’t read those books–but this was very good!

    Symbolism is something I absolutely, completely love. It can be so simple it’s genius, and other times it’s mind boggling–still genius. Bottom line: symbolism is genius.

    Now that we’re past that epiphany (lol), I must say I try to incorporate it in my stories, consciously. I remember things that have happened already and tie them to new scenes, or notice that words the characters say have an extra meaning that becomes an important part of the story. But more often than not, the best symbolisms are the ones I don’t add on purpose. I re-read or get a comment by someone that makes me think: “I wrote that?” And it makes the story so much richer.

    That’s not to say I’m a genius though. *shakes head*

    For the record: the stories I write must make me sleep at night. That’s the main requirement. Not because they’re boring and lull me into sleep (I hope they’re not), but because if I don’t consistently think of a story or stories every night, I just won’t sleep. And this is what got me into writing. 😛

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 25, 2010 at 10:36 PM #

      What an awesome comment! And don’t worry; you don’t sound like you’re trying to say you are a genius. I think it’s fascinating that you try to tie in pieces of earlier scenes. When I read books that do that it definitely gives the sense of a complete world, rather than a world that only exists in the moment. And your story about how you got into writing is great! 🙂

      • Armith-Greenleaf October 25, 2010 at 10:44 PM #

        Teehee, thank you!

        Exactly, the point of symbolism is impact within the story: to make the reader think that things happened for a reason and to make the story more cohesive.

        Lol thanks! It’s definitely an usual reason to write. 😛

  10. Aurora Blackguard October 26, 2010 at 7:45 AM #

    I love symbolism when it comes out. I’m the type of person who doesn’t really overanalyze the story because I don’t really like thinking overly much and tangling the whole story but I really loved the symbolism in the HG.

    I remember someone in the States once bemoaning to me about how she hated symbolism because all their teacher would discuss were the odd questions no one would ask on their own (Why is it RYE and not WHEAT? What does the white whale REALLY represent?) Lol. I am writing one story now about a mermaid and I never noticed until just whenever I wrote a passage about her learning her path, I always wrote, the path that needs WALKING. Mermaids don’t walk 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 26, 2010 at 8:48 AM #

      LOL “Why is it RYE and not WHEAT?” I’m sure that’s been asked countless times of high schoolers all over the States whose first question would often be, “What the *bleep* IS rye?” 😉
      Thanks for relating the story about the mermaid finding her “path.” That’s an awesome example of how a writer can discover symbols that she or he never meant to include. 🙂

      • Aurora Blackguard October 27, 2010 at 3:52 AM #

        Heck, if a kid in the States who actually has to READ the thing for school doesn’t know what it is, what’s a kid like me in Malaysia who reads a book meant for ten year old for literature supposed to do?? 🙂

        • Julie Eshbaugh October 27, 2010 at 7:33 AM #

          LOL Aurora! I read CATCHER IN THE RYE for pleasure, and then my son who’d read it in school told me what it all was supposed to symbolize! The reference in the title is very outdated; I don’t know if I ever really “got” what it was supposed to mean! 🙂

  11. Amie Kaufman October 26, 2010 at 12:34 PM #

    Julie, I love this post, thank you! I’m an English Lit major, so I have a ball playing with symbolism and finding it in books I read. That said, I admit I usually find it after I’ve finished, when I sit back and reflect. I submerge so much while I’m actually reading that I often don’t really stop and process until afterwards.

  12. Julie Eshbaugh October 26, 2010 at 1:17 PM #

    Hi Amie! I, too, often read too quickly to catch the symbols the first time through. I blew through MOCKINGJAY, mainly because I just NEEDED to get to the end, but when I went back over it I found so many little hidden treasures. That’s one of the things that makes reading such a multi-level experience. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  13. Holly Taylor (@hollyy___x) October 9, 2013 at 5:11 AM #

    TY! This has helped with my creative writing assignment 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh October 12, 2013 at 10:52 AM #

      Hi Holly! I’m so glad this helped!

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