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Monday, May 16, 2022

Strengthening Story with Symbolism, Motifs, and Image Systems

When writing a story, selecting strong symbolism, motifs, and image systems can empower any narrative and bring themes home to the audience in a more tangible, even archetypal way. Yet for many authors, symbolism can be an afterthought (if it’s even a thought at all). And some instructors in the writing community actually caution against putting it in a story intentionally. But like with most writing elements, that’s usually only dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.

As a "young" writer, I admit I was easily impressed when authors used symbols and motifs--that they put in that degree of thought into the concrete world of their stories. But a few years into my own journey, I realized as a writer, I had to pick content for the concrete world regardless, so rather than pick something random, why not take a second and pick something meaningful? Something symbolic? Next time you go to grab something random, consider if choosing something symbolic would be more impactful instead. (But always use good judgement—anything taken too far can become annoying.)

What Symbolism Actually is

Many people associate "symbolism" with decoding, as if there is a secret message you can only get if you can interpret special icons accurately. 

But mostly, at its heart, symbolism means communicating something abstract in a more concrete way.

Take the U.S. flag for example. Literally, it's just a piece of fabric with some stars and stripes. But notice the ideas the U.S.A. is founded on are abstract: liberty and equality. How do you show respect to abstract concepts? You can't very easily. So you have to give it concrete form. It's not the fabric that actually matters. It's the abstracts the flag represents.

Symbolism can also communicate multiple things at once, more quickly. For example, we could open a rodeo with a long speech about liberty and equality. Or we could just raise the American flag, which communicates that.

Boiled down, symbolism is simply another form of communication, of conveying something that isn't a literal, present, or concrete thing. In some sense, it's another way to show rather than tell. It takes abstract and subjective experiences of the human existence, and puts them into something more familiar and tangible, which makes it, on some level, archetypal (and easier to digest).

Symbolism is Strongest When it's Thematic or Subtextual

So, you want to implement symbolism into your scene. . . . You sit down to write the scene. But how do you know what should be symbolized? And in what way?

Remember: Symbolism communicates the abstract in more concrete ways. And the most important abstract element of your story, is the theme. Because theme comes out of the story, it can be tricky to get on paper accurately. It's something we have to show the audience through the story. This is exactly the sort of thing symbolism is made for. 

If it's too difficult or too early to wrap your head around your story's theme, focus on the protagonist's character arc. How does he change or remain the same throughout the story? What worldviews or belief systems does that embody? One of those will usually be your story's theme--because character arc is one of the secret ingredients that make up theme.

For example, in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, Coriolanus is exposed to two belief systems, which make up the thematic argument: Does humankind thrive when they are free from authority? Or does humankind become dangerous without authority? (Collins directly takes these arguments from John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.) Coriolanus comes to believe in the latter and eventually becomes President Snow. 

To make such an abstract, weighty argument more accessible, Collins chooses songbirds--which thrive when left alone--to represent Locke's argument, and snakes--which can be dangerous and poisonous when uncontrolled--to represent Hobbes' argument. Throughout the novel, birds and snakes are handled and observed in various scenes to drive home the powerful themes. This allows the audience to witness how the arguments play out in a more tangible way.

Consider how your character arcs and where she is in that arc in a given scene. What might you put in that represents or taps into that concretely? Choosing to symbolize the theme or character arc regularly through a story, will often be more effective than choosing a different or even random concept. Symbolism works best when it resonates through a piece, and if you are choosing to symbolize something different in every chapter, it makes it harder to discern what's symbolic, if anything. Just be careful that whatever you choose, you don't render it too heavy-handedly. (Anything done poorly can be annoying, so use good judgment.)

Another powerful way symbolism can be used is to convey subtext. Like theme, subtext isn't on the page directly. It comes out of the story. So symbolism can be an effective way to communicate it more clearly to the audience. Remember, the point is to make the abstract more concrete, not more complicated. An example of this comes from The Office when the characters find a dead bird after Michael discovers his old boss, Ed Truck, died. The treatment of the bird, including its funeral, becomes subtext for Michael's fear he'll die alone and unremembered, like Ed Truck. Something abstract becomes clearer and more accessible through the bird.

Making the Most of Motifs

A motif is a recurring element, and often that element is a symbol. In the example of Songbirds and Snakes, birds and snakes are not only symbols, but motifs, as they reappear throughout the story, in different contexts. Again, the strongest motifs tap into theme, and often have slight variations that relate to the protagonist's arc.

For example, in Frozen, doors are a motif. They appear regularly throughout the film, but in slightly different ways. At the beginning, Anna is constantly opening doors, which conveys she's very open to others and to love. On the other hand, Elsa is constantly closing doors, which conveys her yearning for isolation. As the characters follow their journeys, their interactions with doors reveal their personal state.

Just as a theme should be explored through the story, so will the motif, as it shows up in different contexts. At the end, it will be used to convey the final thematic statement (i.e. Elsa says the kingdom's doors will stay open because she's now open to love).

Find ways to evolve the motifs, if only by changing the context. Repeating the exact same thing over and over to the audience can get annoying. We don't simply want to see the songbirds always flying free, we also want to see what happens to them when they are caged. We don't want to always see doors in a positive light, we also want to see how they can invite in danger.

You can learn more about motifs in my article, "Mastering Motifs for Thematic Power.

Broadening Symbolism with Image Systems

While motifs can be used repeatedly with variations, you can also broaden the scope of your story's symbolism through image systems. In his book Story, award-winning screenwriting teacher, Robert McKee talks about creating an image system for your narrative. Rather than selecting one specific symbol (such as birds and doors), select a category of imagery. For example, I may choose the category of water to represent repentance, and by extension, the protagonist's relationship with that. For one scene, I may choose to show rain cleansing a gutter. In another scene, I may choose to emphasize chlorine floating in a swimming pool. In yet another, I may describe the relief that a glass of water brings to the dehydrated. And elsewhere, I may simply show an ice cube melting.

It's worth mentioning that within our culture, water is associated with cleanliness, so I'm using an element that already has symbolism associated with it--this is sometimes referred to as "external" or "universal" symbolism. Alternatively, I could pick something with no associations, and use the text to create the symbolism--this is sometimes referred to as "internal" or "personal" symbolism

For example, instead of choosing water, I may choose jewelry. What does that have to do with repentance? The same thing a thimble has to with a kiss in Peter Pan--the text creates the association. Or perhaps I want to choose something that the audience can infer a little more easily with a nudge, but something not quite so obvious as water, like perhaps plants--a seed sprouting, a rose blooming, a tree healing, which relate to new beginnings and growing into something different. 

In the end, symbolism is about making the abstract more concrete, and it is stronger when used in relation to theme or subtext. Motifs empower symbolism by creating resonance through repetition and variation. And image systems broaden your ability to select meaningful symbols. 

BONUS RESOURCE: "Does Your Image System Work?" by Robert McKee


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