Using Symbolism In Your Writing

Writers use a variety of literary devices in their work. One such device is symbolism: using words, people, locations or ideas to represent something other than their obvious meaning. Symbols can help a writer “show” without “telling”, and connect certain elements or themes in their work. For example: the use of the color green in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Green represents money and materialism, and all of the things Jay Gatsby felt he needed in order to win Daisy’s affection. Or, the one ring in The Lord of The Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. The ring itself represents the corruption that comes with the desire for absolute power and control.

Here’s a few non-literary examples: when we think of nature, we tend to think of plants and trees, and things that have Earth tones. Thus, most websites and businesses that are associated with nature, the environment or natural products, use colors such as green and brown. The logo for Nature’s Bounty vitamins is green. You see lots of red and heart-shaped products around Valentine’s Day, because those are things we associate with romance.

Back to the literary use of symbols: how can you use symbolism in your writing? Start by creating your characters and your story. I’m going to use one of my series as an example. In Valentine, a young woman named Val is determined to protect her family and friends from a mob boss named Rafferty. That’s the story, and Val is one of the characters. Next, you can work in some moderate symbolism by using one of your characters. Val wears a lot of black and tends to dress like a punk, which symbolizes her attitude against authority. She also drives a classic Mustang and carries a pair of handguns, further illustrating her rebellious attitude. This helps set up the focal point of the story in the first book, where Val goes on a road trip to take Rafferty on herself.

Val and cards representing 4 members of the Syndicate: Val (Queen of Hearts), Rafferty (Ace of Spades) Edwin Faulkner (King of Diamonds) and Jo Fuentes (Queen of Spades)

The most important symbol of the story appears later in the series. All of Val’s friends are associated with the mob (or as I call it in the series, The Syndicate) in some way. Most of them are hitmen or hitwomen. The Syndicate uses them as they see fit, like pawns in a chess game, or better yet, like playing cards. Each member of the Syndicate has a nickname that is related to a playing card. The hitmen and women are like playing cards, being dealt where ever their bosses see fit. The cards also reveal a person’s level of importance: Ace’s are high up in each suit, along with Kings and Queens. Rafferty is the Ace of Spades, while Val is known as the Queen of Hearts. The use of playing cards as a symbol also represents the idea that each member of the Syndicate (particularly lower ranking members) must go along with whatever orders they are given in order to survive, or simply ‘play the hand they are dealt’.

Here’s a practice exercise: do some free writing for about fifteen minutes. Pick an inanimate object and use it as a symbol in your writing. Use anything, and don’t be afraid to extremely creative or go a little crazy with it! If you’d like to share what you’ve written, feel free to do so in the Comments section 🙂

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