Learn the Science but Master the Art: the Beauty of Symbolism

When people talk about tips for writing memorable stories, they’ll usually concentrate everything down to three essential aspects: Character, Plot, and Theme. Aka the Holy Trinity of Writing. Inseparable from one another, immutable by law of the craft, I could go on. And it’s true. Out of everything you wanna get wrong with writing a story that’ll float, the Character-Plot-Theme circle is probably the last. Without them, you got nothin, really.

But there are some things that aren’t talked about as much. Worldbuilding, as ye all know, would be my personal favorite. And I don’t think people discuss the effective wielding of tropes as opposed to ending up with flimsy clichés as often as they should. Still, the one that I see or hear about the least in the fiction writing world is symbolism.

Ah yes, symbolism. That dreaded “writing tool” used in the classics that your lit teachers never stopped talking about–wait a second. Symbolism was used in the classics?

Hmm. Doesn’t that mean it should be pretty important?

Well, you see, my friends, like any good element in the classics, symbolism can be easily done wrong. Furthermore, it doesn’t seem worth the trouble, and who cares what the color of the curtains on Juliet’s balcony door means; does it help advance the story at all? Of course not. It serves no purpose other than as a torture device used by vengeful literature teachers in high school classrooms.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with you there, my friend… because you are WRONG.

Art LIVES on Symbolism

Okay, not really. Technically art lives on the expression of thoughts, emotions, and inner conflict and whatnot. But it does feed very heavily on symbolism. Just look at one painting by Rembrandt and suffer the consequences of symbolism.

Then listen to Hamilton and feel better when you can’t for the life of you figure out what the heck the teacher means when he asks you who in the inner circle is carrying the cross because what you see doesn’t seem to match what he sees but at least you didn’t make terrible life choices like Alex did.

And now get back here because we’re not done yet. Have ya ever heard of a little thing called foreshadowing? Well, the way you go about adding foreshadowing to things is actually not that different from the way you go around adding symbolism to every darn tiny detail in your 150000+ word novel. (Except DON’T do the latter. That’s a whole new level of unnecessary.) But I mean, foreshadowing is practically as important as plot itself. It’s not 100% necessary, yes, but it adds so much depth to a story, and it is particularly essential when implementing real good plot twists.

We all know that subtext brings a story to life. Without it, it’d be a boring yet completely unmenacing zombie with no more substance than Bella Swan. Symbolism and foreshadowing both fall under that category, yet one is given significantly more attention than the other…

Symbolism already exists in your story.

It’s just how the human brain works. There are idioms and double meanings and connotations to pretty much everything in your story anyway, so you can’t escape symbolism. The key is just to writing symbolism with intent. There’s nothing wrong with the occasional happy accident, which will usually end up looking like you meant to do it anyway, but intention makes all the difference, and it helps steer your story into the direction you want it to go. (That’s like the entire purpose of learning how to write well.)

You Don’t Need Examples (I don’t think?)

Because they’re everywhere. Enduring classics are rife with it; just look at Edgar Allan Poe. He was one of the artists who viewed stories as something that should be nothing more than pure entertainment, but did his own work really live up to that? I don’t think so, because Mr. Poe I think you should know that you failed in writing stories that were for entertainment purposes only. Congratulations, you are now in classrooms all over the world.

Freaking mobile video-games are full of stunning symbolic artwork and design. Though I don’t play Genshin Impact, I may or may not be a bit too obsessed with the lore and cultures of the storyworld, and for no fewer reasons than it is amazing. Also Legend of Zelda, need I say more?

ANIME. MANGA. I’m pulling a lot of modern Eastern examples here because frankly, physical symbolism has always been a bigger thing in the East than it has in the West (probably cuz most symbolic representation of things were like pagan and stuff so umm yeah you know) and it endures in our culture. Haikyuu, a sports manga/anime about boys’ volleyball, has more symbolism than like all the books I’ve read this year combined. In fact, it was because I spent half an hour watching a video about Miya Atsumu instead of properly doing math studies that I came up with this blog post idea so thank you Miya Atsumu.

Anyway.

So why should you spend time on symbolism?

Or worldbuilding or little things like that? Sure they “ground” the reader more into your story and make things pop and can sometimes be really funny, but they are not strictly necessary to make a story beautiful. I’ve read plenty of books that I’ve loved yet don’t include this level of depth in symbolism or worldbuilding. Plus, they take extra time to craft, extra time to tweak and polish. Symbolism can be misinterpreted, too! And sometimes you just wanna give a character a name like Seraphina only because you like it and not because it has a relevant meaning.

Why would increasing the symbolism in your story make it any better?

On the craft side of things, symbolism gives emotional impact. It adds depth. But say your reader doesn’t care about that.

I don’t hear it said often enough that writing is an art because these days, people would rather have you believe it’s a science, a craft, something you learn to get better. And that’s true. There is science to it, and it is a craft. But it’s also an art because it is a form of creative expression. And what would art be if it did not challenge you to express in different ways? What would possibly make writing an art if there is no complexity, no ornamentation, no painstaking detail, that is not only there to make it beautiful but also to give it a new layer of meaning?

Art is not something to be portrayed on surface level. Like Ernest Hemingway depicted with his theory of omission, much of what you write is only the tip of the iceberg. There’s a whole world down there for your readers to swim through, and in it they’ll discover things that make the entire experience so much more rewarding. It makes your story bloom with new colors.

Like the Japanese author Jun’ichirou Tanizaki once said, “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.” The thing itself one can find anywhere out in nature, in the world, without ever having to look at a painting or crack open a book. The thing itself is in Creation or corruption already; it is the root of our imaginations. Artists do not live to replicate the thing itself. There would be nothing unique or thrilling about that; not to mention, it would be impossible because we do not have the capacity to imitate anything perfectly. But everyone sees something a little different just a ways behind or beside the thing itself, in those patterns of shadows, in the conflict of light and darkness, and that is what we seek to explore. Scientists aim to understand and to apply, but artists take one step further and give it meaning.

Or else your story will be completely meaningless and no one will want to read it, basically.

But the good thing is, it’s impossible for us to create anything by following every rule to a T. So technically symbolism is still not essential to a story.

Add it anyway.

Until next time,

~ Merie

3 thoughts on “Learn the Science but Master the Art: the Beauty of Symbolism

  1. I love picking apart symbolism in stories and figuring out what means what (I do NOT, however, like writing essays about it lmao)

    I feel like my special pet peeve is when authors stop to explain what their symbolism means in the story. ESPECIALLY when it’s in first person or third person limited. I don’t think a lot of people actually stop to think about what something symbolizes in real life unless they’ve been working really hard on that literature class and can’t think of anything else, lol.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree xD

      I don’t remember many instances of seeing characters/narrators explaining symbolism IN the narrative, but I can imagine how annoying it’d be xD There’s no point in subtext if you’re gonna explain it all.

      Liked by 1 person

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