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  • Writer's pictureYessica Jain

Using Symbolism in Writing

If you are an avid reader, you know how easy it is to fall down a rabbit hole over the significance of one sentence or chapter. The same way literary analysts obsess over the deeper meaning behind the green light in The Great Gatsby, general readers tend to enjoy finding easter eggs or symbols of foreshadowing in writing. While symbols are by no means a necessary part of a story, they can add another layer of complexity and thought that makes the overall story more coherent.


Animals

If your character has a pet, perhaps you should consider making the pet an animal that represents the character’s strengths or flaws. If your character sees an animal on their way to work, consider making it an animal that foreshadows the day to come (within reason of course). This doesn’t have to be as obvious as a black cat. It can be a(n):

  • Owl, symbolizing wisdom

  • Phoenix, symbolizing rebirth

  • Bull, symbolizing masculine strength

  • Fox, symbolizing deceit

  • Raven, symbolizing death

Or any of many more animals that have appeared time and time again in classic literature.


Colors

Colors induce emotions in readers and can signify the emotions of the characters. Even if you are not the most descriptive writer, you should try to think about the colors in your story. Characters’ clothes, room walls, and plants can all have deliberately chosen colors that represent the story in a larger way. Think about what your characters are feeling and how you can integrate colors into the story to parallel those emotions.

  • Red symbolizes passion

  • Blue symbolizes serenity

  • Yellow symbolizes sickness

  • White symbolizes purity

  • Green symbolizes life

Objects

Sometimes, you want to fill up a shelf or a desk in a room you are describing. Or maybe you want to explain what a character is eating. Either way, you can add objects that foreshadow or parallel the larger story through symbolism. Think about common objects that are used to symbolize bigger topics. For instance,

  • Anchors symbolize stability

  • Apples symbolize education

  • Diamonds represent invincibility

  • Doves represent love

  • Mirrors represent truth

Seasons

Even if the season doesn’t directly play into your story, it is there in the background. If your story takes place over a long period of time, you could plan it such that the seasons follow the plot, with the darkest part of the story occurring during the winter. Choosing to do the opposite and write about joyful events during the coldest months can create a sense of irony. Either way, you should make the decision about how the time of year represents the overall story. Avoid leaving it to chance or impulse because the season can set up the story.


Of course, animals, colors, or objects could symbolize multiple things in different contexts. Yellow often symbolizes sickness (“The Yellow Wallpaper”), but it could also represent joy (Inside Out). Apples appear in many stories about education (“The Fun They Had”) but are also often used as a form of temptation (Snow White).


If you think about your favorite books or movies, you can find many symbols. While most of these were likely accidental, some were probably intentional. Using these symbols in your own writing will subconsciously affect every reader, creating the right mood for your story.


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