Meditation has had many great effects on my writing process. In fact, you can read about one of the epiphanies it caused here.
The first thing you learn when you get into the meditative state is how your subconscious mind communicates with you. Its language is symbolism. The fun part is that you don’t even need to meditate to realize this; you just need to look at your dreams.
Think back to the wildest dream you had and the events in it. Were they cohesive? Could you understand them on a conscious level? The answer to this question may very well be that it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you felt them.
You need to grip your readers in a way a vivid dream or a nightmare grips you. And you do that by communicating with them in the same way you dreams communicate with you. This means that there is a dimension of your novel that you make your readers experience the same way you experience a dream: subconsciously. And you do that by implementing the language of the subconscious: the symbol.
Whether it’s a metaphor or an archetype, there are only so many ways in which they can manifest in a story. In hopes it will help you, here is a list of 4 ways to implement symbolism into your novel.
1) Symbolic Action
Body language can be used to symbolize character’s emotions in a show-don’t-tell kind of manner.
Imagine a dystopian story where our protagonist is a ballerina. She wakes up in the middle of a war and, instead of going to a ballet class, has to go fight off the bad guys. As you can imagine, this kind of stuff doesn’t come naturally to her, and you have to show that in some way. So, instead of just plainly telling your readers that she’s ill-equipped to fire a shotgun, you make an entire visual metaphor to showcase that. Maybe she goes down the stairs whilst holding a shotgun over her shoulder. She looks badass until she starts going down the stairs where she gently tiptoes and hops downward. There is a clear contrast in that scene and while your readers won’t get that on a conscious level, they will feel something. They will feel the oddity and the contrast.
In this exercise it is important not to spoon-feed and hit your audience over the head with the meaning – you must remain subtle. No reader will sit there and think: Wow, this writer has a brilliant grip on their symbolism, I like how they showcase the character’s reservations towards war in this subtle scene. You might think that this is a reaction you want, but it’s not. Your reader feeling that and internalizing that information subconsciously is what you want. Because now you’ve got their attention on a subconscious level. So don’t be afraid that they won’t get it- they will.
2) Object Symbol
Object is probably what most people think about when we mention symbol implementation. It’s the rose that symbolizes the War of the Roses, or a Coat of Arms that symbolizes aspects of a Nation. Object in a contextual way is, however, a little bit different. Anything might mean something else depending on the character.
For example, for our dystopian hero ballet shoes might at first symbolize innocence and passion. But at a different stage of a novel, the symbol might turn ugly for our hero. After she looses her family and her country to a war it might symbolize a life she once had and can never return to. It can be a ruminant of what she once was- gentle and care-free. But it can also symbolize weakness that she came to despise, now that she’s become a veteran with a shotgun with a substantial body-count under her belt.
In this example from Breaking Bad, Walter White is looking at a painting he sees a few more times through the show. What’s important here is that he sees it after waking up in a hospital. It’s a picture of a man saying goodbye to his family and it showcases all the relevant emotions Walter is feeling in the midst of his battle with cancer. Showing just a glimpse of this painting in a crucial moment like this is an example of brilliant and subtle symbol-implementation and you should all hail Vince Gilligan (and take a few notes from him).
3) Symbolic Atmosphere
The atmosphere is a bit more complex than the previous two as it can include both an object and an action symbol in it. There really are 5 things that make an atmospheric symbol: weather, place, lighting, object and/or action symbols.
Our ballerina is walking in the woods late at night, and she goes by a moonlit lake to throw her ballet shoes in it. The rest of the woods is dark, only lit parts being the lake and the ballet shoes. If we examine this scene we see an action symbol – throwing away of the shoes, we have the shoes themselves as an object symbol, and also the light that does its job – putting our hero in the darkness and lighting only the symbol of innocence that she is trying to get rid of.
4) Lucid Scenery
Lucid scenery can be a dream or any kind of hallucination or a vision bestowed upon your character. Just like the atmosphere, scenery can include any of the above symbols in it.
For example, our ballerina is dreaming of walking in the cold and dark woods at night (weather, light). Her ballet shoes are hanging from a tree (object) and she is pacing timidly towards a battle happening within walking distance. Her ballet shoes are moonlit and she can see them clearly. But, the shadow starts moving and her shoes are being slowly swallowed by the dark. The more the darkness swallows her shoes, the more determined her steps become as she is approaching the battle until, finally, the shoes can no longer be seen, and she runs towards the battle as determined as ever.
This showcases the gradual disappearance of her innocence and her changing as a person with regards to that. The less of her innocence is left, the more of her bloodlust is present.
What’s very fun about lucid scenery is that you can go wild. You can have the ballet shoes float in the air, the moon smiling or crying, the trees talking. Whichever feeling you want to communicate you can do so without limitations in an allegory.
I hope that you understand now why symbolism matters and have understood the means of communicating it. If you feel that you have gained any kind of practical knowledge about implementing the symbol I feel like I’ve done my job. If you have any additional and/or contrary thoughts feel free to comment below – I would love to hear them! Also, if there is any particular topic you wish for me to cover I’d gladly hear it out.