In our Western culture with our linear way of thinking, sometimes we miss out on some great, squirrelly writing. But it wasn't always that way. Back when Western culture was pulling heavily from the Oriental influences of Asian and Arabic literature, we got 'the classics'. The more 'Oriental' style of literature is full of hyperbole, couplets, apocalyptic devices, poetry and symbolism. Western students were taught literary symbolism and when they read 'the greats', they had a more immediate understanding than we often do today.
Many of us are like that dude from Dragnet (I can never remember his name). Nowadays, just saying the term Dragnet acts as a symbol. Most everyone would instantly think of the show's catch phrase 'Just the facts' and understand the need for just the important stuff without the fluff. Savvy? Some stories are better because of the Just The Facts style of writing, but I also think there's been a burgeoning interest in stories with deep layers, uneven timelines, and cleverly disguised cues—if they serve the story.
LOST anyone? For every publisher that claimed flashbacks were a non-starter in writing, fans of LOST watched not only flash-backs and flash-forwards, but flippin' flash-sideways. It was awesome—and symbolic of the topsy turvey lives the characters found themselves in and running from. Kinda like the plane wreck that started it all (another symbol!). One thing the show was known for was a tight mythology, no matter how wonky the plot went. Fans knew they could trace the symbols and clues back and gain a deeper understanding of the characters and their relationships to each other.
I know not everyone is a fan of director M. Night Shyamalan, but the man knows how to use symbolism in his films. In Signs, the first scene we see is a a swing set through a window with wavy glass. As the camera pans to one side, the swing set seems to waver like water—which becomes a meaningful plot point at the end—not only with water, but a loss of innocence and absolution. And speaking of Signs, many people didn't care for the movie because the aliens were cheesy. The point of the aliens wasn't to look cool (or cheesy), but to symbolize how alien grief is to the human heart. We're simply not equipped to handle the loss of a loved one. Going through a loss is terrifying, confusing, and can feel like being attacked.
Brilliant symbolism (and I admit, a bigger CGI budget could've helped).
Even if you write in a spare, non-flowery way, you can still sprinkle symbolism and visual cues into your story. In my book The Z Word, zombies are not there because they're so hot right now (anyone hear Mugatu saying that?). They symbolize the initial dead-end life choices of the characters while at the same time proving they can't forever outrun their problems. Because zombies, er, consequences, always catch up no matter how benign they seem in the beginning.
Everybody loves to be in on an inside joke (were you thinking Michael Scott? Me, too), so let your reader in via a shared understanding, bonding them to the characters. Every time Michael says “That's what she said” we laugh, but it also serves as a symbol of a person so desperate for acceptance, he tries to make a funny joke that ends up driving people away, especially women.
Each symbol should pertain to something in your story. You can't just scatter the things willy-nilly. And they may seem high-falutin' and literary, but a well-wrought symbol in a novel is really a short-cut; a direct path to the heart and mind of the reader you're trying to connect with. In our society of instant communication, things shared have an even deeper meaning. People crave depth and substance, and when we can be in on the joke or have that sudden connection, a relationship is made or sustained.
If you need your symbolism creativity jump-started, here's a fun site—an online Dictionary of Symbolism. Watch Shyamalan (hint: the stories are never about the obvious), or The Office and Arrested Development to see incredibly keen senses of symbolism in action. They may be movies and TV shows, but they started as scripts, which in case you didn't know, is writing.
That's what she said.
(Hmmm, that sounded funnier in my head.)
Bella Street is the author of The Z Word, the first book of the Apocalypse Babes. Many symbols are used in the novel, including the afore-mentioned zombies, and pink velour and time-travel. Visit her at BellaStreetWrites.com
The Z Word
The Z Word follows Seffy Carter and her longtime friends Gareth, Addison and Lani. The four besties share a past dysfunctional and dark enough to keep them bound together under do-over identities. But rends develop in their relationships from the flesh-eating pressures of ending up in 1980, in a Montana desert, surrounded by zombies wearing dated disco duds.