Advanced Storytelling

 

Symbols

Read the following excerpt from the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James N. Frey. (pp. 118–121)

Symbols

A symbol is a thing that has meaning to someone in addition to the meaning of the thing in itself. If you're describing a cowboy riding along chewing beef jerky, the jerky has meaning in itself. It means food. But jerky is not a symbol because it does not have any additional meaning.

Now, say, ten years later, the same cowboy is a successful oil man. He comes across a piece of beef jerky in a swanky restaurant on the day he is about to swindle his best friend out of his last million. He fondly reminisces about the beef jerky. He would no longer eat the stuff, but the beef jerky is a symbol to him of the past uncomplicated life when he was an honest working man. The beef jerky as been raised to the level of a symbol. It stands for something more than food. It is now a physical representation of simplicity, honest, hard work. Let's call it a "life" symbol, because it has meaning in the "life" of the character.

The appropriate use of symbol is this: If a character has a quest or a goal, it should be symbolized. If a character wants to escape loneliness, say, there should be a symbol of the escape—something the character sees and wants but can't get. Admittance to a certain club, perhaps, or a ticket for the Love Boat. If a character wants status, perhaps the symbol might be a pair of alligator shoes or a pink Cadillac Eldorado. Abstract wishes and desires are okay in real life, but they don't play well in fiction. An apt life symbol will focus the reader on the conflicts.


A symbol introduced earlier in your story can help you to write your ending. In his book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain gives an example of how a symbol might be used to impel a hero into action against hopeless odds:

(pp. 197–198)

Let's say that, early, you make your reader aware that Hero wears a silver St. Chirstopher's medal on a chain about his neck. In some passing incident, it's brought out that Hero's mother gave it to him, and that he wears it not only because it was her last gift, but because it makes him feel closer to her; it reminds him to live up to the standard of rectitude that she set.

Other such incidents follow, at intervals through the story. Each time, Hero responds similarly, with deep feeling for his mother and her virtue; with quickened pulse and heightened conscience.

Now comes the climax. He stands at the fork in his private road, torn between right and wrong, good and evil, principle and self-interest.

Which way will he go? What course will he follow?

The villain buffets him. His shirt tears open. The chain breaks. The medal sails across the floor.

The medal. Symbol of all Hero's mother meant to him.

For an instant, Hero stares at it; and in that moment lies decision, surging up on the tide of emotional response and past conditioning a simple trinket brings.

Do you see how gimmick operates? You can use it in almost any story, crudely or subtly according to your tastes and skill. Here, it takes the form of a wedding ring . . . there, a strain of music . . . a battered bullet . . . a broken doll . . . a wisp of fragrance that reminds someone of a half-forgetten girl's perfume.

So small a detail, the gimmick.

And so big.

Because it holds the power to explode climax into decision.

 

Instructions for the Quiz

Answer the questions.

Quiz