1. solosilver
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    solosilver New Member

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    Symbolism?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by solosilver, Jan 5, 2011.

    I have always enjoyed symbolism but I have noticed a lot of modern prose is very light. In classic literature, even modern classics, it is huge. I have always enjoyed the symbolism in classic literature and in poetry. I would love to incorporate a lot of symbolism in my short stories. I have noticed a lot of my stories are guided just as much by symbols as characters. However, I also don't want to turn my audience away. I have looked in to prose poetry a little bit, but it seems to have a very limited audience and not nearly enough narrative. I probably won't change my writing based on public opinion, simply because I love symbolism so much, but I am curious about what everyone's opinions are.

    Where is symbolisms place in modern writing? How much symbolism is too much? Is there any market for short stories that are as heavy on symbolism as they are on character development? What are your thoughts on symbolism in general?
     
  2. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Instead of overt symbols that one can see in dated prose, modern, contemporary fiction is often full of symbolism, it's just usually more subtle and less removed from the character. For instance, instead of some heavy-handed symbol like a crack in the very foundation of the house a character is visiting, modern prose would be more peppered with 'little' things that add up to an overall symbolic impression.

    And often, as I mention, the difference is the connectedness to the character. Instead of said crack in a wall, which is overall story symbolism, not necessarily character-driven symbolism, we might see something like in William Gay's short story Where Will You Go When Your Skin Cannot Contain You where the bad-news, grieving main character steals the corpse of the women he loved and led astray. It's huge on symbolism--him trying to recapture what he'd lost, him striking back at those that have judged him, simply symbolic of his desperation--but instead of a broad statement being made by the author, it's all about the character.

    It's sort of a directional thing. In past eras, the symbolism was often working outward, toward the reader directly and overtly. In modern times, it's often more subtle and working inward, toward the characters. Still building greater meaning, but instead of the author actively making a point or commentary as can often be seen in older prose, the modern convention is often to build the characters such that the reader comes to the conclusion on their own, through empathy and understanding of the character.

    This is not just symbolism, though. One of the biggest differences with modern and not-so-modern fiction is this effect is the push for the stories to be less about readers, and more about characters. Instead of tell the reader a story, we're simply invited to observe a character in their natural habitat and come to conclusions on our own. Symbolism and all the techniques, aspects and parts of fiction all still exist, but are often executed in a different way. In the case of symbolism, to be more relevant to characters direction as things that are a part of that characters life, instead of external, more overt things that in today's market could be seen as contrived or conjured up by the author, not a natural part of the story as the character is experiencing it.
     
  3. TricksterDizzy
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    TricksterDizzy Member

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    To jump off of what Popsicledeath (awesome name, btw) said, I will repeat what my teacher told me in my creative writing class.

    "Write. Don't work symbols in, and if you do, know that they won't stick. The symbols will come, just listen."

    The symbols turned out to be the freakin' TREES for me in that piece during that semester. I could tell because they kept on nudging into the story, they kept on repeating themselves in, and so I had to work out why exactly they were there. Answer turned out to be a symbol of death being a natural and celebratory order of things (trees die, fall, and rot. Rot enriches the soil, etc.).

    Anywho, I think that is the philosophy many modern writers have. Don't force symbols in, let them come. This ends up having them be less overt and more tied into the character and their actions.

    Personally? ...I am too much of a romantic era writer and heart to completely abandon the old fashioned obvious symbolism, but I reserve it for rare occasions after I have written a couple of drafts and understand the story better. Then I start carefully placing them in. Mostly, because tying into what Popsicledeath said again, I like writing for the reader as well as writing on a world focused on the character. I don't think the things need to be mutually exclusive when it comes to symbolism.

    ...Also, I find it ridiculous at points where with a lot of modern short stories you have to have a intense 30 minute discussion to even scratch the surface of what the darn thing means.
     
  4. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Thanks.

    And good advice.

    I had a professor once who, when asked about symbolism, pointed out that every moment/event/item/prop/action etc should be symbolic of something if you're writing in a relevant, attentive, conscious way and creating a character and world that feels real. If the reader can't find symbolism and meaning, then most likely the prose is stilted, stiff, contrived, etc. (which imo is bad, heh).

    I feel like a broken record at times, but the best/only advice I've ever needed was to capture the truth of every moment and scene in fiction, respecting the characters as people and the setting as a place, and the rest will sort of fall into place.
     
  5. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I think one thing people tend to do is to overthink symbols. Most people first encounter the concept of a symbol in some high school literature class, where it's discussed in a fairly highbrow, intellectual way. But symbols in stories should not function on the intellectual level; rather, they should function on the gut level.

    I remember when I first read Lord of the Flies, and it hit me like a punch in the stomach when the conch got smashed. I hadn't been thinking of the conch as a symbol of order and civilization at the time (I was a teenager and not into looking for even very obvious symbols), but the importance and symbolic meaning of the conch was driven home to me at that moment in the story. In my view, that's a very successful use of a symbol. I didn't need English teachers to tell me the conch was important or why - I just knew because of how well it functioned in the story.

    That's how symbols should work. You shouldn't have to look for them as a reader, they should just happen to you. And it probably shouldn't be necessary to plan out their use as a writer. Just write, and the symbols will find their way into the story naturally, and they will affect the reader naturally.
     
  6. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    Symbols are something I find occur naturally in my writing by accident - for example I started a time travel story with an alarm clock, skimming stones has become a symbol of the sea slowing and fatherly affection and love.

    I had no intention of doing it the only intentional one was the birds.
     
  7. HorusEye
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    HorusEye Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think it's really possible to write something half-decent without it having symbolism merged within by default. Forcing more into it is an act of contriving -- such conscious high-browness almost always falls flat.
     
  8. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    I agree that symbolism will work its way in subconsciously without you realizing it. Then later, you'll notice when you read your work again, or when someone points it out.

    My biggest caution is not to make it too obvious. There's nothing wrong with something being blatant symbolism, but there IS something wrong with saying "The house's foundation had a huge crack in it, making me think about how unstable all our lives would become."
     
  9. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Yeah, symbolism will be there (that's a given, right?), it's a matter of controlling it, ensuring it's not too obvious or contrived, and making sure it's the right symbolism. Extra bad when you can tell the writer is trying to force in symbolism, and it's just not accurate to the truth of the story or characters.
     
  10. solosilver
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    solosilver New Member

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    Symbols also just come to me. I had a teacher suggest that I brainstorm possible controlling images and symbols one time. I did try it, but I found that I only ended up using the one that had come to me before I actually brainstormed at all or the ones that came to me in the middle of writing. I suppose it could still be useful at some point if I get stuck.
     
  11. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    Symbolism is very important to a story. It provides an almost etheric, psychic, what have you, dimension to the narrative. It gives it depth. I believe symbolism is so important that without it you will end up with garbage instead of literature. It’s what gives a story revelation-power. Never forget that.

    For that reason, it must be well planned. It has to be powerful and direct, and yet subtle and almost unnoticed. I say “almost” because the careful reader should eventually find it. In the novel, Christine, by Stephen King, the car that possesses Arnie is a symbol of the uncontrolled power of the independent teen will, a power that can tragically lead to self-destruction.

    Granted, the author who is preoccupied with the theme and moral of a story may not be conscious of the symbols he or she places in the narrative, but they will be there nonetheless. When I completed my novel, Caretakers of Eternity, I was not aware that the addictive satanic wine was a symbol for the selfishness of the main character (a real estate agent who has put her career ahead of her relationship with her daughter). Nonetheless, the symbolism was there because it was in me while I was writing.

    If a person intends to have a central symbol, it helps if they identify that at the planning stage of their writing, when they are considering the theme and the moral. That way they can more skillfully insert it into the story.
     
  12. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    Don't get too caught up in inserting symbols into your story unless you're trying to deliberately give the impression that you're some sort of mastermind genius character - the best symbols are subtle and arguably unintentional.

    If you want an example of modern symbolism, a really, really overt case would be Neon Genesis: Evangelion (cartoon or comic makes little as no difference) because the references to Judeo-Christian mythology just get pounded into you minute by minute.

    For a more elaborate but almost undetectable example, read In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje. I'll just bounce a couple of the things you won't pick up on during your first read: The Epic of Gilgamesh, famous Italian painters and class wars - as in wars between social classes.

    Even Mary Poppins has some (according to certain film students. Whether intentional or not, only the cast and crew know for sure).

    Personally, I'm not too fond of intentionally laying symbolism in my work because if it's too obvious then you're being pretentious and if it's not, then the only people who will notice are the type that deliberately search for it (read: Pretentious).
     
  13. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Being too obvious with symbolism is pretentious? Are you sure it's not just poor writing? How is it pretentious?

    And anyone that studies the craft of writing and searches for symbolism and how the author uses it so they can better their writing abilities is pretentious?

    The fact is, readers are [usually] people, and people naturally search out meaning, and symbolism is a huge part of meaning in fiction. So, imo, a writer better sure as heck be aware and deliberately controlling their symbolism, and things that could be seen as symbolism had better be intentional on the part of the writer, lest they end up unintentionally sending the wrong message or meaning to the reader.

    And I guess most successful writers are pretentious (maybe true!) since most I know do look for symbolism in a work. I mean, how are you to know if your own symbolism isn't working or if it's too obvious, without having read, analyzed and learned from other works or even your own. Or is it also pretentious to read into your own work, to make sure you're consciously crafting your fiction in a deliberate way that can give it the most meaning possible.

    So, if you're just a reader, you'll be looking for symbolism and the writer had better have it done right. And if you're a writer, you should be looking for symbolism and studying how it's done, so you can do it right.

    I swear, it's getting to the point there's a stigma against anyone who actually tries to improve their fiction and be active in the process instead of just letting it come natural and allowing important aspects like symbolism, that can sink an entire story, be unintentional.

    It saddens me that so many writers seem to take the hipster approach, where the cool thing is to pretend you don't care and anyone that does care, and does take it seriously enough to study and learn craft and try to figure out the best way to write a story is shrugged off as pretentious.

    And what's more pretentious than going around saying other writers are pretentious?
     
  14. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    However people still read symbolism into things even if you don't put it in as a writer. Can't get much more obvious than alarm clock with an immortal character in a time travel story. However he threw the alarm clock because it was the thing on my bedside table that fitted the bill best. Right size, shape and would hurt more than a pillow. He even goes on to smash a few (he throws them most mornings), leads to more symbolism - however that happened because the wall was in the way, no one to catch it.

    The skimming stones happened because it was in the first book rather than symbolism in this one. However it has unintentionally taken on a new life.

    It is hard to avoid putting it in.
     
  15. Edward G
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    Edward G Banned

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    I wish I could frame this response.

    I've actually been a wannabe writer for decades. Which means I've been reading Writers' Digest and all the various books put out by Writers' Digest Books on writing for a very long time. And what I’ve noticed after years of advice being given to the wannabe writing community on how to eliminate wordiness, symbols, themes, morals, and planned out plots is that everyone now knows how to punctuate and format a manuscript and write a query letter but all the stories read at the pace of flash fiction or a newspaper article and basically still suck.

    I still read Writers' Digest. I just don't pay attention to it anymore. It's quite a liberating feeling.

    I don’t believe writers are born. I don’t believe anyone can really do anything worthwhile just by feeling there way through it. An unedited lazy rough draft from a literary genius is just as much crap as a lazy unedited rough draft put out by anyone else.

    I realize I’m going on a bit here, but if someone says they don’t plan their symbolism or plot or characters or thinks about their theme and moral, then I guarantee they’re putting out garbage.
     
  16. popsicledeath
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    popsicledeath Banned

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    Heh, this is funny because I see a lot of manuscripts in upper-division fiction classes even, where people are clearly banking on their talent and the fact their crap is slightly more tolerable than other people's crap.

    I don't believe one can work hard and make it on hard-work alone. And I don't believe one makes it on talent alone, either. It takes both. Sadly, the hard-workers often don't have the talent, and likewise far too many talented writers think their talent alone is enough and don't work hard.

    Or worse, when I KNOW people labor with their craft and work hard, and then when they find success want to chalk it up to simply having an innate talent for writing. Unfortunately, most writers don't find success simply because they have a knack for fiction. It takes work. Hard work. Conscious work.

    Errr, I had a point. Oh, yeah, I'll go on deliberately controlling and shaping symbolism in my stories, just like I do with everything else, while of course trying my best to make it look effortless and un-labored. ;)
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Morden's law: to make a living at writing you need any two out of luck, talent and persistence.
     
  18. tcol4417
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    tcol4417 Member

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    It's the mentality behind it.

    "Hurg, I am kleva riter. I stik lodes uv simbolz intu mai stawree bekuz I M SMRT."

    Focus too much on it and it's bound to be unsubtle.
     

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