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The Emotional Impact of Symbolism



by Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL

©Stina Lindenblatt

One way to create a richer story is by weaving in symbolic subtext. This is also a great way to reveal the story’s theme. I know, you’re now groaning, no thanks to flashbacks to your high school English class. But it’s not hard to add symbolism when you consider how many things in our world have been assigned different meanings. For example, we associate red with passion, anger, embarrassment, danger, power. Crows are symbolic with death and magic. Symbols are also effective when you give them meaning based on your own story. If a character swims in your story, swimming or the water the person swims in might be symbolic, and is woven throughout, further heightening the symbolic subtext.

Subtext works both at a conscious and unconscious level. When we read a book or watch a movie, some symbols will jump out at us, especially if the creators have done a good job drawing your attention to it. With other symbols, you won’t stop to analyze it. For example, if the scene takes place in a room with green walls, you won’t be thinking that the director wanted to reveal the subtext of life. But you can guarantee someone behind the scenes purposely picked that color because of what it symbolized and not because it was her favorite color.

In the first season of Criminal Minds (spoiler alert), there was one episode (Compulsion) in which fire and the number three were important elements to the show. Among other things, fire represents anger and divinity. It was eventually determined that the unsub was starting fires based on the need to test her victims. If they survived the fire, they were free of the wrath of God. The number three (or rather the triad of the number three) would set off the unsub. The creators could have randomly selected any number, but three has a symbolic meaning. In Christianity, it represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  As the unsub lined up the three bottles of flammable liquid, before dousing her three victims with them, she made reference to the bottles as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

The movie Sleeping with the Enemy is about a young woman who fakes her death in an attempt to escape her nightmarish marriage. During one scene, the abusive husband hits Laura (Julia Roberts) and she falls to the floor.  Laura pushes herself up to a sitting position, her long red hair spilling around her shoulders, legs bent to the side. At that moment, she reminded me of Ariel from The Little Mermaid. When Laura tries to stand, after her husband leaves, her legs are shaking so badly, she looks like Ariel after the sea witch turned her into a human, and Ariel takes her first steps into the new world. In Sleeping with the Enemy, this image is symbolic foreshadowing. What her husband doesn’t know is that Laura has been learning to swim, to overcome her fear of water. She is a mermaid, so to speak. Soon after, she fakes her death in a drowning accident and escapes to a new life.

That evening, after Laura’s husband hits her, he gives her red roses and red lingerie. They are supposed to represent his “love”, but they really symbolize the physical and emotional abuse (blood, danger) she suffers at his hands. After Laura escapes, she takes a Greyhound bus to a small town in Iowa. As it arrives, we see Laura looking out of the bus window and the reflection of the American flag waving in the breeze. The American flag symbolizes freedom and the home of the brave. A perfect symbol for Laura’s courage and her new life.

Symbols can show up once in the story, or they can be repeated throughout the book. They can be obvious, as what happens when the camera zooms in on the symbolic object, or they can be subtle, nothing more than a mere mention in the middle of a paragraph. Movies are a great place to learn about symbolism, since the director, writers, set designers look for ways to insert it. Most of the time, we don’t notice it at a conscious level. It impacts us subconsciously. But when done well, it adds to the emotional satisfaction we get from watching the movie or when reading a book.

Do you watch for symbolism in movies and books? Do you pay attention to it in your stories? 




Stina Lindenblatt @StinaLL writes young adult and new adult novels. In her spare time, she’s a photographer and blogging addict, and can be found hanging out on her blog.  
 

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7 comments:

On March 18, 2013 at 8:10 AM , Alexandria Constantinova said...

In the film SEVEN, it rains through the whole movie, symbolizing death, as it does in most of Hemingway's novels, until the killing (unbeknownst to the detectives) has stopped and the serial killer turns himself in.

My BF and I were watching the film in a theater and about a half hour into film, he stage-whispered to me, "Okay, I don't know a thing about symbolism, but it's been raining for the whole movie, so it must mean something."

Several people around us turned to look at us. "Death," I said as quietly as I could so as not to disturb the patrons. "What?" said someone two rows up?" I repeated it. "Thank you," someone behind us said. All of us went back to watching the movie.
Afterward, my BF said, rather proudly, "See? I wasn't the only one who didn't quite get it."

In film and books, the audience often understands the symbolism on a visceral, emotional level without being able to articulate what it means.

Of course, in SEVEN, once the rain stopped, everyone in the theater in our immediate area started looking at each other and at us: they knew, since it had rained nonstop for almost the entire film, that something was going to happen and they did not expect it to be good. It was an excellent use of symbolism by the director/writer that gave audience chills without their even consciously knowing why.

Thanks for the blog post on a sophisticated aspect of writing.

 
On March 18, 2013 at 8:11 AM , Alexandria Constantinova said...

In the film SEVEN, it rains through the whole movie, symbolizing death, as it does in most of Hemingway's novels, until the killing (unbeknownst to the detectives) has stopped and the serial killer turns himself in.

My BF and I were watching the film in a theater and about a half hour into film, he stage-whispered to me, "Okay, I don't know a thing about symbolism, but it's been raining for the whole movie, so it must mean something."

Several people around us turned to look at us. "Death," I said as quietly as I could so as not to disturb the patrons. "What?" said someone two rows up?" I repeated it. "Thank you," someone behind us said. All of us went back to watching the movie.
Afterward, my BF said, rather proudly, "See? I wasn't the only one who didn't quite get it."

In film and books, the audience often understands the symbolism on a visceral, emotional level without being able to articulate what it means.

Of course, in SEVEN, once the rain stopped, everyone in the theater in our immediate area started looking at each other and at us: they knew, since it had rained nonstop for almost the entire film, that something was going to happen and they did not expect it to be good. It was an excellent use of symbolism by the director/writer that gave audience chills without their even consciously knowing why.

Thanks for the blog post on a sophisticated aspect of writing.

 
On March 18, 2013 at 9:24 AM , Kristin Lenz said...

I love analyzing symbolism in books and movies. I was at a writing conference when an author said there are 3 kinds of symbolism. 1. the author intentionally adds it. 2. the author subconsciously added it, or 3. an English teacher made it up.

 
On March 18, 2013 at 12:35 PM , Stina Lindenblatt said...

Oh, Kristin, #3 is totally true. It's like the emperor's new clothes. They want to see if we see something that isn't really there. :)

 
On March 18, 2013 at 2:47 PM , Jackie said...

Thanks for the encouragement to weave symbolism into my story.

I'll keep this in mind.

 
On March 19, 2013 at 7:49 AM , Traci Kenworth said...

OMG, Stina, this post is SO good!! I didn't pick up on the clues you mentioned when I watched these, but I can see why the creators used them!! I need to get more symbolism into my own writing. I have to go back through and look for ways to add them.

 
On March 19, 2013 at 3:37 PM , Laura Stephenson said...

In my current WIP, the evil necromancer has dark furniture and dining chairs with backs that look like rib cages.

I don't usually notice symbolism in movies or books, but it's fun to utilize.