Symbolism

The less said about symbolism, the better. Here I’ll avoid talking about the profound and stick to the practical — anything that gives your story meaning by representing something other than itself is symbolic.

There are two very different strategies.

The first is to convey some message (for example about the relationship between the individual and society) by as many means as you can. So, if you’re telling a story whose premise is that the relationship between a group and a single person is always bullier-bullied, and that story takes place in a car dealership, then you’ll want to show that in every relationship:

* between the car salesman and his coworkers
* between his boss and his work force
* between a customer and the customer’s family
* between the secretary and everyone else

For a good popular version of this strategy, rent _The Wrath of Khan_ and notice how every particular character is given a version of the _Kobayashi Maru_ scenario. All of them are confronted with their own mortality.

The second strategy is to use a symbol in as many different ways as possible. In _Wrath of Khan_, every character responds to the confrontation with their mortality differently. In _Notorious_, alcohol is not given one role — it’s not just a poison that the main character is using to destroy herself — but it is given *many* roles.

Doing this makes your storytelling richer.

The first symbolic strategy is well-enough known. It’s the way critics generally talk about stories, because multiplying examples of an interpretation strengthens their case for that interpretation. But the second is really the one that makes for interesting storytelling.

(It’s generally interesting to both repeat and vary a pattern, in many ways that aren’t obvious.)

There’s no formula for symbolic literacy; you just have to work at it.

Published on March 20, 2010 at 9:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

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