Friday, August 24, 2012

Reveal Your Story With Symbolism and Motif

Symbols and motif deepen writing
If you've heard it once, you've heard it countless times: Show; don't tell. Fiction writers usually accomplish this through dialogue and scene, conveying what's in their characters by what they say and how they respond to situations. This approach works well for characters, but what about theme and storyline?

One way to reveal the story and theme of a piece is through symbolism and motif. First, a few definitions: 
  • Theme: The writer's main concept, subject or topic (e.g., bad things happen to good people)
  • Symbolism: An action, idea or object that means more than what's on the surface (e.g., a doorway can signify change, death or birth)
  • Motif: A recurring element of symbolic significance (e.g., a door, doorway, foyer or entrance all possibly pointing to change)
Let's say, for example, that yours is the story of a child who's ill and may die. What words in this mini-scene convey more than their literal meaning?

Colin stood in the doorway of his son's hospital room, watching the small, sleeping form lying so still in the bed. The lights on the monitor blinked intermittently. Should he call the nurse again? he wondered. He hated to do it, but this was his only son.

Which words stand out as freighted with potential? Look at those in bold to see if you agree:

Colin stood in the doorway of his son's hospital room, watching the small, sleeping form lying so still in the bed. The lights on the monitor blinked intermittently. Should he call the nurse again? he wondered. He hated to do it, but this was his only son.

Depending on whether the boy in this story will live, here are other words and concepts to tinker with: Collin's name, the son's name, the name of the hospital and the nurse's name. The more specific the wording, the more likely the son will live. Using specificity in this way, that's what the writer indirectly conveys to the reader.

The best time to address symbolism and motif is in the second draft. These generally aren't techniques to impose on a work as you're creating it, but gems already in the piece that you polish to reflect the story once you know where it's going.

What are you working on that could benefit from wise use of motif and symbolism?

Happy writing!

For more tips, visi Word for Words, or visit Adele's blog.

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