Why You Should Use Symbolism In Your Writing

by Guest Blogger | 68 comments

This guest post is by James Hall. James is a programmer by day, writer by night. He is currently working on a fantasy novel called Greybo: A Dwarven Tale. You can follow James on his blog and read excerpts of his work.

Nothing adds depth and meaning to a story like symbolism. It acts as webbing between theme and story. Themes alone can sound preachy, and stories alone can sound shallow. Symbolism weaves the two together.


What better way is there to avoid “telling” and instead “show” your story? A symbol conveys complex ideas with few words. Symbolism can also achieve the same results as several sentences of explicit imagery. How's that on your Show-And-Tell Meter? If a picture is worth a thousand words, a symbol is worth ten-thousand.

The most critical reason I use symbols for me is inspiration. I may have to do upfront research, often spending a few hours collecting a  list of symbols for each story, but, like an investment, I get a continual creative flare from it.

Moreover, many of the great authors used symbolism.

  • The Scarlet Ibis: I loved the symbolism in the raging storm and the weakly ibis. Heartrending.
  • The mockingbird is a symbol of innocence in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • The raven from Edgar Allen Poe's The Raven represents, to me, the negative thoughts that fuel a depressed mind.
  • The One Ring To Rule Them All is a symbol of selfishness and desire for power. It symbolizes all that is bad in humanity and wraps it into a single entity. If you are one with the ring, where will you be cast?

What Symbols Should You Use?

There are 3 types of symbols.

1. Common symbols everyone understands. Red stands for anger, blood, and violence. The cross stands for martyrdom and sacrifice. Skulls and scythes stand for death. Common symbols are usually implied.

2. Uncommon symbols that the average person would not understand. What does a lily stand for? Purity? Okay… I was supposed to know that? Older pieces of literature use more uncommon symbols than modern works. Uncommon symbols can be difficult to catch, so hinting may be necessary.

3. Story symbols give you the option to create your own symbols. William Golding's sticks sharpened at both end in Lord of the Flies comes to mind, imagery and symbolism. Where does the red fern grow? Whether that one was a symbol beforehand, it is hard to tell. Uncommon and story symbols can be hard to distinguish.

Story symbols are often the most powerful types of symbols. They usually root themselves in climactic events. A character in my upcoming novel loses his parents early in the story. A type of flower, called a sword lily, becomes a symbol of surviving through his grief. Towards the end of the novel (which I haven't written yet), when he is faced with another death and decides to just give up and die, he sees the same flower growing in an impossible spot.

How Do You Use Symbolism?

There is no right way to symbolize. There are poor approaches, but there are no Symbol Police. You won't get arrested for using or abusing a symbol. Experiment!

When and where to use symbolism is often more important than the symbols used. Symbols, as well as metaphors, function best when they reoccur in the novel. Symbols should be introduced and reoccur at climactic points in the novel. Reintroduction of a symbol should add depth. Thrown in haphazardly, symbols become meaningless and distracting. If you bring up a symbol too much it becomes annoying, like pop-ups in Internet Explorer 6. It will ruin you.

Want your reader to completely miss the symbol? Use an uncommon or story symbol and don't bother explaining it. Most readers, if not all, will miss it.

Even when emphasizing the symbol, some readers will miss the symbolism. The biggest “problem” people have with literature, other than time era differences, is probably that so many missed the symbolism. Some of the older classics cannot function without their symbolism. For modern stories, I wouldn't build your symbols like Jenga blocks. If you pull one, make sure the whole story doesn't crumble. The story should entertain, even without the symbolism.

Creating symbols requires patience, practice, and precision. Recognizing symbols takes time, but it is worth the effort. Don't force symbolism in. If it doesn't come naturally, wait until your second or third draft. Until you know the theme(s) of the story, your best symbols are yet to come.

Some writers may find adding symbolism inhibits their creative processes. I can see where the research or additional thinking could be a distraction. But again, remember that there is usually a payoff later. If you've never tried it, now is your chance!

Do you use symbolism in your writing? What are your favorite symbols from literature?


Write using at least one symbol. Give yourself fifteen minutes to start and feel free to get carried away.

Shows us what you got by posting your practice in the comments section, and share the love (with feedback).

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  1. Jackie FP

    I really liked this post, and I couldn’t agree more about symbolism weaving story and theme together!

    When they were all down, jaded and injured; when the houses were done burning and the ashes were worn of rattling; when the dark thoughts of deep woe began to nibble their wits; that’s when it occurred. Peter’s left cheek was crammed in the dirt, his whole body quivered. One of his eyes bled, but the other managed to stay open, so he saw it. He saw the tiny spot of light floating over the corpses. He saw the mysterious energy of the firefly lurking in the night and felt it in his stomach. It grew and it gave him the strength to stand up. Peter groaned as he leaned on his broken knee and stumbled down a few times as he walked, but he could feel the light of the night bug even now that it was gone. There was hope.

    • James Hall

      Absolutely beautiful! This is a story symbol, and excellently crafted. Using the fireflies as a symbol of hope was exquisitely creative and easily reintroduced. Great use of symbolism.

      I think in the process of writing, I often create the symbols, as you have here. But, later, I will probably tie those symbols more closely with the theme.

    • Jackie FP

      Thank you James 🙂

      And me too, I don’t always have a symbol planned, but when half-way through the writing it appears, I try to mold it in the most fitting shape for the story I’m working on.

    • Karl Tobar

      Perfect use of the firefly. Flawless execution. Good job. And the first lines are very powerful and excellently crafted.

    • Jackie FP

      Wow, thank you Karl!

    • Margaret Terry

      Great work! You have so many strong sentences here, I read it three times. Loved “jaded and injured” a great combination. Wonderful example of the power of symbolism….

    • Jackie FP

      Ohhh, three times, how nice to hear 🙂

    • George Wu

      That is great use of firefly. it helps me better understand how to use firefly

    • Jackie FP

      Thanks 🙂
      But I’m not even sure a firefly is a symbol of hope, it just felt fitting it the context of my story. I believe you can bend any symbol in another one, using the right words!

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Awesome. I’d love to see this symbol recurring. It is mostly a story symbol, but you took a classic symbol (light as hope) and put the light on something different. Instead of just light at the end of the tunnel, you gave that light a place: in the firefly’s bumpy. This was done in an awesome manner. Nice practice!

    • James Hall

      Nice analyzing, Benjamin. I didn’t realize light as being a symbol for hope in this case, at least not consciously, but definitely is.

  2. Karl Tobar

    What an awesome topic, James. It would be a hard one to tackle for some, but I think you pretty much nailed it.

    Here’s my practice:

    It was an overcast day and Rueben waited at the bus stop. He felt a pang of uncertainty, fear, when he got the message. MEET ME AT THE SPOT. Meeting at THE SPOT was a good thing, generally, but this message had come first thing that morning. They always met at THE SPOT after a mutual agreement. The message had come out of the blue, no agreement, no nothing.

    Behind him, people in the park played with children and dogs and he wondered why today, on this ugly day, are you enjoying the outdoors? Down the street he saw Quinn. He recognized the sky-blue umbrella, propped over his head like a halo. But nobody is that innocent.

    Quinn was perfect, almost, with horizontal eyebrows just the right distance from his shiny brown eyes. He didn’t have a big nose, but when he turned sideways you could see it curve to a point. Being the same height helped with the kisses. When he smiled, his bottom teeth were crooked, just the middle ones, though, and he had an overbite. Rueben was willing to overlook that, and he felt as if Quinn appreciated him for it, like an unspoken thank you that you keep to yourself because it’s tacky to talk about.

    As Quinn approached, Reuben raised his arms for a hug, but Quinn wasn’t looking at him. He stopped walking just out of reach. In his Henry Stuart overcoat and Armani scarf he stood in silence, avoiding eye contact. Rueben, in his Wal-Mart sports jacket and Levi jeans, felt a pang of jealousy. He thought
    overbite overbite overbite and the jealousy melted like sugar in the rain.

    “No hug?”

    “I didn’t meet you here to hook up. I wanted to tell you—“ Quinn looked over at the park, at the buildings across the street, everywhere but Reuben. “—that I think you need to work on some things. You know what I’m talking about.”

    The words hit him like a lightning bolt and Quinn walked past him. Maybe he was referring to the alcohol but Rueben didn’t drink but once or twice a week, maybe three times on a stressful day but he was not an alcoholic, Quinn, and how dare you imply it. Maybe when he was drunk last night he told Quinn’s mother what a terrible person she was, in the nicest way possible of course, because he had respect and she needed to hear it. So the alcohol made him honest, big deal.

    He looked at the wooden park bench that sat under a tree nearby. He kicked it as hard as he could. “I—“ the bench toppled backward. It became dotted with
    dark spots and the soft crackle of rain pelted the grass. “—am not—“ he stomped on the bench and snapped one of the boards in half. “—an alcoholic.” He stomped and stomped on the bench until there was nothing but broken wood, splintered at the ends, and iron armrests looking lonely in the grass. A woman had stopped on the sidewalk, water dripping from her black umbrella, and she covered her mouth with one hand.

    What?” His hair was matted to his forehead. She walked on, in the same direction Quinn had gone. Rueben considered going to his apartment three blocks away, but he wasn’t sure.

    • James Hall

      I loved the dialog and interactions among these characters, though I was never really certain of what age group there were in. The references to “THE SPOT” seemed to suggest they were younger to me. But apparently these boys are teenagers?

      I also loved the way you described emotions and feeling of the characters through the setting and objects in the setting, such as the armrests looking lonely in the grass.

      I tried to hit symbolism at a engaging level, I know some people avoid or dislike the mention of literary tools, but they really can strengthen any work.

    • Karl Tobar

      Actually, in my head they were adults, but I can see now how childish Rueben seems.
      As far as the literary tools go, I wouldn’t be opposed to them at all. I just don’t think I’d be very good at using them.

    • James Hall

      “I just don’t think I’d be very good at using them.”

      I think the same thinking lies behind why people can’t do math, and many other things. Don’t place limits on yourself, they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

      The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behaviour which makes the original false conception come ‘true’. This specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.

      ~Robert Merton

      In other words, you believe you will fail, so you sabotage your attempts (even if only by not believing in yourself), and finally decide that your original assumption was correct: that you will fail.

      There is also fear of failure, which can lead to an avoidance of attempts all together.

      Don’t fall into either of these traps, The man that has failed should be proud that he has tried, for the man that has not tried has nothing to be proud of. The man that tries again will know no failure, while the man that gives up fails forever.

    • Karl Tobar

      Oh believe me I am familiar with self-fulfilled prophecies 🙂
      And it wasn’t until after I posted that bit about “I don’t think I can” that I actually went up and read a bit more of your post in full. See, this morning I was in a hurry, so I skimmed. But when I got home I read it in more detail about how recognizing symbols takes time, and using them takes practice. Those are the two things I was referring to when I said I wouldn’t be good at it: I was thinking ‘I can’t think of any symbols’ and ‘I wouldn’t know what to use as a symbol even if I wanted to use one.’ And, after those feelings were addressed by your post, the next thing I read was don’t try to force them, if they are there, good. If they aren’t, that’s okay, too. At least, that’s the message that I got. 🙂

    • James Hall

      That was namely what I was saying. I think, for some, they may not come until after they know the theme of the work.

      I think what holds so many people back from symbolism is either they don’t want to put up the initial research or they don’t realize they can create their own symbols.

      I feel Jackie nailed it below with that tiny little passage. Look how much the symbol absorbs the flavor of the passage, making it readily reusable in another scene. The only time I love symbolism more than when I can see it like that, is when I write it. Something about achieving a literary quality passage… that twang that sings such deep melody.

      Symbols, though, are constructed like novels in many ways, one being that all writers will handle it differently. Secondly, they usually start off a rough draft state, and lastly, that their true value cannot be known until the work is finished.

      Sighs… seems like such a long wait….

    • Saunved Mutalik

      The Dandelion was used perfectly in a the Hunger Games…as well as the rose…its been a year since I read the book and I still remember that!

    • Karl Tobar

      And thank you for the kind words!

    • Margaret Terry

      You have such great skill with dialogue, Karl. It’s authentic and believable and helps define your characters so well…nice piece.

    • Karl Tobar

      Thanks so much!

  3. Claire

    Very good post, James. Thought-provoking and challenging. I’ll have to say that one of my favorite symbols from literature deals with Santiago, an aging fisherman, who struggles with a formidable marlin far out in the Gulf Stream with the forces of nature emerging victorious in the end.

    I’m not working on anything now that deals with symbolism, but I can use this concept as a springboard in the future. Thanks for your contribution.

    • James Hall

      Sometimes the subconscious writes symbolism better than we ever could. Just keep you eyes open for if or when it appears!

      Thanks, Claire, for your contribution.

  4. PJ Reece

    Movies love symbols. “Moonstruck,” for instance… the first shot is a full moon and its presence is felt throughout the film, which is all about love. I’m now writing about a trip up the Congo River to the heart of darkness. Of course, Joseph Conrad famously did that in his novella “Heart of Darkness.” I think he was trying to tell us that all stories are a river and that all protagonists in all stories push up that river until they’re lost. My current literary journey is a trip up that river metaphor… and I tell ya… I’m getting mighty lost.

    • James Hall

      Yes. Lost. Yet, it is hardly an adventure if everything goes as planned. We hardly expand our horizons and ended up somewhere we didn’t expect until we get lost first.

  5. Katie Hamer

    Good post, James; much food for thought.

    I’d love to use symbolism in stories to create mystery and to hint at secrets. Symbolism in religion and in dreams are of particular interest to me.

    I remember reading something about Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious. I think the sum of it is that there are certain images that are so deeply embedded in culture that we all share them. This is, perhaps, why mythology and fairy tales are so powerful. I will be researching this subject further.

    I was intrigued to know how you use symbolism in your novel. I’d never heard of the sword lily, but it sounds like a very powerful image. It sounds like you have used symbolism at strategic points, to drive the story forward. Interesting idea.

    • James Hall

      Thanks Katie.

      Jung’s theory, hmm, something I will have to research as well. Some symbolism seems to come right out of my subconsciousness. Sometimes I don’t even notice it until it has been written. Other times, I just highly an area of heightened importance with symbolism. I’m curious to see how I’ve used them by the end of the novel and what I do with them after the novel is finished.

  6. Margaret Terry

    Good post, James! I am a very visual person and there are days where I seem to to think in symbols and days where I can’t see one tree for the forest if you know what I mean…here’s my practice:

    I think the reason I haven’t dated since my divorce is because of snakes. I
    have a crazy making phobia of snakes caused by a childhood fight with a water
    moccasin in the shallow waters of Lake Joseph. There were so many kids
    splashing around that day even my own mother ignored my panicked screams as I tried to drown the ugly thing by kicking water at it as hard as I could.

    To this day, I can’t even look at a picture of a snake. If I catch a glimpse of one in the newspaper where some freak loses his pet python in his apartment
    that shows up later in a poor old lady’s toilet, I scream my head off, throw the paper sky high and am rattled for hours.

    Over the years, I have tried to work on this fear – I once met with a phobia specialist who explained there was a simple cure called desensitization: “The first day you will open the encyclopedia to the snake page and leave the book open on your couch. You will walk by the book at a comfortable distance getting closer and closer every day until you can look at it with comfort. Soon, we will put a rubber snake on your couch and one day…” As he was talking my heart was playing pin ball against my chest and I felt hives popping up on my arms. No matter what, I knew the end result would be contact with a real live hysteria inducing snake. I decided right then there was no way I was going to be in the same room as a snake. Ever. Ever.

    So I’m wondering if that’s what happened with me and dating. My heart knows dating might lead to a relationship which might lead to love and maybe my wounded heart has been as afraid of love as it has been of snakes …

    • James Hall

      I know what you mean.

      LOVED the entry line, The reader immediately is struck with a wild questions, “Snakes keep you from dating!?”

      “am ratted for hours.” – Nice word choice with ratted.

      I liked this piece. It is very interesting for a reflective piece, as in there isn’t any events taking place. You might call it stream of consciousness or something. Anywho, it is excellent. I loved the comparison between fear of snakes and fear of a broken heart.

      It gets me singing:

      He’s a cold-hearted snake!

      Look into his eyes.

      Oh-oh Oh-oh,
      He’s been telling lies…


    • Margaret Terry

      what a surprise to discover you are a Paula Abdul fan, James 🙂 . Thanks for your comments – was fun to write…

    • James Hall

      I’m a fan of a fancy. I love listening to all types of music, as well as composing it.

      Thanks for participating, it means a lot to me.

    • Saunved Mutalik

      Wow…the beginning sentence and the ending sentences were perfect! Loved this one!

    • Margaret Terry

      Thx so much, Saunved. Glad you liked it.

    • Jackie FP

      I think even if you hadn’t explained the link between ”snakes” and ”dating”, I would’ve loved the piece anyway! That first sentence (greeeat) kind of set me on a ”okay, this can go in anywhere” mood. Really funny, I especially liked: ”…some freak loses his pet python…” AH!

    • Margaret Terry

      Haaa, thanks, Jackie – I laughed when I wrote the bit about pet pythons…I mean, what kind of person wants that for a pet? How do you play with it or take it for a walk? Can it do tricks? And forget about feeding it. I would always be worried I could be its next meal 🙂

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Very interesting! Unlike most, I was not a fan of the first sentence. To be honest, at first I was super nervous about reading this because of the first sentence. I mean, I questioned why, so that kept me reading. So in that sense it was good! If you hadn’t ended it the way you did, I would have hated the whole thing. But you had an amazing conclusion that made me love the whole thing! Awesome practice!

    • Margaret Terry

      thx, Benjamin – am glad you stuck with it! Wondering if you hate snakes as much as I do 🙂

    • Karl Tobar

      The water moccasin–what a nasty creature. This is great reflective writing. Is it reflective writing? It was well-written and kept me reading, anyway.
      I won’t lie; I was really expecting some kind of comparison between snakes and the male reproductive organ because I’m a dirty, dirty pervert.
      But the phobia specialist may have been onto something. Maybe there is some way to inch towards dating again.

    • Karl Tobar

      . . .no pun intended in that last sentence.

    • Margaret Terry

      hahaha…you aren’t alone in thinking that, Karl! Truth be told, when I wrote that first sentence, I laughed out loud because of the same thoughts. I had no idea where it was going but kept writing because I DO hate snakes that much and was fascinated with how it would resolve. Love what you said about dating again, too smart! Thanks for your comments, once again…

    • James Hall

      Snakes… Male reproductive organs… inches…

      This discussion is going south! 🙂

  7. Saunved Mutalik

    “I can’t see,” Jon, my three year old son cried as he peered through the cracked train window.
    I could imagine the green, hazy images flying past the window to be fields of beautiful flowers and well-tended farms, but Jon’s young eyes couldn’t imagine what the green shapes could be because of the distorted window.
    When the train stopped at the station, I led him outside and crossed the tracks to give him a view of the fields.
    He gasped when he saw the hundreds of well-cut, perfectly maintained plants.
    “It’s beautiful,” he muttered as I led him back inside the train.
    The rattling of wheels and the sweaty atmosphere of the second class carriage, along with the broken window seemed to smother most of my senses. Jon had cupped his hands and was peering through the window hoping to get a clear sight of the greenery.
    I closed my eyes as I remembered what my favorite professor had told the class during an English lecture.
    “There will be moments in life when you will be smothered by memories. The past will haunt you, create illusions, disorient your beliefs, but you must always learn to look at the big picture rather than at the small detail that is hampering your purpose, your dream. And if you can’t do it, then ask your elders. They will always know what to do.”
    I gulped when I realized that I was the elder now and Jon would ask me for advice, wanting to learn newer things. How was I going to help him?
    Jon turned towards me all of a sudden, his deep brown eyes glinting with a question.
    “Dad…why are the fields moving so fast? Why don’t they slow down?”
    Too tired to explain, I patted him on the head and replied:
    “They won’t, son. You’ll just have to learn to catch up with them.”
    He nodded, his three-year old soul, solemnly looking back at me. I pressed my palm upon the window, blocking out the hazy, irritating images, and smiled.
    “Don’t let the small detail hamper your purpose,” my professor’s voice echoed through to me.

    “I won’t sir,” I replied.

    This one was hard. I couldn’t maintain the subtlety of the piece I guess. It was too prominent at places maybe. I don’t know. I guess that’s what feedback is for!

    • Margaret Terry

      I really liked the professor’s advice and how you wove it into this story – great images of the world rushing by through the blur of a broken window and the young son’s question about the fields moving so fast. Nice ending too.

    • Saunved Mutalik

      It was a bit hard, Thank you 🙂

    • debra elramey

      Good job Saunved!

    • James Hall

      Wow Saunved, I mean really, wow. I really enjoyed this passage you wrote and it is one of the best I’ve seen from you. I can tell you put a lot of though and feeling into it.

      I missed, though, what the symbol was.

    • Saunved Mutalik

      The cracked window…its so slightly far-fetched…but the best I could do in 15 minutes I guess! Thanks 🙂

  8. James Hall

    The walls held tapestries of his master and the god bestowing his power, Azzura. The Lord of Vengeance indeed bestowed great power upon his master, for how else had he come to be a man of snakes? How else could Dranth, his master, throw lightning from his fingertips?

    Azzura stood in the midst of the tapestry, a lion-faced being with fiery eyes and tail. His regal mane was stained with blood, and the face of him, wrinkled and angry, was removed of the natural beauty of a lion. Before him was an anvil, and thereupon rested a withering green of four leaves. A cruel hammer lingered above his head with which to crush it.

    On his right-hand side menaced a great spider with bile pouring from out its mouth. Aside it stood a black horse with a heart blacker than a demonic pit. At his left-hand side bled a winepress. But no grapes were within, for the limbs of men hung from its edges. Lit by lightning, blood filled the sky beyond. The flashing anger in Azzura’s eyes caused even Mraak to turn away.

    • Karl Tobar

      I love the artwork you described. Know where I can get my hands on those tapestries? lol

  9. George Wu

    This is my poor representation of using symbolism.

    body ache…body numb. Why am I not able to move my arms? Why am I not able to open my eyes? Using all my strength, my body still does not move. It occurred to me, that we never learned how we move our body. We just simply know how to do this naturally. As a result, now I am not able to do it. Am I going to die? Let’s let that happen then. Then I start to see a white light shining through my eyes. Is that god? I am ready for you. Then, suddenly, I see the sun shining and blinding me…

  10. Jay Warner

    Andy spread his arms outward as though to fly away through the thin mountain air, as though wind and the sound of Enna’s voice could hold him up on wings of dense bone and muscle instead of hollow limbs and rows of feathers. He wanted to get away from this place and take her with him too, but it was too much to ask. Enna had so much to lose by following him anywhere, better to stay caged like a pigeon with a band around its leg than to lose her. He wanted to be her swan, and she his Leda, he wanted to win the heart and love of the only girl he’d ever truly lost his mind over. It was Enna or no one. Andy had enticed her here on this hike, and she leaned on his arm as they walked up the steep, stony path to the hanging lake at the top. She had seen an owl’s nest in an old, dead tree and stopped to take a closer look. Enna knelt down and picked up the little pellets that told her it was an owl and not another fowl, for it was daytime and the bird was no doubt sleeping in his nest in the crook of the spruce tree. She held one up to Andy and laughed, “I told you it was an owl,” she said accusingly. “You didn’t believe me.” Andy shook his head. “I would believe you if you said the sky was green and the leaves were blue.” He took her hand and helped her stand. Grasping her fingers just a little too long, he felt her little bird-bones frail and fragile. He thought to himself, how can I ever leave her? And vowed to never leave. When spring came he would build a nest for her, a life for her, for both of them. They would come up here often, maybe even at night if they brought a small light with them, and they would see the owl with his big eyes and hooked beak. And someday he would see that the land was safer than the sky, and he would be content because he had found her and she was his.

    • James Hall

      Nice job, Jay. I loved the extended metaphor of the bird being used as both representative of frailness, beauty, and love.

    • Jay Warner

      Thank you. I am a huge fan of symbolism in literature. I also like some of the more obscure symbolic references, as if finding them is a message straight from the author to me, the reader, or in reverse from me as author to the reader. Your post was spot on.

  11. Benjamin Paul Clifton

    Here’s my attempt at symbolism. I dunno what to think of it. It was much more than 15 minutes. It was a lot harder to base a story off of a symbol than to make a symbol around an already story developing in my head. Let me know what you think?


    June 19, 1996.

    It was summer, obviously. The kids laid about in the field while the day passed lazily, as they usually did around that time. I remember trying to get them to come inside, but they would only come in for lunch. Those thirty minutes were a terror. The flies were biting; so was Carla.

    “You couldn’t make a stupid cheese sandwich?!” Her face was redder than a beet as she screamed at me. Her stringy black hair flew in every which way as if she were still riding in the breeze on her broomstick.

    She had been watching T.V. while I was grading summer school papers, and she asked me to make her a sandwich. “I’m busy, honey,” I said plainly. That did not satisfy her majesty. So I tried multitasking (I was behind on my papers); the result was burnt cheese.

    A fly landed on the grilled cheese. Stupid annoying fly, I thought.

    “It’s ruined!” she screamed. “What the hell is wrong with you.” It sounded more like a statement than a question.

    The kids sat passively at the table. Marley, with 6 years at the time, sat in my seat, James, 5 years old, next to baby Louis, age 2, who sat in his high chair. I looked in at them from around the corner with a sad, apologetic look on my face, though I know they didn’t understand.

    “Just give this thing to Marley,” she said, wiggling the burnt grilled cheese in my face. “She won’t know the difference, and you can make me a new one.” I grabbed the plate with the grilled cheese on it, and gave it to Marley. I bent down to give her a kiss on the cheek. “Don’t worry. Papa will eat it. I’ll make you a new one,” I said. Baby Louis began to cry as I walked past him. “Hush, hush,” I said, patting him gently on the head, “Mama will get you some milk.”

    Bzzzzzz bzzz bzzz, a fly buzzed around me three times before landing on my arm. I smacked it without a second thought. You’re fault, I thought.

    “Honey, will you get Louis some milk while I make everyone else grilled cheese?”

    “What, can’t do two things at once?” she asked, grunting while trying to get out from her La-Z-Boy. I ignored her while I began buttering the bread and placing cheese between the two pieces.

    A fly landed on the cheese just as I was placing the buttered bread on top of it.

    I heard a cup falling from the table, a cry, and a yell. I ignored it. I didn’t process anything that happened but the fly in the sandwich. I started to take it to the trash.

    A fly landed on my hand.

    Then came the sound of contact between flesh and flesh and a more terrible scream. I dropped the sandwich where I stood and turned to her.

    “You do not touch that boy,” I said with wrath in my eyes. “You… Leave!” Then my face was redder than a beet. The heat of the sun could not compare to the heat of my anger. “Now.”

    She cried, but she was in too much shock to argue or yell back. I had never yelled before. She took her broomstick and flew off.

    The summer days seemed to move about even more slowly after that. She never came back. Her brother came back once for her stuff, but we never saw anyone in relation to her after that.

    The flies still flew around, getting their grimy mouths on whatever they could. Yet they weren’t quite as annoying after that day.

    • James Hall

      Wow, Benjamin. This is really good stuff.

      The fly is representative of two things, that I see. First, given the smacking and swatting at the flies, and then the smack of the child, the fly is symbolic of the way Carla views the children.

      Secondly, the fly is representative of Carla and her parasitic relationship with the narrator.

      Excellent, excellent, and excellent.

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Thank you! I feel as if I rushed the ending a bit, though.

    • James Hall

      Nah… C’est Parfait!

    • Benjamin Paul Clifton

      Well geez! Thanks!

  12. Alicia Rades

    I don’t generally purposely use symbolism, but I think there are places where I accidentally do. I love symbolism in books, but I’m not great at writing it myself. The only thing I hate about symbolism is that people go looking for it when the author doesn’t intend it. I had one professor looking for symbolism in practically every word in a non-fiction book when the events were more coincidental than anything. Here’s my practice:

    I jolt awake from a terrifying nightmare, bolting upright in my bed. I know that the dream was frightening because I’m panting and the sheets are clinging to my sweaty body, but I can’t seem to remember what happened in the dream. I take a few moments to slow my breathing and bring my heart rate back down to normal before I crawl out of bed.
    I shrug off the dream, not bothering to rack my brain to remember it. After I shower, I slip on my black dress that I bought last week for the first day of my job as an editor’s assistant. I feel it makes me look sophisticated and business-like, and I leave my apartment feeling self-confident.

    When I reach my car, I slide into the driver’s seat of my new black Toyota Corolla. Well, not new, exactly, but new to me. I buckle myself in, give myself an assuring smile in the rear view mirror, and prepare myself for a new chapter in my life.

    I put the car in reverse and pull out of the parking space, and when I click it into drive, everything happens in slow motion. I turn my eyes up to the parking lot in front of me, but instead of seeing an empty aisle like I had just moments before, I watch as a black full-sized pick up truck barrels toward me, paying no attention to my vehicle, and in slow-motion, I feel the shock of my car on impact, the whip of my head, and the pain that rings throughout my body as my vehicle smashes into the car next me, crushing my body.

    • James Hall

      I’m guessing you were going for the dream to be symbolic of the wreck? I felt more like that was foreshadowing. But, I think that could be better achieved if she watches the morning weather report and they tell about a wreck somewhere.

      Now, if you have her focusing on some trinket hanging from the rear-view mirror, you could achieve some profound and unforgettable symbolism.

      Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed the story, it was well-written.

    • Alicia Rades

      Actually the color black was my symbolism here. The dream was a bit of foreshadowing, saying that something bad was going to happen. Thanks for the tip.

  13. Rebecca

    Here goes:
    “He loves me, he loves me not.” Raven viciously stripped the daisy of its petals. She knew the answer in her heart, anyway. “He loves me not!” This flower, she thought, told the truth. She plucked another.
    “Loves me, loves me not, loves me–” More dainty white petals fell to the ground, like summer snowflakes. Raven’s fingers flew, as did her lips. Her eyes were glazed over with a wild craziness. He was gone, gone….
    “Loves me not, loves me!” There were no more petals left on the flower. “Liar!” She shrieked at it. “You lie! He loves me not!” She flung it away desperately.
    “I want to cry,” she whispered. “But I can’t.” She had already cried her eyes dry. “I want to die, too– but I can’t.” She lay on her belly in the dappled shade of the oaks. They were looking for her, she knew. She would have to go to them eventually. But not now. Not now. If she was to go on living, she needed this time alone to piece together her sanity. They would just have to wait.
    Raven chose another daisy, but did not destroy it. She twirled it between her slender brown fingers, examining the details.
    “You look so sad,” she murmured to it. “Do you miss your friends? I’m sorry I killed them… so sorry.” She glanced in pity at the small pile of petals and stems a few feet away.
    My life, she thought, is like a daisy. Each petal stands for something different: Innocence, girlhood, carefree youth–
    And he had plucked all her petals. All. Well–
    All but one. And that last petal lay beside her, wrapped up in a knitted blanket on the grass. A wail escaped from its slightly wet, rosebud-like mouth. She reached for it.
    “Mama’s here,” she cooed to it, looking at it with a new interest. Her baby was not a curse; rather, it was a gift. A beautiful, perfect gift.
    Now she understood why he had left her the baby. Not as a curse, which would force her to remember him always. But a benediction. She thanked her lucky stars he’d had at least some sense. Yes, this was the last petal. She must cling to it, no matter what winds might blow to tear them apart. She would protect it with her life. More would grow, perhaps, but this one was special. She felt a magical new feeling sprouting within her: motherhood.
    Thank you for the post! I found this very helpful to putting more meaning into what I write.

    • James Hall

      The topic and feeling in this story was great. I enjoyed the way you used symbolism. My only advice is to watch for “show” vs “tell” with your details to the reader.

      Namely Here:

      “I want to cry,” she whispered. “But I can’t.” She had already cried her eyes dry. “I want to die, too– but I can’t.”

      This line of dialog comes across as very tell. Also, it doesn’t sound realistic, like what someone would really say or do.

      Thanks for sharing, Rebecca.

    • Rebecca

      Thank you! I fixed the version in my story. I appreciate the criticism.

  14. Missaralee

    Before I was a writer, I was a painter, so in a lot of my work I favour the use of colours as symbols. The following is from my work in progress The Brass Bell, which is alternately titled Grey and Green.

    I took the fire escape down from Crusoe’s penthouse. I walked through the streets, in the shadow of the drab cement buildings, each one identical to the next, their façades broken by ruler straight rows of small, windowless casements. There were no street signs, storefronts or firehydrants. Only the clumps of cement buildings cut like bricks in a labyrinth. I looked up to get my bearings and couldn’t see the sun. Only an amorphous orange haze, lit from afar by what I could only hope was the sun. I tried to shake the feeling that I was a figurine in a snowglobe and decided on a direction to take. I zig zagged through the streets, trying to maintain a course toward what I hoped would be the edge of this prison. How could such a place have popped up here overnight? Or had it been here long before?

    I sauntered along, fighting the urge to break into a run. If it was a prison, I wasn’t in a hurry to draw attention to myself or to meet the inmates. I turned a corner, identical to the last ten corners, and found myself in a courtyard of cement pavers. The buildings all around were carbon copies of every other one I had passed, except in this block I wasn’t alone.

    I drew back against the wall and stood very still. A person dressed in a rough grey jumper and slacks dragged their slippers on the pavers as they crossed the courtyard. They paid me no attention and seemed oblivious to everything but the cement under their feet. Their ragged mop haircut, baggy clothes and slouching gate made it impossible to tell whether it was man or woman, youth or aged. Two more people, dressed in the same monotone, androgynous style shuffled through the courtyard a moment later.

    This seemed to be some type of thoroughfare. If I followed them, I might find answers to this riddle, or I might get caught by someone worse than Crusoe: by the puppet masters who ran this place. What were my choices, really? Try to run and hide and be alone forever, without Nell, without Aiden, just me in a cabin in the woods, just like I had thought I wanted? Or be brave and blow this mystery wide open? I suppose a more cautious person would have made for the hills and the hope of finding other survivors on the outside. No, I needed to know why this place was untouched by the plague that seemed to have wiped out and whisked away all the people on the continent. So I followed.

    The mop-haired inmates wound through the streets on autopilot. Their feet knew the way. I knew we were drawing nearer to their destination, because I could hear a multitude of feet scuffling along on the cement. There were so many that the sound of breathing and shuffling, and the swooshing of the rough fabric of their pant legs drowned out the silence that inhabited every stone of the place.
    I dropped back from my unwitting guides and flattened myself against the corner of the block. I crouched low to the ground and tipped one eye around the corner. Thousands of people, all dressed alike, stood in lines, each in front of a large corrugated metal door. There was no end to the doors. They stretched on for miles. It reminded me of a Megamart distribution center I had seen on the St. Laurence Seaway years ago. It had spanned so many city blocks that it had felt like I had driven past it for ages before I had finally left it behind me. This was much the same, but on an even more massive scale.

    These people must be waiting for supplies or something. I heard the grinding of gears and pulled myself back around the corner out of sight. I risked a quick look. It was the sound of the doors being cranked open, one after the other. The metallic clanking echoed in the distance, as even the doors that were out of sight rattled on their tracks and were dragged open.

    The lines of people didn’t surge forward as I had expected. This was no door crasher sale, this was daily business. Each inmate accepted a small bundle from the gloved hands inside the door and stepped out of the way of the next person in line. The people flowed like a bubbling brook to the front of the line and receded like the tide. Not one looked at his bundle or checked the contents. Not one made eye contact with another inmate, or jostled the others in line. It was as if the crowd had been computer generated by a motion picture design firm on a very limited budget. Carbon copies, moving in exactly the same fashion, like clones copied and pasted a thousand times to fill the frame.

    On my next look, my eye caught a different movement in the crowd. A man clad in bright wide with black boots ranged about in the crowd. I saw him jostle one inmate and shove another to the ground. The crowd continued in their movements, unflinching, as if they couldn’t see their comrade sprawled in the dust, his bundle taken by the man in white. Not one raised his head to look out through his fringe at the wolf among the sheep. The man in white must have been a guard and a corrupt one at that. I adjusted my focus to look at the lines further in the distance. Other white specs stalked through the crowds there too. I heard the crack of batons on bone amidst the scuffling of slippered feet. I watched for an hour before the crowd began to thin out. When the last few people in line moved forward to claim their package, they were pushed back by the guards and the doors screeched on their tracks and crashed down in a flurry of dust and ash. The unlucky few shuffled away empty handed. The guards hoisted their prizes, taken from their prey, and disappeared into the multitude of small doors set into the distribution center.

    The orange haze grew more opaque, like a satire of sunset. I had to get under cover for the night. If this place was hell, I did not want to get caught by the devil.

  15. Raymond Marchal

    The boy and the girl run through the meadow. They run, trying to escape life, trying to escape the hustle and bustle of the world around them, hoping that for just a second the world will slow down and be theirs. The soft morning dew caresses their legs, and they find comfort in the sweet new air. The boy trips, they fall. After disentangling themselves the two sit there, not saying a word. They don’t need words to communicate, they don’t need a string of meaningless sounds to understand each others meaning; all they need is each other. They stare into each others eyes, innocent, young, full of hope. In that moment they understand the world entirely. The purpose of each to be with the other, and nothing else. In that moment nothing matters. He smiles, his dimples appearing as he does so. She turns her head, looks at the pink sun, then returns her gaze back to him. They listen to the birds sweet song, to the whisper of the wind in the trees. They taste the suns warm rays on their lips. They smell the pollen releasing from flower scattered through the field. They breathe deeply, lost in thought. All they want is to change the world, after all, that is all anyone wants. But, they don’t realize they already have. The boy stands extending his hand to her at the same time. She takes his hand and gracefully pulls herself up. Soon their parents will wake, soon they will go to school, soon they will both be caught up in their friends lives. The boy and the girl begin walking back, but not before the boy picks up a flower and places it in the girls hair. After a short time, they reach the cold hard concrete of the sidewalk. Just before crossing the street, the two see an old man smiling. He greets them. He sits and chats for a moment before going on his way. The girl smiles at the sweet old man and the boy can’t help but to smile too. Then they cross the street and return to their normal lives.

    18 Years Later

    Since the day in the meadow, life has split the boy and girl apart. The man now lives in a state far far away. After graduating Columbia University the man went on to become a world leading researcher in marine biology. The woman went on to become a local teacher, and now has a husband and two loving children. Each of them wallow through their own respectable lives, forgetting the other. Each day passing by in a blur, the man and the woman begin to resent the world. Why couldn’t they do something better? Why couldn’t they change the world? Slowly the meaning of the meadow begins to fade, the reminder of the sanctity of life gone from their lives.

    Upon catching a break from work, the man returns to his hometown in hopes to see his parents. As he crosses the street he recalls taking the same route home from school each day. He remembers his friends and the girl he used to date. The man shields his eyes from the rays of the sun, and cringes at the harsh chirp of the birds. The woman is just leaving her house ready to go to work. As she begins her trip to work she remembers walking the same path to school every morning. She remembers the boy she used to walk to school with. The woman hears the howl of the wind in the trees, and crinkles her nose at the smell of pollen in the air. As they are walking, lost in their own lives, they pass each other on the street. The man and woman nod a curt and timely greeting to each other before continuing on their selected paths. Across the road, a boy and a girl are walking; returning from the meadow over the way. As they cross the street they observe the behavior of the adults.

    “I simply don’t understand,” says the girl. “What could they possibly be so caught up in that they can’t even say hello to each other. How can they not take a second to notice the rising pink sun. Why do they continue living like that, how can they?”

    “I don’t know,” remarks the boy. “I guess sometimes life just gets in the way. I guess people don’t always know what to do. The world changes, and we just keep on living. Sometimes we don’t have options.”

    “But Tommy,” replies the girl. “People always have choice, even if the choice is just to smile instead of frown.”

    “They have lives, though. I’m sure they have more pressing matters to deal with than the expression on their face.”

    “I guess so, but isn’t it the simple things that make the world beautiful. Don’t the small things matter most?”

    The boy doesn’t reply. Instead, he picks up a flower and places it in the girls hair.

    • James Hall

      I love how the rays of the sun become blinding and the chirps of the birds harsh. The wind howls and the smell of pollen is unwelcome. This changing of interpretation says a lot about the characters and the passage of time. I daresay it might even be symbolic.

      I love also how the flower in this piece becomes a symbol of dying love and for the limited time the characters enjoy, if only for their youth. It becomes almost a curse, dooming young love to the harsh monotony of adult life.

      I love this Raymond. I think you could dig a little deeper into this piece, especially at the beginning, digging into the emotions of the character, and explaining so in a more “showing” way. Also, I think a bit more dialog in the beginning would also benefit the story. Yet, even without improvements, you have something substantial here.

      Thanks for sharing, an excellent and entertaining read.

  16. Kurt Morris

    Your helpful Website really helps me to understand how the use symbolism and why you should use symbols in your writing.As i am in year 7 it helps me in english and all other things



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