How to use symbols in your writing
As a poet, I collect symbols. Because poems are usually shorter than novels, we have less space to get our meanings across, and a symbol can convey a mood or theme in a few words.
In a longer work like a novel, symbols can help deepen the plot, add to characterization, and expand themes.
But what exactly is a symbol? I like this definition from http://fictionwriting.about.com:
A symbol is a person, place, or thing that comes to represent an abstract idea or concept-it is anything that stands for something beyond itself.
Symbols can be large or small. In my memoir, the natural world and land is a strong motif or theme. In the first section, I write about the holly tree in our front yard when I was a young girl. In the last scene of the book, as I begin to take my son’s picture, I write:
“The wind had kicked up from the bay. The leaves of the holly tree crackled behind him, an ancient leathery sound.”
In between these two scenes, the holly tree image is repeated several times. The early motif turns to symbol by the end of the book. By this time, the holly tree represents our family history–all that we’ve been through, the changes around us, and those to come.
I use symbols in a smaller way in the middle of the book. In this scene, I use plant names to symbolize family members:
“I loved learning the different names of the flowers and plants in our secret camp: blue elderberry, hairy manzanita, cascara. I even equated a few with my family: devil’s club, bleeding heart, fireweed.”
Symbols enrich our work, giving it more resonance.
How do you add in symbols that sound natural and not contrived? The best way is to write richly detailed, sensory scenes and then pay attention. Read over your work with an eye to what themes and motifs appear, then pull them out and play with them some more.