Symbolism: Storytelling and the Invisible Hand
Freud believed that dreams disguise our unconscious thoughts by translating them into a language of symbols. We do this, he hypothesized, to prevent our conscious minds from censoring content we find too disturbing. Hence, Freud thought that by interpreting our dreams we could decode our unconscious, and doing so could help us discover repressed wishes or resolve some inner conflict.
Fiction works the same way. Writing is most successful when it avoids browbeating the reader with instruction and instead communicates in a language of suggestion. Metaphor, imagery, metonymy—the strategy of injecting thematic concepts into character behavior or transmuting human properties onto objects are all examples of using those dreamlike “symbols” to suggest some larger idea that isn’t implicitly stated on the page. Symbolism doesn’t exist in fiction merely to paint pretty pictures. It’s actually an exercise in economy: symbolism allows writers to energize the work while gradually letting elements on the page accrue metaphysical weight. It allows the writer to supply the literal fundamentals while exploring metaphorical spaces. Symbolism isn’t just a storytelling “trick.” It’s the lexicon in which stories are told.
To a degree, what we call “style” involves a practice of getting the writer off the page. Readers love the experience of discovery, and that’s one reason why it’s a drag when a story sounds like the writer is talking to us. You’ve probably seen this a million times: the narrative is littered with information dumping, dialogue suspiciously sounds like exposition, the character’s voice sounds like the writer’s voice, and there’s an on-the-nose neatness that sounds like the author is more interested in tying a bow on the plot than sharing how an experience uniquely feels. All of these habits reveal the hand of the author, and worse, they prevent the reader from having their own experience with the work; they put the reader on a prescribed path instead of allowing them to insert themselves into the story. And while it may not be intentional, this type of writing also reveals a sort of contempt for its audience, because a narrative riddled with instruction belies the idea that your reader is smart enough to pick up on those implied, orbiting ideas we call a theme.
Symbolism helps alleviate this because it allows the writer to become much more “invisible” in the story. The best fiction moves from the specific to the abstract; it offers clear particulars the reader can unpack to discover larger thematic elements. It also allows you to turn off those guiding arrows and keep the narrative strategy muted. Learn to let go; trust your audience to pick up on those symbolic cues, and trust in your own descriptive powers to carry the narrative fundamentals. This grants the reader narrative permission to participate in the story instead of reminding them that they’re merely observing it.
If you’re worried that gutting heavy-handed explanation will remove narrative necessities from the work, consider this: storytelling comes with a default organizational quality. Anything you say about a character defines a character; and everything that comes into a story, the reader assumes, is there to inform us. This is precisely why symbolism is such a big deal in literature; it’s a far more economical and tasteful means of linking elements than mere cause and effect. There’s a reason literature professors harangue students with the imbroglio of “what did the writer mean by this?” or “what is the author saying here?” Quality writing asks the reader to plumb the depths. It provokes questions. Let those questions fuel your story. It’s one of the reasons we keep flipping pages.
Try turning your readers into listeners. The art of storytelling predates the written word by tens of thousands of years. That’s one of the reasons “voice” is such a big deal in literature. Pay careful attention to language. Think about what images your words will evoke in a reader’s mind. You can offer commentary without derailing into a tedious info-dump by using careful, precise words that adequately describe the world of the story. The more vivid the experience, the longer lasting our memories will be of it. The best stories make the reader forget they’re looking at a page at all. In other words, if something sounds too much like writing, you should probably change it.
A lot of confusion arises when we throw around terms like “suggestion” and “symbolism.” Some beginning writers assume that being cryptic somehow makes you sound “literary.” This isn’t true, and the only effect this practice will create is a lot of confused readers. Symbolism, when used properly, is an exercise in clarity: it traces a specific image to a reoccurring meaning that’s central to the story. Writing is a confrontational endeavor that should definitely provoke a lot of questions, but it should never confuse. Writing offers new ways of seeing; the things that happen in the “real world” are messy, and literature coordinates this clutter and helps us make sense of them. It offers new realities for the purpose of better understanding our own. A good reader investigates a story for vision. Once you get the right image, the right words are easy.
Jon's class, Fundamentals of Short Fiction, begins November 7th. Master the art of the story with this 4 week class.
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