I went out of town last Thursday, so I missed out on our regularly scheduled blog on Friday. I spent the weekend at a writer’s retreat with a bunch of my closest writer friends and we all had a wonderful time.
This is imperative, I’ve found: You need to spend time with other writers once in a while. It recharges your crazy-batteries so that you don’t slip-slide into the gray murk of normal life that will kill your fiction writing.
Kevin posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
I’m a teen working on a complex novel idea. I haven’t written much as of yet (I have been working on plot development with the Snowflake Method, googling tips for writers, and getting critiques on a first chapter that I’ve been working on through other sources), but I am wondering what are your thoughts on symbolism. I am finding myself trying to cram symbolism everywhere, and am often acting very pick with word choice so that the symbolism isn’t wrecked. Am I simply overdoing it? I am afraid so, for it seems to me that symbolism is hardly noticed by readers today, mainly because I did not learn of its existence until this very school year.
Randy sez: Kevin, I think you’re the first teen who has e-mailed me this year who wasn’t obsessing on the question: “If I’m a teen writing fiction, will anyone take me seriously?” I don’t know quite why teen writers consider this the most important question. It isn’t. The first question editors or agents ask about any writer is this: “How well has this writer mastered the craft of fiction?” If the answer to that question is, “Extremely well,” then age doesn’t matter.
Really, I mean that. Age doesn’t matter. A teen writer with great craft, in fact, will probably have an advantage because that then becomes a selling point.
So congratulations, Kevin, on not asking what all the other teens are asking and for asking something that will advance your craft.
Now on to the actual question. I have three thoughts on the importance of symbolism in fiction writing:
Symbolism is like salt. Salt keeps the food from tasting bland. A little salt goes a long way. The “right” amount of salt is when you don’t notice that it’s there and you don’t notice that it’s missing. Too much salt will make you gag. Too little will make sure you never eat at that restaurant again.
Symbolism is like romance. If you obsess over making romance happen, you probably kill any chance that romance will develop. You cannot force romance. You cannot buy it (although you can buy something similar, which tragically turns out to be the exact opposite of romance). Romance happens when you weren’t looking for it. It grows when you just let it grow. Romance adds joy to life, but only when you aren’t trying to make it the only thing in life.
Symbolism is like humor. If you have to explain humor, it isn’t funny. If the humor is already there, you can tweak it to make it more powerful. If the humor isn’t there, no amount of trying will make it be there. With humor, 90% of the game is timing.
Kevin, it sounds like you may have “new toy syndrome.” This happens to all writers as they learn new elements of the craft and suddenly it seems like they’ve just got to use that new toy everywhere. Don’t sweat that. It happens. Keep working on your craft and pretty soon you’ll add yet another new toy to your collection, and then the symbolism will assume its rightful place in your arsenal. Then your only worry will be how to rein in the next new toy.
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
I left a question on your ‘ask a question for my blog’ page a few weeks ago. Do you think it might not have gone through, or do your questions pile up a lot? Just curious. Great blog, btw.
Randy sez: I’m currently answering questions sent to me on June 2. So the questions are really piling up. I answer all questions and I answer them in the order they come in.
Thanks Randy! That new toy syndrome is definitely the problem. Time to fix it!
Good points there, Randy.
Personally, I don’t like too much symbolism, especially if they don’t flow nicely and seem forced, or an attempt to be funny but doesn’t work. What also bothers me a little are things like long poetic descriptions of nature (not that I don’t like poetry – I do! It’s just not something I want to read in a novel that I don’t expect to be a poetic novel). Then there are “innovative things” that aren’t innovative anymore, like “fat tears” and such.
All I’m saying is that sometimes it’s just easer on the eye to write simple instead of writing complex things that push you out of the story and make you frown. I learned that after writing my novel and then revising it a hundred times, usually making the text simpler because it often works better.
By the way, I sent another email that expanded on this symbolism issue a bit more. Just skip it; this blog article answers it.
Adam Heine says
New Toy Syndrome. Haha. Hahaha.
Yeah. I get that.
Morgan L. Busse says
Congrats Kevin on starting your writing at an early age. Two authors I know who were younger than twenty when they were published were Christopher Paolini (Eragon) and Mitchell Bonds (Hero, Second Class, published by Marcher Lord Press, a small Christian indie company that focuses on Christian fantasy and science fiction books).
Like Randy said, symbolism needs to be organic and sprinkled lightly through the book. Too much and the reader may be turned off.
Kim Miller says
I would add to Randy’s list.
Don’t mistake symbolism for metaphor or simile. Symbolism goes much deeper than these. Symbolism rests on more mythic or heroic themes of human experience. You only use symbolism for important stuff. Don’t mess around trying to work out the symbolic component of a shopping list or the character getting a flat tire.
But if your character is being confronted with some deep aspect of his character and it requires him to change and mature, for example, then symbolism is appropriate.
Check out the basic forms of mythology and fantasy stories, such as the dark sea journey, the quest, the pilgrimage, the battle against the trickster figure, gaining wisdom from birds and animals, and other themes. It is these themes that are symbolic of the most basic of human experiences. And in any form of literature that symbolic component carries force when well handled.
If you maintain discipline in this area you will find that you won’t overuse symbolism in your writing.
For more, take a look at the relevant chapter in Truby’s “The art of story”.
Richard W says
“New toy” is my favorite syndrome to have. When I don’t suffer from “Ooo, I’ll use that trick here,” then it means I’ve stopped learning – stopped trying to improve. I’ve already decided that my discovery (from a technical standpoint) of subtext will drive me crazy when it comes time to edit my WIP.
BTW: I love symbolism when it’s executed correctly. The whole problem is that it’s a subjective topic. But, I agree if you have to explain it, it’s not symbolism – metaphor, perhaps, or omen if the character finds meaning in the symbol. I see symbolism much the same as using the setting to create mood… subtly is powerful.
new toy syndrome ha, so that’s what I have. thank you for that!!!!
Kim, can you or someone else tell me a good books to check out the basic forms of mythology and fantasy stories?
Kim Miller says
Joseph Campbell’s 4 vol work on mythology is a foundation of symbolic understanding, C.G.Jung’s ‘Man and His Symbols’ is another starting point.
Booker’s ‘Seven Basic Plots’ takes some of that stuff into literary theory.
A websearch on ‘basic plots’ will turn up lots of interesting info, including some good critique of people like Booker (who bases much of his stuff on Jung).
It was to Joseph Campbell that Steven Speilberg turned when he was making Star Wars.
Kim Miller says
My bad on that last post. George Lucas, not the other bloke. 🙂