Creative Writing: Using Symbolism To Paint a Picture

Warning: For those of you looking solely for information on improving your craft, this article has dashes of Christianity sprinkled in. But this topic reminds me so much of the creativity of my Heavenly Father, I couldn’t resist.

I love using symbolism in my writing. Especially in dreams. Although I really don’t put much stock in the whole Jung archetype theory, I like the imagery that dreams can evoke in my reader. In my latest novel, Impossible Choices, Alice, my heroine, is stuck between a rock and a hard place–to totally over-cliche her life. Married to an alcoholic gambler who’s destroying her two teenage boys, sinking their family into debt, and instigating the wrath of a couple of knuckle-scraping thugs, she’s forced to make a choice. An impossible choice, really. And as she tries to navigate her way through this no win situation, initially by hiding behind a facade, we see her subconscious poke through. A dandelion here, a fox’s tail there, the faint music of a piano playing just beyond her reach. All of theses details paint a picture of Alice as she really is.

As a side note, last spring I took a hermeneutics class, which is basically a Bible study class. It taught me to read the Bible in context, both historical and literal, and to pay attention to the seemingly insignificant details. I must say, it was the best class I’d ever taken! And as a writer, looking for those details that I may have otherwise overlooked really had an impact on me, because I think every one held purpose. If you’re a writer, you know what I mean. We’re constantly looking over our manuscripts, editing out those “weasel” words, choosing the best verb, most fragrant flower, or perfect hairstyle that will convey an entire paragraph of language. Wouldn’t God do the same? I believe every last detail of the Bible is ripe with meaning and purpose. (Why do I always feel like I have to add a disclaimer? Probably because we all read articles, and perhaps even the Bible, through our own experience-tainted lenses. But please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying the Bible is symbolic. I believe it conveys real historical events. What I am saying is that in providing the Bible, God often wove symbolic imagery into the text to deepen our understanding. The parables are a perfect example.) Writers, if that is not a reason in and of itself to read the Bible–to see how the Creator of the universe uses symbolism, metaphors, and analogies to convey truth–than I don’t know what is.

So how can you use symbolism in your writing? In my opinion, we need to start with prayer, but then again, I’m an inspirational author which means my first priority is not to tell the story but to use the story to convey truth or in some way draw the reader to their Creator. After I’ve prayed asking God to reveal His heart to me, I brainstorm using the following, or similar, questions.

When using symbolism to reveal the inner struggles of one of my characters:

1. What are they most afraid of?

In Impossible Choices, Alice is most afraid of rejection, rejection she knows will come if anyone really knew her. So she hides behind a “socially acceptable” facade, preferring superficiality to isolation. Unfortunately, her image-keeping is exactly what keeps her in isolation.

2. What types of things could represent a false presentation of self?

A lot of objects could serve this purpose. In one of my scenes, I chose a flower bed full of tulips because tulips symbolize elegance and grace. And by using them in my story, I am hoping to convey the idea that Alice is trying to portray an image of elegance and grace. But hidden among the flowers is a deceptively cheery dandelion–a weed. So what does she do? She quickly pulls it up and tosses it aside in the mulch to be dealt with later. Anyone whose tried to uproot a dandelion understand the futility of her actions. With the root intact deep beneath the soil, her superficial weeding produces temporary results. To get real results, she needs to deal with the root.

Now to Trent, Alice’s alcoholic gambler of a husband. He’s trying so hard to hold on. To perform, to climb up that next rung on the ladder of success, only to find himself falling deeper and deeper into the pit. Fairly early on, he notices a homeless man sitting on a street corner. This man and Trent make eye-contact. Ah, a telling seen. Using that one extended glance, I can avoid an entire paragraph of telling.

Weather is also a very effective tool. Storm clouds can represent a chaotic life. Windblown leaves a love lost. An abandoned tricycle the loss of childhood or innocence. And on a happier note–a fluttering bird can represent hope or the start of a new chapter in a characters life. A gentle breeze, also hope. Later on in my story, I used the dandelion again, but in a different sense. As Alice takes a step forward, she pauses to pluck a seeded dandelion from Beth’s yard.  Closing her eyes, she  blows. I’m sure you understand the symbolism in that. If you don’t, ask to borrow a friend’s preschool-aged child for a day and take them through a dandelion-filled meadow.


Scene: A young lady about to go on a first date with the man she has long admired. She is just about to graduate from college, stepping from the world of dependence to that of adulthood. She fears the unknown, and her ability to stand on her own two feet. She also doesn’t want to be alone but at the same time, she doesn’t want her love for this man to be clouded by her need for companionship. In addition, she and her mother have always had a slightly unhealthy relationship. As an only child, she has become the center of her mother’s life. As a result, she feels very responsible for her mother’s feelings, but resents this relationship at the same time. She longs to break free.

What images could you add to the story to reveal her sense of loyalty? I’m going to add a few here to get your creative juices flowing: (Obviously, some would need to be developed in the story. For example, maybe there is a song book lying on the dresser. For that to have significance, we’d need to know that her mother wanted her to play the piano.)

Perhaps a golden retriever or greyhound sits at her feet. (I know, rather cliche.) Or even more telling, it could be a mutt curled in a corner. This would convey multiple messages, wouldn’t it? And if the reader knew the mutt was disabled with age, that would add even another paragraph or two worth of meaning.

Since she’s caught between the world of dependance and adulthood, what items could symbolize childhood or a lingering of childlike emotions? This one seems pretty easy, but again, I’ll give an example to start things off.

A Raggedy Ann doll, tattered and torn, sewn by her mother (ouch!), sitting slumped over on a shelf. Did you catch all I threw in here? The most telling, I think, being the fact that the doll is slumped. Even though most dolls slacken when not supported, purposefully mentioning this fact conveys a lot of meaning. And why did I choose a Raggedy Ann doll instead of an American Girl doll or a Barbie? Brainstorm that one, and the different images that the various dolls might convey, and you’ll likely get a page full of appropriate symbolism that could be used in future writings.

Our character also has hope–hope in her future, not only with this man she has fallen for, but also in her journey to adulthood. What imagery could you use to show hope? My mind automatically jumps to her window, and no, not to a rainbow. That is probably way too overdone and obvious to be effective. How about a baby bird emerging from it’s nest? Or a butterfly resting on a leaf? Or maybe a neighbor girl soaring high on a swing.

I’d love to read your ideas. And as always, you can email them to me, add them as a comment or post them to my facebook page.

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  1. I must be too simple-minded (another over used cliche?) but purposely using symbolism or allegory is beyond me, I fear.
    As to the reading the Bible in context, Kay Arthur’s Inductive Study and the Bible she produced to go with it has been extremely useful to me in that area. It’s also been
    teaching me to study for myself rather than take trusted
    pastors and teachers words as the correct interpretation.
    In one of the first of your posts or messages I read back in April or May of this year you said something about “playing at this thing called writing” and it has stuck with me when I’m writing messages or blog posts or doing critiques for my Scribes group. There are times I feel that and then more often I sense how difficult ‘GOOD’ writing really is.
    I appreciate your spiritual intent and content and would encourage you to never apologize for it. You have a good
    sense of His heart and I am grateful for that.
    Keep these great posts coming, Jennifer. I may not always comment but I’m reading and learning from them.

    1. Thanks, Joy. I always appreciate your comments and words of encouragement. Although I do disagree one one point. I don’t think symbolism is beyond you. You’d be surprised. The next time you’re out on a walk or looking out your window, jot down some of the things you see and then take time to think about the emotions they evoke. Then pull them into a story when you’re wanting to convey that same emotion in your story. Plus, you can do a google search on symbolism. This will give you some ideas.

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