Monday, July 23, 2012

Symbolism and Themes

by Stephanie Morrill


In English class, whenever we had to write papers about symbolism and theme and such, I remember lots of grumbling about things like, "Did the author really intend the character's red dress to be the foreshadowing of her suicide, or are we making this harder than it needs to be?"

I think the answer is yes and yes. Sometimes a red dress is just a red dress. Other times authors leave clues for their readers.

A while back, I watched a "Behind the Making of" thingy on the movie The Sixth Sense, the one about the little boy, Cole, who sees dead people. The director, M. Night Shyamalan drew our attention to the color red, which they used very intentionally in the movie:



The color red is intentionally absent from most of the film, but is used prominently in a few isolated shots for "anything in the real world that has been tainted by the other world" and "to connote really explosively emotional moments and situations".
Examples include the door of the church where Cole seeks sanctuary; the color of the balloon, carpet, and Cole's sweater at the birthday party; the tent in which he first encounters Kyra; the volume numbers on Crowe's tape recorder; the doorknob on the locked basement door where Malcolm's office is located; The shirt that Anna wears at the restaurant; Kyra's mother's dress at the wake; and the shawl wrapped around the sleeping Anna when Malcolm realizes he is a ghost.
(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sixth_Sense)

You may recall, there's never a moment in the movie where Cole is like, "Hey - whenever I see something red, something bad happens!" It would cheapen the effect. Symbolism works best when it's subtle, when it's there for the taking, but not pointed out with neon arrows.

There's nothing wrong with planning a symbol or two, like the intentional red in The Sixth Sense, but generally I think it works best when symbolism emerges organically. I don't mess much with it until after I've written my first draft, put it away for a few weeks, and have started my first read-through. If I notice that, say, twice in my manuscript my character tries to manipulate a social situation, and that both times she's wearing a dress she made, I'll consider drawing that out more. If it serves the story, of course.

Same with theme. I usually have one in mind when I'm writing the first draft, but almost always a different one pops out at me during the second draft. In one of my works-in-progress, the theme I had in mind during the first draft had to do with accepting help from others versus making it on your own. But in the second draft, I came across this:


“Whether or not Jasper's after her, I think we should stay out of it,” I rush to say. I know as soon as Mr. Parks finishes chewing class will begin, and I don’t want to bring this back up later. This whole conversation feels like a betrayal, somehow. “Meddling in people’s relationships has a way of messing things up for everybody.”
As Mr. Parks reaches for his water bottle, the clue that we’re about to begin, Jack says in a voice that sounds almost ominous, “So can minding your own business when you should speak up.”


When I wrote this, it was just the way the conversation came out. Madeline and Jack are on opposite sides of the debate, and that was simply his counterpoint to what she said. But when I did my read through, Madeline and Jack's opposite feelings leaped off the page. I started asking questions like: As the story unfolds, how would Madeline come to agree more with Jack, and how might Jack come to agree more with Madeline? As I work on edits, that's something I can draw out more in later scenes.


What about you? Do you intentionally put themes and symbols in your manuscripts, or do they happen on their own?

16 comments:

  1. I'm much like you--my first appearance of symbolism or theme is often just organic to the story, but then when I notice its link, I play it up. For instance, I once wrote a book where the heroine's every major life event was punctuated by rain. Varied from fierce storm to drizzle depending on the event, but it was there for every one. Not that she ever said, "Hey, every time something important happens to me, it's raining!" =)

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  2. Great post, Stephanie. Normally I try to plan for themes, but in my latest WIP it kind of popped up on it's own, which was both very surprising and really cool. ;)

    Also, by the way, that excerpt sounds really interesting. Is this from a book you've written?

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    1. Olivia, thank you! It is from a book I've written - one that's still waiting for a home :)

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  3. Great post! This is something I'm struggling with a bit right now. I managed to pick a few themes and symbols out (notice ones that kept appearing in my mind) when I wrote my novel outline, but now that I'm actually writing, different ones seem to come to the top. It's hard to just go with those, instead of trying to force my novel to fit my outline (I can be a bit rule-and-plan obsessed at times). This is especially hard since writing takes time, and in one chapter I'll have a symbol or theme I planned work as it should, and then in another chapter I'll have something else (which drives me nuts). It's hard just to let the story grow the way it wants - and to know which way it's growing. Do you have any suggestions? Am I being to conscious of the story and its messages at this stage? (I'm on my rough draft.)
    ~Amo Libros

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    1. Every writer is different, of course, but I think you could benefit from forgetting about the themes/symbols for a bit and just writing. It can be a little overwhelming to let the story grow the way it wants, but the surprises that grow out of that are worth it :)

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  4. I dont usually do it intentionally, but as I'm editing one of my story's, I've noticed alot of symbolism and stuff that I didn't know was there, and it has turned out really nice.
    My name is Madeline, btw:)

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    1. I adore the name Madeline. This character was supposed to be named Noelle, but Madeline wound up suiting her better :)

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    2. So do you pronounce it like the little redhead book character, or like Madelynn, because mine is the latter. I like it, but it sounds a bit too sophisticated for me. That's why I'm Maddie:)

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  5. Sometimes they just slip into my writing, but usually I put them there intentionally if I feel it is right. I love symbolism, but I feel like English classes go WAY overboard on it - for example, last year we read The Pearl by John Stienbeck, and the teacher said that the boat and huts were symbols, but the author hinted NOTHING to that! Well, I didn't like the book anyway... xD

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    1. Ahh the pearl...I remember reading this. I hated finding the symbolism in it!

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  6. Normally I have the theme, but symbolism I never plan.

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  7. I intentionally put in the themes. But as the drafts mature, yeah, the themes change. But no, my symbolism is never planned. Neither are my characters' particular "quirks" or "catch-phrases". They just come, as they fit, and that works really well for me.

    Great post. I always have a lot of writing tips to think about when I read your blog!! :)

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  8. Thanks for the post. It is very helpful.

    A movie about a boy that discovers he is a ghost? Wow, that's unique.

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  9. I love using symbolism in my writing! The best thing about it is that you don't realise that you were given clues until you get to the result. Well, that's me anyway. When I'm writing, I don't realise that I'm giving clues until I read over it. So....yeah. :)

    BTW: That movie sounds awesome! Thanks for the interesting post! :)

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  10. Echo Writer_At_Heart, very interesting. :) I love the way you tied in symbolism to examples, because I've had English classes where there was a lot of talk and no tangible. Lots of confusion resulted. :) I think I'm in the organic camp, too, and like it best when something pops up and I'm like, hey, I could use this again...

    For example, the heroine in my almost-finished-WIP has a necklace that her parents (she's now orphaned) gave her and she reaches for it whenever she feels vulnerable. Hmmm. Actually, do you think that classifies as symbolic or maybe a simple quirk?

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  11. For me, it usually seems that my angelic characters, who I am going to kill off for dramatic effect and important plot points (I don't kill characters for no reason!) seem to where white. I do have a character who wears red often though, for both his (bloody, bloody, bloody, though it's not described in the book in detail cause that would be gross) and for passion (he's quite a ladies man!)

    I've noticed that in plays this is also true. Has anyone ever noticed that the traditional colour of Juliet's gown at her death is red and Romeo's is black? Coincidence? I think not! ;P

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