Writing Tips & Tools

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lesson 33: Symbols

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section THREE: Symbols.

Symbols, which sometimes go by their more academic name, objective correlative, are another literary device that feels old-fashioned. The very word takes you back to high school!

In their simplest form, though, symbols are anything outward that stands in for anything inward, or abstract, such as a mood or an idea. A statement like, "He was in turmoil" can feel blunt. Instead, we might substitute an image; say, "Outside, the Siberian Elms held their heads in their hands and swayed, wailing like a chorus of Greek women." Okay so it's over the top, but it nevertheless conveys an inner state.

Symbols can be glaringly obvious, of course. Think sunsets and trains rushing into tunnels. At their best, though, they are elegant and evocative. Their effect can be subliminal, barely noticed. A device they may be, but they also can be quite powerful.

Are there physical objects or recurring events that might serve as symbols in your novel? The exercise that follows asks you not to impose symbols on your manuscript, but to discover them already there. They are buried like artifacts that readers can happen upon and enjoy, either consciously or not, for the extra meaning that they add to your story.

Step 1: What is one prominent object, event, or action that appears in your novel?

Step 2: How can that object, event, or action recur at your novel's end?

Step 3: Find three other places where this object, event, or action can recur in the course of the story.

Note: Whether it is a gathering hurricane or a pink ribbon from a child hood Christmas package, symbols gain power as they recur. Naturally a hurricane forming in every scene would be a ridiculous run of bad weather, but as the opening and closing framework to a story? That could work.

Same thing with rings, ribbons, whooping cranes, green Packard convertible...Any natural or inanimate object that returns at portentous moments. Such objects soak up meaning and then release it.

Follow-up: What is the opposite of that object, event, or action? Find a place for that to appear or occur too.

Conclusion: Sometimes called objective correlatives, symbols can be overly obvious, but when cleverly chosen and tactically deployed they can punctuate a story in powerful ways!


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