by Sarah Sundin
In high school English, I disliked questions about story symbolism. Ironically, finding and using symbolism in my own novels is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Symbolism connects the reader to the deeper meaning in your story.
Symbolism is best discovered rather than imposed. Often symbols arise from the character-who she is and what she loves. I usually don’t discover symbols until well into the first draft, then use them to embellish the next draft.
In my new release, With Every Letter (Revell, September 2012), World War II Army engineer Lt. Tom MacGilliver dreams of building bridges. I realized bridges held a deeper level of meaning for him. Bridges connect, and Tom longs for connection, for genuine relationship.
We first meet Tom in England at the Mersey River Estuary where a tunnel links Liverpool and Wallasey. Not a bridge. He tells his sergeant, “Tunnels are so . . . impersonal, hiding underground as if the two sides were ashamed to associate with each other. Bridges are visible, personal, proud to make the connection.” Very symbolic of Tom’s life.
Discover what holds meaning in your character’s viewpoint and how it relates to the theme of your story. Now you can use that to illustrate the theme.
Plant symbols in your setting at crucial moments to enhance the meaning. This is a subtle way to “show” rather than “tell.” If time is your symbol, have your heroine finger the antique pocket watch she wears around her neck. If water is your symbol, your hero can be pummeled by rainstorms or lulled by a creek.
In With Every Letter, Tom sees bridges at several turning points when he takes steps to connect. I don’t have to shout, “Look! He’s connecting!” He just has to admire an ancient stone bridge in Algeria.
Similes, metaphors, and other figurative language elevate your writing, especially when infused with symbolism.
In the scene when Tom first meets flight nurse Lt. Mellie Blake, he shakes her hand good-bye. For imagery, I chose a bridge simile. “Their joined arms swooped like a suspension bridge, and a sense of connection raced through Tom’s arm and straight to his heart.”
In another scene, after he’s made a huge mistake, Tom compares his life to the 1940 collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, a metaphor.
Bonus fun with symbolism-ideas for cover art. The cover of With Every Letter depicts a Sicilian bridge, not only a setting but a symbol of two lonely souls seeking connection.
Finding your story’s symbolism takes time and scrutiny, but it’s worth it. Symbols lend meaning to settings and lift figurative language above artful arrangement of pretty words. Best of all, symbols illuminate your theme and leave the reader with a sense of resonance.
Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, as well as the Wings of Glory series-A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow. She lives in California with her husband and three children. Visit her at http://www.sarahsundin.com.
Well done, Sarah. I enjoy symbolism, too, and use quite a bit of it. And I couldn’t agree more with the power of the simile and metaphor. Any writer who wishes to excel in his/her craft must master both (as well as alliteration, personification, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, and other “tools” of the craft).
Your book was awesome, Sarah. I loved your use of symbolism. Every time I read one of your books, I learn something new. I wanna write like you when I grow up. =)