Let’s talk about the dress. You know the one I mean. Months of speculation finally were satisfied last Friday when we glimpsed it at last, then studied it in detail as Kate Middleton slowly processed down the aisle of Westminster Abbey.
There are a lot of adjectives we could use to describe it, from sophisticated to sexy, but most meaningful was what the dress recalled. As many commentators remarked, it paid homage to and invoked the wedding dress of Grace Kelly, another commoner who became a princess.
A wedding dress is always symbolic. In this case its meaning ran deeper. It said not only that every girl is a princess inside but that every one of us is, in a way, royal. On Friday, Kate Middleton wasn’t the only one who was elevated. We all were.
The meaning of symbols isn’t always easy to understand. Some meanings are lamely obvious because of repetition: dove, eagle, rose, sunrise, winter, ice, lightning. Others are so obtuse they are eternal fodder for term papers: albatross, white whale, the Valley of Ashes.
Whether obscure or obvious, symbols convey a sense of meaning by association. The strongest symbols evoke emotions and ideas. They can tie a novel together or highlight something important in a scene. Characters themselves can become symbolic. Think Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies.
Whether one-time and fleeting or recurring and grand, what matters to me is that novelists use symbols, and lots of them. They’re hard to overdo. They’re a fundamental tool for writing beautifully, whether your intent is literary or commercial.
Let’s try packing your current manuscript with more meaning. Ready?
- Choose a high moment in your story. Look around. Pick an object, one that’s particular to this place, this moment or these people. Now work backwards and forwards. Find at least three other spots in the story to plant this object, or one like it.
- Select a significant place in your story world. Identify two additional story events that also can happen there. Shift their settings.
- Pick a scene, maybe the one you’re working on right now. Identify an emotion or an idea, insight or mystery that arises. Find a way to represent that physically. Broken phone? Squeaking windshield wipers? The smell of oranges? The taste of parsley? A ring too tight to remove–or to slip on easily?
- Write out your cast list. To each character assign an allegorical role: mother, destroyer, wanderer, sacrificial lamb and so on. Now find one way to for each character to more obviously enact their role. Add that action to the story.
Do those results strike you as ridiculously overt? If you should add them, are you afraid of ridicule? Don’t be. You’d be amazed how few readers pick up on symbols. But they work on readers nevertheless.
Our subconscious minds can carry images for hundreds of pages. When they recur—ding—their meaning rings like a bell even if we can’t immediately explain why. That’s the power of symbols.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s JD Hancock