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IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Symbolism

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/).

Prepared by: Pat Johnson
Posted on: Sun, 18 Mar 2001


Authors use symbolism on many different levels in stories. It is present in characters, images, actions, and places. Some examples of common symbols are rivers, ocean, sky, flowers, trees and bridges. Symbols are images, objects, or events that represent something else.

How a symbol is used can change or influence its meaning. A symbol can be developed from a common image or from a unique one, like the sled named Rosebud in Citizen Kane. Two powerful symbols that are more common are seen in the novel Lord of the Flies; where the symbols were the flies and the pig's head. They symbolize the breakdown of society, and the consequences of death and murder. A river is a common symbol that is perhaps overused, yet it is a unique and fresh symbol in the novel A River Runs Through It.

The symbol may be easily understood by the reader, or less consciously understood and more abstract. If the symbol enhances the meaning of the story, then the reader will understand the author.


In 300 words or less, write a scene with a symbol that is central to the story. Try to find a symbol that has not been overused. Remember, if the symbol is too abstract, or misrepresented, then the symbolism will be lost. If you reveal too many details, then the symbol becomes too obvious. Have fun with this.

Pat Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: Sat, 24 Mar 2001

Hello Members of Practice-W,

Everyone who submitted or critiqued deserves applause, this exercise was not easy. I thought all of the critiques were excellent. Some critters commented on how tough it was to find the symbolism, and as Tracy Schumaker noted, critiquing was about as difficult as writing a submission using symbolism. Good work everyone.

The submissions varied. Some symbols were familiar ones like nature, animals, light and water. Others were more unique like the symbol x, a rocking chair or a jacket. Both kinds could be made to have a very specific symbolic meaning or to be more abstract. Both were found in the submissions.

When reading and critiquing sometimes more symbols were found than were intended. Also, sometimes the reader found no symbolism present in the submission. Symbols can be present in a story although unknown to the author. The unconscious creative mind comes through in symbolism. I also noticed how my life experiences made certain symbols more meaningful. Symbolism can be very personal and mean different things to different readers. I wonder how this will affect all of our future writings.

Thanks to each of you for participating in the symbolism exercise. I hope each of you learned from and enjoyed the exercise.

Happy Writing, Patricia Johnson

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Modified by Gayle Surrette.