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Exercise: Symbolism (take 2)

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.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Patricia Johnson
Posted on: March 31, 2002

An earlier version of this exercise ran in March 2001.

SYMBOLISM 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. A unique symbol is the sled named Rosebud in Citizen Kane. The sled has many underlying symbols, including Kane's lost childhood. In one of the sconces of his childhood near the beginning of the movie, we see a shot of the sled abandoned. At the end of the movie, the sled is burned in a fire. Action takes place around the sled. Action enhances the viewer's ability to understand the symbol. Action helps to express the symbol's importance in the movie.

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.

Here is a helpful site that defines symbolism. http://www.capcollege.bc.ca/dept/magic/cmns/symbolism.html
Here is a website with alphabetized common symbols. A good place to get a symbol for your story. http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/symbolismproject/symbolism.html/

Exercise: In 300 words or less, write a scene with a symbol that is central to the story. Use 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. Use only one symbol.

When critiquing the submissions find the symbol. Describe it and tell how it is important to the story. Explain why it is an integral part of the story. Address what the story would be like without the symbol. Mention if it is tied to the action of the story or not.

Have fun with this exercise.

Patricia Johnson's wrap-up
Posted on: April 7, 2002

Hello Practice-w members,

The symbolism exercise went very well. Each of you who submitted and critiqued helped to make it a success.

Some interesting reflections:

  • Symbolism allows each writer to discover his unique voice.
  • Symbolism brings more to a story than may consciously be intended.
  • Some critiquers read symbols differently from others.
  • Critiquers unique interpretations gave writers further ideas and directions for rewrites.
  • Symbolism is a process and is full of surprises.
  • The writer does not have to know every interpretation of a symbol when he uses it.
  • Even universal symbols function differently in different stories.
  • Symbols sometimes have several layers of meaning.
  • The critiques allow writers insight into how their story appears to others.
  • Our own experiences add to how we interpret a symbol.

Some mentioned it felt risky to interpret some symbols. But the benefit of revealing a unique perspective to the writer outweighs the risk. As writers we need to know how our story is interpreted by readers. Symbolism is a great tool for this.

Thanks to each to you for participating.

Patricia Johnson

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.