Purple Prose + theme

Weaving in Symbolism

One way to create a richer story is by weaving in symbolic subtext. This is also a great way to reveal the story’s theme.

Subtext works both at a conscious and unconscious level. When we read a book or watch a movie, some symbols will jump out at us, especially if the creators have done a good job drawing your attention to it. With other symbols, you won’t stop to analyze it. For example, if the scene takes place in a room with green walls, you won’t be thinking that the director wanted to reveal the subtext of life. But you can guarantee someone behind the scenes purposely picked that color because of what it symbolized and not because it was her favorite color.

In the first season of Criminal Minds, there was one episode (Compulsion) in which fire and the number three were important elements. Among other things, fire represents anger and divinity (Symbols, Images, Codes: The Secret Language of Meaning in Film, TV, Games, and Visual Media by Pamela Jaye Smith). It was eventually determined that the unsub was starting fires based on the need to test her victims. If they survived the fire, they were free of the wrath of God. The number three (or rather the triad of the number three) would set off the unsub. The creators could have randomly selected any number, but three (like other numbers) has a symbolic meaning. In Christianity, it represents the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. As the unsub lined up the three bottles of flammable liquid, before dousing her three victims with them, she made reference to the bottles as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

In the book Where the Heart Is, author Billie Letts used a tree to represent life and growth. Pregnant seventeen-year-old Novalee is abandoned by her boyfriend at a Wal-Mart store. With nowhere to go (since her mother ran away with a guy many years ago), she secretly moves into the store. A woman mistakes her for a young girl she once knew and gives Novalee a Welcome Wagon gift of a buckeye tree. As can be expected, the tree starts to die. Novalee tries to return it to the woman, who suggests they plant it in her garden, but only if Novalee comes by regularly to take care of it. This is the turning point in Novalee’s life. These are the first acts of kindness she has experienced in a while, and under the guidance of Ruth Ann, Novalee turns her life around. This is only one example of what the tree symbolized in the story.
In the second example, the meaning behind the symbolism was obvious from near the beginning of the book, and was woven throughout. In the first example, it was only obvious at the end of the show, when the Behavioral Analysis Unit solved the crimes.

The two resources on symbolism for writers I recommend are Symbols, Images, Codes: The Secret Language of Meaning in Film, TV, Games, and Visual Media by Pamela Jaye Smith (I’ll be reviewing it on Wednesday) and the blog The Bookshelf Muse.

Have you woven symbolism into your story to highlight theme and to be use as subtext?

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Weaving in Symbolism + theme