I had some short stories, poems and photographs to share ... and so here I am

A Crash Of Symbols


Lorna sat down on the beach, failing to grasp the significance of her husband's words. I'm leaving. I want a divorce. We can talk about the kids. We can avoid a court case, can't we? She looked over at the family playing nearby and couldn't help but notice that the tide had now come in and started to demolish their sandcastle, the loving home the little girl had spent so many hours creating.
Oh yes, that complicated subject in writing: symbolism. It can make a piece of writing sail, but it can also bring it crashing to the ground! It depends how it's used, and that's the difficult part. I prefer symbolism that hides beneath the surface, stuff that we often miss on a first reading. I don't like to get the feeling that the writer has deliberately put the symbolism in. Do you know what I mean?

The above example of symbolism, featuring Lorna on the beach, is far too obvious to my liking. I wrote it especially for this post, to demonstrate how I don't like to write. (That's a sandcastle we made on the beach in Greece over the summer, by the way). Did the text strike you as grating though? I ask this because stuff that annoys me will often be described as "beautiful" by a friend who's read the same piece. Yes, my friends, the reading experience is a very personal thing.

This is what Robie Macauley and George Lanning said about symbolism in their book Technique in Fiction:

“Symbols are not bright devices to be hung on the tree of the story. Nor can they be fabricated in an attempt to give the fiction an air of deep significance. They are serious and useful only when they are born from the narrative itself, when they come from the same well of imagination as the story.”

I tend to agree with this. Look at these other examples and tell me whether you agree with me that there is a "crash of symbols". I've made up these excerpts to help illustrate my point:

1) Tina told him she felt much better about her life. The sun suddenly came out from behind the stubborn clouds as they walked into the park. Later, near the fountain, he dropped and smashed the bottle of wine he'd been carrying. She knew then what he was about to announce.
2) The terrible news of the killing had come on a Friday morning. Mr Panguy had opened the letter from the consulate with a butter knife that had been left on the breakfast table. He'd noticed the droplet of jam on the blade as he sliced open the top of the envelope, and had been careful to ensure it didn't touch the contents.
3) He didn't want to fight her anymore. He decided he needed to be with her, in every sense of the word. Yes, she was right: commitment was everything. The vines they lay next to seemed to be on top of them all of sudden, the feelers actually now wrapped around his legs, around his arms, even curling up around his groin.
So, tell me what you think of those passages. I'd be interested to see whether you think they work or not.

In the meantime, for perhaps THE BEST LAUGH you will have this month, and while you meditate further on the question of symbolism, I invite you to watch this excellent video that a journalist friend sent me a few months back. I really encourage you to watch it right to the very end! It's one of the best videos I've seen on YouTube. It puts the whole question of symbolism right into context. Click twice on the play button.


Anonymous said...

Seamus, you shouldn't go quoting book titles (Technique in Fiction) in you posts that make me search Amazon for them and then place yet another order. It's not fair on me. I hope it's good.

Symbolism: I loved the video. Your scene on the beach with Lorna had me worried. I was happy to read the next paragraph. That "in your face" stuff ruins an otherwise real scene.

I don't do symbolism. I have, on occasion, revised my work and found a message in there, or meaning that was not meant. But I never try and incorporate symbolism.

The three examples you give simply don't work (for me). There is a sense of pretentiousness that's peeping from the symbolism in all cases.

Like your book says, ". . . they (have to) come from the same well of imagination as the story".

S. Kearney said...

Wayne - Yes, great video! I'm glad you didn't think that Lorna's piece was actually what I would write! I, like you, only do symbolism when it appears of its own accord .. ie, it's hard to spot. Funny though, because my partner loved examples 1 and 3 in the other list ... but could that be a French thing? Like you, I think they are examples of what to avoid when writing.

Anonymous said...

1 and 3 didn't work for me. Too obvious. The middle one almost worked -- I'd take out the last sentence, replace it with something simpler such as simply stating it was Friday (since many people anticipate the weekend with pleasure), then leave the rest intact and hit us with the killing after.

Just my two cents.

Devon Ellington
Ink in My Coffee

Anonymous said...

Sorry -- misprint in the above. Take out the FIRST sentence (I was having such a fit about Blogger no longer allowing linkbacks that I didn't proofread thoroughly -- talk about setting a bad example!

Take out the FIRST sentence -- the rest of my two cents are correct.

Only now they're worth about one and a half!


S. Kearney said...

Devon - Hello and welcome! Yes, I agree with you. And maybe the second one could work if things were hinted at. Good to have u stop by. What did you think of the video?

Sarah Hina said...

That video is unreal. Except, of course, it sadly isn't. All of that bullshit rhapsodizing about symbolism, while the city smolders in the background. And the flagrancy of placing the American flag over the face. Ugh. I remember cringing at that at the time.

As far as your excerpts go, I agree that most of them were too obviously planted into the narrative. The second one felt more natural because I could see him using that knife to open the mail at breakfast. And it was just subtle enough to work.

Very interesting post, Seamus. It is definitely a fine line we must walk as writers. There is such a thing as being too clever for our own good!

The Quoibler said...


You know, I don't care for in-your-face symbolism, either.

I tend to feel that the best symbolism is organically derived, much like what typically happens in our dreams.

This is probably why husband and I adore analyzing our dreams (as well as those of our friends when appropriate) to figure out what they "mean" or "are telling us".

Sometimes, it's tough to see right away what a jumbled mess of images from the dreamworld could possibly be saying -- those are usually the dreams that are usually the most meaningful and interesting.

As for your question, I like the second one the best, but none of them really "grab" me. Perhaps being an actor makes me look for the "hidden" meaning too quickly, and I lose the rhythm of the piece. Or maybe I'm just nuts and tired because it's nearing midnight here in the states. :)

In any case, wonderful and interesting post!


Lane Mathias said...

Have to admit symbolism is not something I'm consciously aware of when I write. Having said that I know I use the weather far too much to evoke a scene. Will have to go and have a good edit I think:-)

I actually liked the sandcastle symbol. They are on a beach after all so at least it's plausible (likewise with the jam).
Number three for me was too 'in your face' and cloying.

The video is extremely clever (and very funny:-)

That's a great sandcastle btw:-) Very Gormangast

S. Kearney said...

Sarah - Yes, most of us will remember that scene being played out; at least some TV stations were more honest by saying it was an American vehicle pulling down the statue, not the public, and there were not thousands and thousands of people - some stations showed just close-up shots, which tended to artificially inflate the actual numbers. But that aside, the parody on symbolism is brilliant. :-)

Quoibler - Yes, you're right: dreams can throw up the best examples of how to do symbolism. They are often subtle and not in your face. The best story teller is in our head when we sleep? This is perhaps why many writers do get a lot of material from their dreams - I know I do! I'm glad you liked the post.

Lane - Thanks re the sandcastle. They always get comments from admirers passing by! The examples here on symbolism are a bit exaggerated (deliberately) because obviously the symbol is too close to the subject/theme ... and in a novel we would be able to spread things out, for example by referring to something symbolically before it happened, foreshadowing an event. But in all cases I believe it has to be subtle, so the reader doesn't let out a loud sigh! The weather is a very interesting case in point. I like to include lots of weather, not really for symbolism, but for helping to paint the scene, to put people in a context. The difficult part is trying to find a unique way of describing the weather. How many ways can we say that the sky was blue! :-) And sometimes it's painful to see a writer who has obviously tried too hard to describe the weather in his/her own way. I'm glad you liked the video as well. lol. Wasn't the taxi line great?

colleen said...

I do symbolism because when it comes up naturally because it is really how life is. I actually like your example IF you leave of this part: the loving home the little girl had spent so many hours creating -- and jump right into more description.

I don't like any of the examples further down in the post though. Those are really too obvious.

What can we do about blogger blocking out non-blogger bloggers from linking to their sites?

WH said...

Seamus, really thought-provoking post. God knows high school students and most of the population already gripe about having to analyze symbolism, and as a former English teacher, most people can't understand truly good symbolism (the fault of the educational system), but I surely agree with you that subtlty wins out every time--something beneath the surface, like a clue in a motion picture that no one picks up on until the end of the film. As for the three choices, none really "got" me.

Vesper said...

Very interesting post, Seamus. All examples are quite obvious - but they were meant as examples. Something to think about...

virtual nexus said...

Appreciated this post.

Just passing and rather oblique comment, but have recently been looking into metaphoric/symbolic dream states; in one experiment researchers took dreams, cut them at a significant point and shuffled them to see whether test team could re-match them accurately re content. They couldn't.

One theory is to do with unfinished arousal (pgo spikes) the brain is trying to complete unfinished arousal states in waking. In depression, dreaming time doubles - and that's why we wake up exhausted. Uses up brain chemicals, apparently. Not worth stressing out....!

Marja said...

Hi Seamus. I see what you mean it is all a bit too thick, although to be honest i didn't mind the sandcastle one (Great Castle btw)
I love writing stories, poetry and articles. I love experimenting and
just letting it flow. I am not very literate and educated. All these rules frighten me a little.
On the other side it is good to be concious of these things.

Pearl said...

The ending with the face covered suggested the imperial generic depot as the American one. Is that what bonked your funny bone?

S. Kearney said...

Colleen - Funny how the castle has been popular for some ... minus the last bit of it. And I'm not sure what blogger is doing to you. Blocking a link back to your site? I see a link my end, so I'm not sure what you mean. :-)

Billy - Goodness, yes, I remember having to find obscure symbolism in literature at school ... our teachers always saw so much more than there really was in the piece. We once had an actual author dispute the symbolism one of our teacher's identified in her work ... having come across the analysis in some kid's book. Not that the teacher was wrong, but sometimes we dig deeper than anyone else would go, not even the author!

Vesper - Yes, it's always good to have little reminders like this, before we go spreading jam over the butter knives! :-)

Julie - Hi and welcome! :-) Good to have you stop by. Oh that whole subject of interpreting dreams. Wow, that is one whole area I do love to explore, having had a few bizarre experiences! I would love to be here in a couple of centuries to find the true answers to all that. I'm sure they will crack it one day ... if the planet is still here! :-)

Marja - Best not to get too bogged down in the rules anyway, especially if it stops the creative juices flowing! :-) It's good to have some guidelines I think, but not to let that hinder the process or take the pleasure out of writing!

Pearl - Actually it was the taxi bit that got me ... and the mention of the cushions ... near the end ... not the actual end, end, although that was terrific too. The one word answer and then the itv being cut off! Priceless! :-) Maybe it's because that is my line of work (TV news) and I can relate to it so much. :-)

Marie said...

I can see what you mean about them being too obvious. I agree, symbolism is best hiding 'beneath the surface'.

Casdok said...

Interesting post!

S. Kearney said...

Marie - Hi! Yes, tricky one, especially when we're the ones writing, but beneath the surface and subtle seems to be the way. :-)

Casdok - Hello and welcome. :-) Thanks for your visit and I hope you'll be back.

Unknown said...

The sandcastle one was good. I agree symbolism is best when subtle. When reading something over and over again can bring it out. Have u read the play the glass menagerie by Tennessee Williams. Isn't it so subtle there? And also Look Back In Anger by Osborne. However, at times over the top symbolism works. Especially with horror fiction. Look at Poe. He is a master at that!

S. Kearney said...

Puresunshine - Yes, funny you mention over-the-top symbolism. The dark cat kind of stuff. A colleague told me today that the jam on the butter knife would work in a certain kind of book ... a Hitchcockesque kind of slant. Interesting.

unarex said...

All those examples are, as you say, way too obvious and cliched. The one about the sandcastle though is the worst, but I suppose it is arguable. I'm glad to know that turns you off. Whenever I read stuff like that my eyes begin to wander. The sandcastle: too precious, trying too hard to evoke emotion rather than allowing the scene itself to do it. I call those "Spielberg images" i.e. the need to hit you over the head with the obvious. Those are examples of a writer trying too hard. But I've seen many an image like that by big named writers and all I can say is lazy, lazy, lazy!

That video was very funny--that commentator and the comment about the Taxi and calling him a bastard.

I like all your graffiti.

Unknown said...

Ah yes symbolism, great if it happens naturally, of it's own accord within the context of the story - but utterly bloody horrible when deliberately constructed. Judicious use is best.
And that clip was hysterical and cringeworthy!

S. Kearney said...

Jessica - I like that: Spielberg images! :-) And oh yes, examples like that (perhaps less exaggerated) are littered through books I read ... you wonder how they manage to get through editors. And I'm glad you shared my enthusiasm for that video. I LOVED it. Also, I just read your review on the book by the chimp expert Jane Goodall. I must buy this. She is an extraordinary woman. I interviewed her in Tanzania in 2001 re development projects for people living in rural areas. She is awesome in her approach/ideas on how this planet needs to be managed. :-)

Absolute V - Yes, good word to apply here - judicious use! :-) I'm also glad you found the video hysterical. I loved for ages and had tears in my eyes!!

unarex said...

Wow, you interviewed Jane Goodall. Cool. The book was very enjoyable--if you get a chance to read it I'd like to hear your impressions of the chimps (not literally of course, unless you really want to bark and jump up and down and scratch yourself in odd places). Some of them are just so interesting--more personality than others I suppose.

A scene like the sandcastle one, if in a Hollywood film would have the melodramatic music--"THIS IS A MOMENT" sort of thing. Very trite. The only way something like that could work is if there was humor in it or something to reverse the cliche because as is, it is just too forced an image. One of the reasons I don't admire Spielberg's films--they are beautiful to look at but very forced on the emotions/metaphors. European filmmakers are much better at symbolism--they're just more "adult" about it.

Debi said...

Oh Shamey - you suddenly changed your avatar for that last comment and it's thrown me ... and then you also say you 'loved for ages' - it would be great if that's NOT a typo ...

Ah yes - that video. Classic stuff. Symbolic all right - but not in the way they intended. Symbollock, more like.

S. Kearney said...

Jessica - Yes, it was an honour to itv Goodall for a radio documentary I did on development in Tanzania. I was so impressed, and she was such a friendly person. I will definitely look out for her book. And yes, yes and yes re the sandcastle, unless, as you say, it's deliberately meant to be a "hitchcocky" moment.

Debi - Ooopss!! Yes, it WAS a typo! Sorry. That should've read LAUGHED. How funny. Nice to know though that I have loving on the brain. That must be Absolute Vanilla's influence in her wonderful post on "interconnecting"! :-) lol

Chris Eldin said...

hahahaha! That's a good video.

(Here in the States, reporters aren't allowed to drink on air)

S. Kearney said...

Church Lady - Hi and welcome yes, wasn't it a blast! :-)

steve on the slow train said...

I don't do a lot of fiction, but my use of symbolism tends toward the obvious--a character named Gershom ("I have been a stranger in a strange land), but then, he gives the name to himself. But I'm curious about Robie McCauley--there can't be that many of them. My parents were in the Iowa Writers' Workshop with McCauley in the late 1940s, and I have copies of letters from Flannery O'Connor mentioning him.

steve on the slow train said...

Just got through with the video--too bizarre to be believed. But the same could be said for Bush's occupation policies.

S. Kearney said...

Steve - Hello and welcome! Good to have you stop by. And how interesting about your family's connection with Robie Macauley ... if it's the same man; I see your fellow is spelt differently. The writer of the book I quoted definitely has a small C and an a after the M. If it's the same person, what a small world, eh? And yes, the video is a scream. I love these kinds of parodies! :-)

steve on the slow train said...

Shameless--O'Connor's letters to my mother, which were just signed "Flannery," also referred to Macauley as just "Robie." I never knew the correct spelling, which is why Google didn't help me. Maybe if I had read more Playboy in my adolescence, as he was literary editor in the '60s(eventually you look at the articles), I would have seen his name. After finding his NYT obituary, I know it's the same man.

S. Kearney said...

Steve - Ah, the same man then. :-) Wow. And he was literary editor at Playboy? I didn't know that. It's wonderful what you learn in the blogosphere. And how interesting about Flannery O'Connor writing letters to your mum. Wow. They might be valuable, especially for someone writing his bio. Do they give anything away about his life? His writing? I have a friend in Paris who is translating some Eudora Welty stories into French ... I think they kicked around together. Thanks for this info. I look forward to checking out your blog, Steve. :-)

steve on the slow train said...

Shameless--My brother has the letters in a safe deposit box. I gave Sally Fitzgerald permission to use them in her collection of Flannery's letters, but her (Flannery's) mother, who was still alive at the time, wasn't giving permission for them to be used.