Symbolism in Writing

(Reed’s Playlist for the occasion: Postcards from Hell by Zebrahead; Jude Law and a Semester Abroad by Brand New)

Another interesting tidbit today from Stephen King’s On Writing:

“[Symbolism] doesn’t have to be consciously crafted as a kind of ornamental Turkish rug upon which the furniture of the story stands. If you can go along with the concept of the story as a pre-existing thing, a fossil in the ground, then symbolism must also be pre-existing, right? […] While writing Carrie I never once stopped to think: ‘Ah, all this blood symbolism will win me Brownie Points with the critics'” (pp. 198-199)

It makes for a good occasion to point out another mistake I made in my first experiences with writing – assuming that symbolism is something you consciously craft into a story.

At the start of things, I would read all these great works of literature and say to myself, “This author knew from the very beginning what every single detail of their story symbolized.” Meanwhile, my writings seemed silly and shallow in comparison.

But a few days ago I was re-reading over the full version of The Oasis, my short story posted elsewhere on this blog, and I noticed some pretty heavy symbolism. For one thing, Terjjen greeted the rising sun, which usually represents progress and the dawning of a new era, with unease and revulsion – a foreshadowing symbol of his desire not to be dragged into a political war. The final scene (spoilers!) has Terjjen glancing back and forth between the blue button (where blue has been the color of dread previously), the bookshelf (which represents knowing better and making an informed decision), and Olienna’s body (symbolizing the death of his previous life, one way or another). When he chooses the button, it’s indicative not just of his choice to start a race war, but also a subtle head-nod to a decision that is counterintuitive to Terjjen – the decision to move forward.

I’m not pointing this stuff out just to stroke my ego. I’m trying to say none of this was intended when I wrote the story. It just happened and then I realized later on the symbolism inherent in the writing. The second draft – at least according to Stephen King – is meant for recognizing and nurturing those symbols, so that what came across as the subtext in your mind can be noticed more easily by the reader.

TL;DR: If you’re scared of the literary giants and their impossibly complex symbolism, don’t be. Chances are when they read over the first draft, they were just as surprised as you.

Yours in the dark of an unlit apartment,

-R.R. Buck


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