Two things happened yesterday that got me thinking about the power of symbols. The first was a package from home. For years, after I moved away from home and ended up half-way across the country, I felt Christmas didn’t really begin in my own house until the parcel from my mother arrived. It was filled with little presents and silly rhymes, a piece of fruit cake and all the love my mom could pack into a box. My parents have been gone now for years, but my dear sister-in-law continues the tradition. When I get a box with the farm on the return address, my spirits rise and I feel like Christmas is really here.
The second thing happened when I looked out my window at an inky blue sky — probably another storm on the way — and a pair of white swans flew by, their wings shining white in a trace of sunshine. A pair of birds flying in close formation is a powerful symbol for me. Once again, my heart lifted and I knew all was right in my personal world.
As writers we need to draw on the power of symbolism to strengthen our stories, or to feed the muse. Think of the enduring stories of the ages. Tara is a powerful symbol in Gone With the Wind. For Scarlet, her home is worth any sacrifice, any lie, any relationship. She draws her strength, her will and her courage from that house. Can you see a raven without thinking of Edgar Allan Poe and death? “Scarlet Letter” has entered our language as a symbol of shame and repression because of Hawthorne’s book. The Titanic may have been a great ship, but now it is a symbol of looming disaster. Or how about the yellow brick road? Don’t we all want to follow it to Emerald City?
In his Writing the Breakout Novel Donald Maass says, “Symbols — which generally are physical objects but may also be phrases, gestures, animals or just about anything — pack a powerful lot of meaning into a small package.” He goes on to suggest that the writer often has included symbols in the story without realizing it. He urges writers to find those hidden symbols and make them shine. Use them to add polish to your story, to plant an idea in your reader’s mind, to create a lasting image that will give your story enduring power.
In my book The Man for Her, Lottie’s yellow silk dress is a symbol, an outward expression of an internal change. “The feel of the yellow silk beneath her rough fingers had stirred such an ache of desire, a yearning for gentleness and softness and pretty things.” I refer to yellow silk only three times in the book, but it means so much more than the colour of a fine fabric. When she wears that dress she is no longer “Crazy Lottie” but a young woman ready to give her heart to a man.
Christmas time is rife with symbols, some universal, like a star or shepherds or a stable, others more personal, like a package from home or a pair of swans. Look for those symbols in your writing and make them work harder. Your readers will thank you.