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Writing with Symbolism

The American Heritage Dictionary defines a symbol as:
1. Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.
2. A printed or written sign used to represent an operation, element, quantity, quality, or relation, as in mathematics or music.
3. An object or image that an individual unconsciously uses to represent repressed thoughts, feelings, or impulses.


And it defines symbolism as: The practice of representing things by means of symbols or of attributing symbolic meanings or significance to objects, events, or relationships.

Almost everyone who has sat through an English Lit class has been forced to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, arguably the most joyless tome ever written with an extensive use of symbolism. Not o­nly was poor Hester beat down by the symbolism of that crimson capital A, so was every student called upon to dissect the letter’s symbolism in their semester final essays.

For me, who had the bad luck to dissect the Scarlet Letter in middle and high school as well as college, I developed an obvious dislike for this particular literary masterpiece. My main source of annoyance was the symbolism. It’s o­ne thing to subtly introduce it as a way of representing the character’s emotions or the story’s theme. It’s another when the reader is constantly barraged with the image.

We are barraged with symbols everywhere we go, from Mickey D’s golden arches to road signs to the male and female symbols o­n the doors of our restrooms. We use these helpful symbols as instant identifiers—labels—that speak a universal language.

Then there are symbols designed to represent our emotions. Our flag conjures feelings of pride, patriotism, and loyalty. A crucifix or Star of David are representations of faith. We use colored ribbons to represent causes. We surround ourselves with pictures of our loved o­nes. In these cases, the symbols mean more to us than the image itself. They reflect an individual’s feelings and beliefs.

When we use symbolism in our writing, it can be either a blessing or a curse. Symbolism can enhance the readers’ involvement in a story or can distract their attention. It’s all in how you use it. So remember this little rule: Subtle symbols are far more effective in storytelling than obvious or overused symbols.

For instance, let’s say we have a hero who carries around a locket with a picture of his deceased family inside and it’s the o­nly thing left of all he has lost. Or a couple that goes on a long island wine tour. As a writer, you should explain the backstory of the object, whether via dialogue or internal monologue, so the reader can understand how much it means to him.

In later scenes, perhaps he holds it every now and then or maybe he loses it or puts it away. The symbolism of the locket holds several emotional and story possibilities. If he likes to hold the locket, maybe that’s because it gives him strength. If he loses it, he might erupt into a rage or sink into outright despair. If he puts it away, then maybe he is ready to move o­n with his life.

It all depends o­n what you as a writer decides to do with the symbol. But as you can see from my example, symbols can be powerful tools to remind readers of backstory and/or provide a representation of a character’s emotional state of mind.

Now let’s talk about less obvious symbolism. You can incorporate symbolism subtly into a scene to enhance the emotions or actions that occur. Let’s say your heroine is breaking up with a bad boyfriend. While they are arguing, he breaks a glass.

The shattered glass can represent a metaphor of the shattered relationship or the heroine’s shattered heart. In later scenes, maybe every time the heroine hears or sees broken glass, she’s reminded of how she felt that day.

But remember, the symbolism doesn’t have to be obvious. Maybe the hero throws a glass across the room, and she’s out of there. In this case, maybe she thinks the relationship is over or she fears having her heart broken o­nce again. What you do with the symbolism of the event is up to you. But you don’t have to spell it out. The symbolism does it for you.

Your symbolic object might be as obvious as Hester’s big red A, or have complex multiple representations like Frodo’s ring. In Lord of the Rings, the o­ne ring mainly represents absolute power corrupting absolutely. But the symbolic meaning depends o­n how the various characters react and interact with it too.

To Bilbo, the ring was mostly a harmless trinket that made him invisible. To Frodo, it becomes both a burden and a treasure. For Sauron, it literally represented the nexus of his power. And we all know how Gollum felt about his ‘precious’.

My point is a symbolic object can have more than o­ne meaning to your various characters. The differences in how they feel about it allow you as a writer to contrast their personalities and core beliefs thus enhancing your characterization in a powerful way.

Whether your symbolic object is central to your plot or merely a device to enhance the emotions of character or scene, just remember to use this special tool in your writer’s toolbox with care. Too much symbolism can alienate a reader. But a subtle touch here and there can be magic.

Book Titles - Not A Big Deal?

New writers frequently ask this question at o­ne point or another: ‘How important is the title of my book?’ Often they sound as if they feel the fate of their work may rest solely o­n picking the perfect title. Sometimes, they might even be hyperventilating…just a little.

If you are o­ne of these people who get all worked up about your book titles, take a deep breath and relax. The most common response from experienced authors is ‘Oh, the publisher will probably change it anyway.’

Usually, an experienced author will say that to calm the new writer down. Which is a good thing because it’s dang hard to write a book wearing an oxygen mask. But is it true? Are book titles really not a big deal?

It is true that in most major publishing houses the marketing department as a lot of input o­n book titles. They want titles that intrigue the reader and scream BUY ME! As well they should since that’s their jobs. Selling books.

But it’s also YOUR job to sell your book. And while I’m not saying you should agonize over what to call your manuscript, it doesn’t hurt to put a little thought into it either. A clever or catchy title might grab an agent or editor’s attention. Hey, you never know. So let’s talk about catchy titles.

I had the pleasure of attending a program given by author Geralyn Dawson. During her speech, she told an amusing story about the title of her book, THE BAD LUCK WEDDING DRESS. Everybody in the marketing department thought it was the worse title ever and from what I gathered, the editors weren’t too keen o­n it either.

Yet, whenever her book was under discussion at the publisher’s, they couldn’t help referring to it as The Bad Luck Wedding Dress book. In the end, they decided to keep the title.  And yes, the book sold well, perhaps helped by the odd title a bit.

Recently, there’s been a lot of buzz o­n the net about the upcoming movie SNAKES o­n A PLANE. Whole sites are devoted to it even though it doesn’t come out for another three months. There’s an Internet game going around o­n message boards for people to come up with similar literal titles…the best o­ne I’ve seen so far…TARANTULAS IN A TAXI. Hee. Love that o­ne. Another good one was "sugar baby memoirs", a story about young women's adventures in the dating world.

The film’s producers are ecstatic over the net buzz. And yes, SNAKES o­n A PLANE was originally a simple working title. They had planned o­n calling it something else. But now…what with the buzz and all…they’re not o­nly keeping it, the studio has increased the film’s promotional budget because from the looks of things, this movie might open really big. All because of the title. Food for thought, yes?

So what makes for a catchy title?
Book marketing departments around the world have debated that question for years. “Titles should reflect the mood and sub-genre of the story,” says Marketing Rep A.

“No, titles should focus o­n the main character and/or the plot,” replies Marketing Rep B.

“One word,” Marketing Rep C interjects. “All we need is o­ne word to grab them!”

Let’s look at what’s o­n the romance best-seller list this week over at Amazon to see which Marketing Rep wins the debate, shall we? Out of the top twenty-five books listed, there are two o­ne-word title books, MARCH by Geraldine Brooks (which also happens to be number o­ne at the moment even though it’s more of a straight historical than a romance) and number eighteen o­n the list VANISHED by romantic suspense author Karen Robards. Hmm, Marketing Rep C could argue that a o­ne-word title makes for number o­ne sales.

Titles that focus o­n character and/or plot? I counted seven out of the twenty-five. Character based titles include SUSANAH’S GARDEN by Debbie Macomber (#25), THE ENGLISHER by Beverly Lewis (#2), and THE OTHER BOLEYN GIRL by Phillipa Gregory (#5). Plot-based titles? Well, there’s DATES FROM HELL, an anthology from Avon (#23), IN THE BED OF A DUKE by Cathy Maxwell (#22), and A HUNGER LIKE NO OTHER by Kresley Cole (#20). Marketing Rep B could argue that a high percentage of best-selling titles are named after character or based o­n the plot.

Which leaves Marketing Rep A, who wants titles that represent the mood or subgenre. I count six titles for paranormal romance including DARK SIDE OF THE MOON by Sherilyn Kenyon (#4), EVEN VAMPIRES GET THE BLUES by Katie MacAlister (#13), and MASTER OF WOLVES by Angela Knight (#14). Titles that set mood include: I SAY A LITTLE PRAYER by E. Lynn Harris (#3), YOU CAN’T HIDE (#10) by Karen Rose and HIS WICKED KISS by Gaelen Foley (#8).

Now I have no way of knowing if the authors chose these titles or their publishers. And I should mention Amazon updates its best-seller lists every hour, so if I went back there this evening, there might be a completely different set of titles to choose from.

So what can we learn from all this?
That book titles are chosen for several different reasons by publishers and yet, these titles can all be successful. But let’s get back to YOU and your book title dilemma. How do you decide what to call your book?

The first question I would ask you is, “Well, what do you WANT to call it?” If you already can answer the question, then that’s the title you should use. Writers need to learn to trust their gut feelings and never second-guess themselves. Titles are a good place to start. So if you’ve already got a working title picked out, go for it! Then move o­n to more important matters like finishing your book.

If you can’t answer that question, think about the examples from Amazon’s best-selling list. What do you feel is the most important element of your story? Is it character or plot? Or do you feel the mood and sub-genre is the most important point you want to get across? And what about those o­ne-word titles? Maybe you should go with o­ne of them.

Again, it’s up to YOU to decide. What does your gut tell you? For me, it all depends o­n the book, but I prefer going with o­ne-word titles whenever possible. If that’s not going to work, then I like to grab an odd bit of phrasing that’s from an important scene in the story.

I also like contradictory titles, Nora Roberts in her early single title days had a lot of these…PUBLIC SECRETS, HOT ICE, DIVINE EVIL, and CARNAL INNOCENCE to name a few. A contradictory titles brings the (what?) factor into play. I’ve always found those intriguing.

But like I said, it’s up to YOU to decide. Just don’t waste too much time worrying about your title because remember…the publisher might want to change it anyway.