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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Secret Symbols in Writing

                                                Symbols in Stories

            I remember studying symbolism when I took American Literature in college and in my high school English class.  I thought it was a lot of bunk.  Why would an author stick in a bunch of symbols instead of just coming right out and saying whatever it was they wanted to say?  Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  I changed my opinion when I realized that I have been inserting symbols in just about everything I write.  It’s not intentional in most of my work.  It just happens.  It’s like that underlying thought or feeling I didn’t intend to express but then I find I symbolized it just the way we do in our dreams.  

Here are some examples:
           In my 1927 time travel, The Violin, I wrote about John’s younger brother’s inability to let go of the hawk whose broken wing he repaired.  He struggles with setting the hawk free until the very end.  Of course, it wasn’t really just a hawk.  The hawk signifies freedom and releasing control.  When it gets right down to it, letting go and going with the flow aren’t as easy as we wish they were.  We want to hang on to what we know because the unknown is just too scary.

The Violin has just been re-launched by for Fire Star Press and is available in print and all e-book formats.

Red Tailed Hawk

            In another time travel, Harmonica Joe’s Reluctant Bride, I used a harmonica as a symbol.  Joe keeps his deceased brother’s harmonica even though he can’t play it.  The harmonica implies his love for his brother, his guilt that he died and that Joe blames himself.  By the way, that harmonica shows up in the sequel, Banjo’s story, in another symbolic way.

Joe's Harmonica

            I intended the piano as a symbol in Cast Away Heart.  A bitter man puts his former wife’s baby grand piano out in the yard and derives pleasure in watching it succumb to the elements until it rots and ends up in the trash.  Ella wants to save the piano and says she can’t understand that kind of bitterness but she, too,  hangs on to the bitterness of her past and that bitterness is about to destroy her future happiness.   So the piano represents how bitterness can only lead to destruction of spirit.

Baby Grand Piano

            In other stories, I have used a Rubik’s cube, an amber coffin, a ghost and even wings as symbols.  I didn’t intend them as symbol’s, but just like those confounding objects in my dreams, they do represent underlying emotions.   Symbols take on a life of their own.  Most of us know the symbols for religions: a cross, a Star of David, and so on. We know by the symbol what the underlying theology is

Religious Symbols

           What would Superman be without the big S in a triangle as his symbol?  Whenever we see that symbol, we know that help is on the way. 

Did you see any symbols in the last book you read? 

Did you write a symbol into one of your books? 

Did you intend to write in the symbol or is it a Freudian slip?

Sigmund Freud

Sarah J. McNeal

Sarah McNeal is a multi-published author of time travel, paranormal, western, contemporary and historical fiction.


  1. Hello Sarah, what an interesting post. I had never thought that I was inserting any sort of symbolism into my stories, I will certainly go back and check. If I have it is sure to be a Freudian slip, isn't it? Thanks for making my brain work in a different way today.

    1. Jill, I bet when you go back and check things out, you'll find a symbol or two. Sometimes we write about certain places, objects, or things and don't realize we've latched onto a symbol. Maybe you usually have some kind of body of water in a story. It wouldn't be a symbol, secret or otherwise, unless you have a propensity to put water in a story. Need some grounding or serenity maybe?
      Thank you so much for dropping in ad commenting.

  2. Hello Sarah, such a great post. I too have used symbols in some of my writings. My book The Circle (yet to be released) is all about the Indian legend in regard to life being about a circle. Come to think of it in every day life we have so many symbols that invoke so many emotions or memories. Our flag for instance, a pair of dog tags, a soldiers casket draped with a flag, a Valentines Day heart etc. Until I read your post I really never thought about the symbolisms used in our life and writing. you're such a clever girl.

    1. See Barb, you're really getting this whole symbol thing.
      I'm really interested in your circle theme for your upcoming release. The Old Man of the Sea (hope I got that title right) by Hemmingway was supposedly riddled with symbolism. When the sharks ate the marlin the old man had worked so hard to catch, it was said that Hemmingway felt that is how his life was torn apart by critics of his work.
      Thanks for thinking I'm clever. I learned about symbolism in literature in high school and college or I might have missed some really important stuff.
      It's always a pleasure to have a visit and a comment from you, Barb. Thank you.

  3. Sarah, what an interesting post! I never thought symbolism was a bunch of bunk--I remember when I was in grade school and we talked about that--I really "got it" but I think there weren't many as interested in writing at that point as I was. But it was really hard to learn to use it effectively and not make it seem "hokey" in writing my own stories.

    You really do a great job with it in your tales!

    1. I knew you would latch on to symbolism at an early age, Cheryl. It took me longer to understand it. Now I think I may see symbols where there aren't any--but that's fun, too. In a way, it's unnerving to think there are symbols in our writing we didn't intend and that, just maybe, they give the reader a deeper insight into our psyche than we want. Yikes!
      I think the most obvious symbol I ever wrote into a story was the piano in Cast Away Heart. The piano I used in the story that actually did end up tossed outside and into the garbage in my real life had such an impact on me--well, how could I not use it in a story? Thank you for that compliment.
      Isn't it odd, Cheryl, how many of us started our passion for story telling and writing practically at birth? I wonder about that so often. Is it genetic? I don't know if there's a gene for that in our DNA, but it sure feels like it.
      Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy day to come and read my blog. I always love to see your comments.

  4. Sarah,
    I love symbolism. My problem is to be careful and not put too much into a story. :-)

    1. What? Too much symbolism? No way. Of all the symbols you've written into your stories, which one stands out the most to you, Kristy? Curious minds want to know.
      I appreciate you dropping by and commenting on my blog. You're very sweet.

  5. Interesing Sarah. I do believe we all live with symbols, we're just not always aware of them. I really don't know that I am conscious of using or thinking about symbols in mine or the writings of others. They just are, making for a richer deeper story, that readers unconsciouly relate to. Now of course I'm going to have to pay attention. (Grin). Great post and best on the re-release. Doris

    1. Doris, once you start paying attention to symbolism, you'll really begin to see there is more to what we write than the just that story line. We write something personal in every story even when we don't intend to. What I really like is when the author makes a point of using symbolism in his/her work. Steinbeck's book, The Grapes of Wrath is loaded with symbolism. Once you see it, you'll be fascinated by it. I'll get you addicted to searching for hidden meanings in everybody's work including your own.
      Thank you so much for your support of me and all the authors here at PRP. It's always nice to have you come by.

  6. Well, now, you have me very curious. I have no idea about symbolism in any of my stories. I would need to do some serious thinking on that subject.
    The only one I might call a symbol is in a story in which one unwed mother trades her healthy baby for a dead one. She names her own baby before she gives her away, but then has no name for the dead baby. But she buries it in a cemetery in another town and places a stone baby angel on top. Now, is this a symbol? At least I can begin to look for symbols, in case there is one. I have read stories in which a characters wears a certain necklace on a chain, something akin to half a heart--etc.
    I love this post--it's really making me think. Thanks so much!

    1. Celia, I'm loving that I made you curious about symbols. I know you've got some in your stories. I want to know the title of that book about the woman who gives away her baby and buries a dead one. The headstone she put on the dead baby's grave spoke loud and clear about innocence and vulnerability and the nameless baby--there had to be a reason she couldn't think of a name for it--why was that? If that baby had a name would the whole situation hurt her even more? Deep stuff, Celia.
      The necklace with half a heart. Now where's that other half? Broken.
      What I see in these symbols may not be what others see, but none-the-less, I have gone into my own experiences and psyche and come up with these meanings.
      It's always wonderful to hear from you and get your take on a subject, Celia. You are a pure joy to me. Thank you.

  7. The moon is one I use a lot for the cycles it goes through, changes and its influence on us. Birds I also like especially owls but others like a hawk can be good ones.

    1. See, Rain, you've got this down.
      Intentional symbols are tricky to my way of thinking because you have to get the reader to derive the same meaning from it that you intended when you wrote it. It isn't easy, is it? When I used the piano symbol I may have been too heavy handed and not let the reader come to his/her own conclusion about what it related to, but, hey, it takes some practice--at least for me.
      I love the idea of birds as symbols. Who in American culture doesn't see an image of an eagle without thinking "freedom"? It's like the William Wallace of birds.
      Thank you so much for commenting on my blog, Rain. I really appreciate it.

  8. Sarah, what a great post! I still remember writing a high-school term paper about the symbolism of rain in Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. I'll probably never forget that, because Hemingway drove me to distraction. All of his works are chock-full symbolism, but his "writer's voice" irritated me.

    I'm like you, I suspect: I don't set out to create any specific symbols, but when I recognize one developing, I go with it. The red-tailed hawk that appears in the first three words in Prodigal Gun is symbolic, but I didn't realize that until the second time he showed up. Darn critter fairly slapped me across the face with his wing and said, "Hey! Pay attention, dummy!" :-D

    Thank you for giving us all something to think about, dear lady. You have a way of getting right to the heart of a lesson well learned. :-)

    1. LOL We must both be drawn to red tailed hawks, Kathleen. Seems like there's always one flying around. I did notice the red tailed hawk in Prodigal Gun.
      Wading through Hemmingway's work can seem daunting. As much as I'm not a big fan of his, he did write one short story titled The Chrysanthemums (needed spellcheck for that one) that I actually liked. Of course, the chrysanthemums were symbolic. It was really kind of sad--but that's Hemmingway. No wonder he drank so much.
      I don't always know a symbol when I meet one.
      Thank you so very much for coming over and sharing your thoughts on symbols. I always love to see you.

  9. Very interesting. I know I tend to give some of my characters names that are symbolic. The Grimsby couple, are they good guys or troublemakers? How about Jennie Graves? Can you believe she is the heroine in a book about genealogy and searching out family history? And, yes, if you want to get a "feel" for a hero or a villain, you want to be choosey about what kind of bird or animal you associate with that person. A lot of food for thought. Thanks.

    Robyn Echols w/a Zina Abbott

    1. Ohmagosh, Robyn, I had to laugh with those crazy names for your characters. I loved the Grimsby couple--troublemakers, I'm sure. And Jennie Graves in a book about genealogy--priceless.
      Thank you so much for coming by and adding your take on symbols. Loved those names, girl.

  10. I read and write braincandy, so can't say I've ever paid much attention to symbolism. You certainly wrote a good lesson about the how and why. Thanks, Sarah!

  11. Jacquie, you can call your work brain candy if you like--I'm partial to them. I wonder, like sugar, can you get high on brain candy stories? Just wonderin' on account of I think I could become addicted to them.
    Thank you so much for coming. I love the daily pictures you post on Facebook every day. It starts my day with a giggle or two.

  12. What an intriguing post, Sarah. I remember discussing symbols when I taught high school English. Most times, the students had fun searching the story and their brains for them. I don't know that I consciously do symbols, but I bet I could find some if I search! xo

  13. I didn't know you were a high school teacher, Tanya. I imagine teaching teenagers could be a pain sometimes. Do you like it?
    The only teaching I ever did was workshops on 12 lead EKG's and other heart related subjects, but that was to adult nurses. I enjoyed it.
    So good to see you. Thanks for coming by.