Friday, August 24, 2012

N*ked, Light, and Furniture: Adding symbols during revision

Symbols are amazing things. Not only will they allow scholars to study your work someday and proclaim your genius, but they reach the everyday Joe or Mary on a personal level, sometimes even on a subconscious one.

Some people are expert plotters and can plan these right into the first draft.

Not me. I have to weave most of my symbols in later on. It's the fun part of revision for me. It's a great way to insert clues about the story's theme without having a character blurt out a moral (although I did love Dumbledore's adages in Harry Potter).


I read an article once about how The Hunger Games includes many layers of symbolism. There are obvious symbols, of course, but there are also subtler ones. The example they gave was when Katniss first meets Cinna. She's totally naked, having just been painfully waxed and prepared for this moment. Then the text goes on to read:
"Pulling on my robe, I follow him through a door into a sitting room. Two red couches face off over a low table. Three walls are blank, the fourth is entirely glass, providing a window to the city. I can see by the light that it must be around noon, although the sunny sky has turned overcast. Cinna invites me to sit on one of the couches and takes his place across from me."
If the author of this article hadn't pointed out these symbols, I'd never have given them my conscious attention. They were just pieces of the setting to me after all her introspection about how simple Cinna seems compared to the other designers. But looking at this paragraph in isolation, I see how rife with symbols it truly is.

Naked = vulnerable
Two red couches face off over a low table.
Red = the color of struggle or anger.
Facing off. <-- she didn't use these words by accident.
Cinna takes the couch opposite her, but it's clear by the surrounding internal monologue that he is not her enemy.
The three blank walls draw her attention to the one glass pane overlooking the city.
There is her true nemesis. 
It's about noon, which should be the brightest time of day, and yet the sky has "turned overcast." It isn't just overcast, but has turned overcast.

Weather becomes the harbinger of a great change, not only in Katniss' life, but in their shared world. In this moment, already, it's Katniss against the Capitol.


Maybe some of these symbols are merely happenstance. The more blatant symbol of Katniss as the Mockingjay is larger than life, and even explained at different points in the books. But these small symbols in the weather, the setting, and the light fascinate me. They reach us on a primal level without the need for conscious analysis. They bring the story to life with detail, yes, but also with depth of meaning.

And the great thing is that they're SO easy to slip into your writing in the revision stage.

At this point, you know your story's themes backward and forward. It's the perfect time to add layers and depth:

  • Ravens on the lawn when she leaves her house the morning of the last day of school.
  • The lights go out during a brief power outage that means nothing at the time, yet foreshadows something sinister to come.
  • The flame on the candle seems to lean toward her outstretched finger.
  • Her favorite chair sits beside the window, facing an oversize portrait of her late husband.
Details, symbols... depth.

What's one of your favorite examples of symbolism in story (movies, books, comic books, whatever!)?


  1. I am doing this right now in my MS, perfect timing for this post. In fact, I'm re-reading Hunger Games over the weekend for inspiration. Thanks.

    1. Yay! Good luck, ilima! And happy reading. It's always a good time to reread Hunger Games.

  2. WHITE OLEANDER definitely comes to mind. Also, love the moments when someone reads your work and points out a symbol that you didn't even realize you'd planted!

    1. LOL! Oh yeah! The proper response to that is always, "I totally meant to do that." ;)

  3. In the ms I'm currently querying, I made a conscious effort to use trains and water images and symbolism, and was aware of doing this on the first draft. My current WiP, I'm really not sure. I'll have to see what jumps out at me when I re-read it in a few weeks.

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