Symbols defined and applied


Symbolism emotionally sways the audience by providing hidden language within the story with highly concentrated meaning. The symbol is the most focused condenser-expander storytelling technique in the toolbox. Create a web of symbols, each helping to define the others, for maximum power.

How it works: the audience is given an emotion, a symbol is introduced, the emotion changes the symbol’s worth and meaning, the emotion becomes stronger

Symbols can be attached to:

Symbolic characters

Choose a symbol that presents a defining principle of that character or its reverse. Connecting the specific, discrete symbol with essential quality to the character gives the audience immediate understanding of this aspect of the character in one move. The audience will also experience any emotion associated with the symbol from then on about that character. Use this rarely or all symbols lose strength. Symbols present characters, so they should stand out, in opposition with each other like characters.

Symbolic theme

Create an image or object to express a series of action that hurt people in some way. More powerful images/objects express two actions at the same time; two moral sequences that are in conflict with each other. When done badly, the story becomes preachy.

Symbolic action

By connecting a symbol to an action, you give it charged meaning. This calls a lot of attention to itself, saying: this action is important, it expresses theme/character of the story in miniature.” Be careful using it.

Symbolic objects

These always appear in a web of symbolic objects, because they have little ability to refer to anything else. Often, they are prefabricated symbols that the audience understands immediately on some level of conscious thought.

Symbol for story world

Natural world have inherent symbolic power that can be attached to additional symbols to heighten or change their meaning. Think of islands (isolation), mountains, forests, oceans. Each carries their associations and each can be changed. A forest can easily be a place of sanctuary or impending doom.

Advanced: Symbol connected to character change

Use a symbol to track character change. Choose a symbol the protagonist should become when undergoing change. Offer a structural framing scene at the start and end of the story. Attach the symbol to him when creating the character weakness/need. Bring the symbol back at the moment of change, with some variation from the first introduction.

Fixing overdone symbols

Predictability becomes a ready blueprint that ruins the lived experience for the audience. Flip the meaning to something the audience doesn’t expect to prevent this.

Examples of symbols

Horror: good vs evil

This is binary opposition. Good is light, evil is dark. Good can also be represented by a cross and evil by animals.

Western symbols: the web

1 the horseman: the warrior hunter
2 the six bullet gun: represents mechanized force
3 hats: white hats are good men, black hats are baddies
4 the star badge: the enforcer of right
5 a fragile wooden fence: the tamed wild

Truby, J. (2007) The Anatomy of Story