Sprouting Symbols in Stories

Planting the Symbolic Seeds

We’re all pattern recognition machines. Whenever we experience repetition through objects, places, and actions, they implant an impression in our minds to create future expectations. And within getting those expectations met, the reward system in our brains releases dopamine, making us feel not only a sense of joy, but also a sense of comfort and familiarity.

This is why babies love when you play Peek-A-Boo with them. When you cover your face with your hands or hide behind the couch, they expect you to “pop up out of nowhere” and make a silly face that gets them giggling their cute little baby laughs.

In fiction, you want to do the same thing. You want to play a literary form of Peek-A-Boo through Symbolic Action. A reoccuring object, place, or action engages your audience’s sense of familiarity and by letting them feel safe from an expected routine, you are given the opportunity to also trigger the part of the human brain that thrives on novelty.

Or simply put; you want to mix the new with the old.

What this does is symbolize how an aspect of your story is progresses over time. This can range from how an important plot item is used throughout the story, the state of a physical location your characters frequent, or how characters relate to each other through repetitive actions.


Papa Can You Hear Me?

Today we’ll focus on reoccuring actions and how they symbolize ever changing relationships between characters. In particular, I will be using the father and daughter combo from my work in progress It Starts at Home; Antonio and Johanna Pascual.

The story starts off with Antonio blasting his heavy metal music as he drives Johanna to her first day of high school. He just wants to drop her off and go to work, unaware of how nervous she is, and thanks to the rockin’ tunes he’s so used to pumping on every car ride, he’s even more oblivious to how reluctant she is to start this new chapter in her life.

She wishes she could say something. That she’s not ready yet and wants to stay home for the day. Or worse, that she actually feels sick to her stomach and is unsure if she can physically manage herself in this new environment.

Johanna tries to speak up, but her tiny voice is buried beneath pounding drums and distorted guitars, and all that Antonio can offer her is yelling “you’ll be fine,” before returning to his mini headbanging session. She keeps trying to complain and his solution is to remind her to not be afraid and be sure to make new friends.

Needless to say, Johanna ends up feeling ignored and down right invisible.

What this symbolizes is the distance between father and daughter, even though Antonio drives Johanna around quite often. The fact that Antonio chooses to listen to the noisy music of his own teen days over the soft tiny voice of his teenage daughter comes to show their giant lack of communication between each other.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

Throughout the book, similar car rides occur where Johanna has a desire to communicate with her father, but the metal music continues to serve as a point of contention between them. He uses it to drown out the nagging voice of his wife and the whiny voice of his daughter, both of which have valid things to say to him, but tension rises the more he attempts to ignore them.

Furthermore, his wife Miranda is actually offended by his choice in music. Because she immigrated to Canada from a traditional Filipino family, and that she met Antonio at a youth church group, she feels that Antonio is listening to “the devil’s music” which clashes with their Christian values.

Over time though, Antonio gradually learns to put the volume down when the ladies in his family are speaking to him. Most of the time it’s much to his detriment, but it’s a hard pill of pride to swallow to actually start listening to his family. And even on the flip side, for his family to respect his preferences because Johanna and Miranda spend a huge chunk of the novel judging him for everything he likes.


Reaping What You Sow With Symbols

Along with my favourite aspect of fiction being character, I have recently fallen in love with recognizing symbols and how they can serve as tools to further describe the progress of a story. It greatly reflects how our lives change over time despite some of the routines we engage in from childhood up into our adult lives.

Think about how you celebrate your birthday compared to how you used to when you were a child. Sure, cake and candles are the staple of every birthday celebration, but as you depart from your childhood you outgrow the need for face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles. (Unless you still do face painting, clowns, and bouncy castles well into your 20’s, I won’t judge!)

To celebrate and symbolize your ongoing maturity you begin to add different elements to your birthday parties like alcohol, expensive vacations, or whatever else floats your boat.

Likewise in fiction, you want to use symbols to implant familiarity in your audience and take them on a ride toward growth by letting your symbols sprout.

Are there any symbols that you appreciate in your favourite stories?

Have you used symbols before? Upon reflection, were consciously or unconsciously planted?

With expanded knowledge on symbols, do you plan to employ them in your work? If so, how so? Let me know in the comments below!

(Stay tuned for more on symbols in the future…)

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