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Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Every Picture Tells a Story: Adding Depth through Symbolism

Movie makers have it easy, it seems. To convey an emotional tone they have sets, lighting, props, music and the ability to show the foreground action and the background action. As writers we need to focus the lens. We don’t have “extras” or lights or music; but we do have symbols.

Throughout the ages storytellers have relied on symbolism to add nuance; images which speak to our subconscious, emotional mind. Too much symbolism and you risk falling into allegory but done correctly your pictures will blend seamlessly adding depth.

Settings are perhaps the easiest place to add imagery. For example, if your MC is upset and running, where she is running can lend additional information as to her emotional state. If she is running through a dry river bed or an empty parking lot she may be feeling lost. If she is running through the forest she may be confused—her thoughts convoluted. The setting and how she relates to it can be just as telling as a string of self-dialogue. Or, perhaps your story is about conflict within a family. A large tree can provide a setting for several dialogue scenes while symbolizing the underlying strength of the family.

Beats are helpful in showing a character’s internal emotional journey when that journey is different from the dialogue. Tommy is visiting Aunt Mabel who has not been feeling well. During their conversation Tommy asks Aunt Mabel if she will be attending his sister’s wedding in the spring. Aunt Mabel assures Tommy that she "wouldn't miss it for the world"—but what feeling do you get if Aunt Mabel turns away from Tommy and tosses out a wilted plant while she says this?

Foreshadow a character’s role with imagery. A possessor of essential knowledge might be associated with light in several scenes--lighting a candle, turning on a lamp or standing under a lamppost.

Colors, seasons, flowers and weather are all examples of commonly used universal symbolism. Black is evil; Red is danger, passion or power; winter is death… What are some of your favorite examples? When has a picture saved a thousand words for you?

Robyn Chausse


  1. Really good entry!

    I can't remember any images from words, but this article made me remember the power of words. How the words are our lights, sets, props and actors, and how we, the word magicians, are both the directors and editors of the movies our books are...

    Wonderful and inspiring :-) Thank you, Robyn :-)

  2. Hi Ketutar,
    Thanks for the comment--we all enjoy hearing when we strike a chord:)
    I was inspired by your description of writers as word magicians. I think I might paint that on my office door..."Shhh, Word Magician at Work."


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