In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
Symbolism doesn’t have to be difficult and relentlessly brainy. […] If it is there and if you notice is, I think you should bring it out as well as you can, polishing it until it shines and then cutting it the way a jeweler would cut a precious or semiprecious stone.
There’s so much to think about when you’re drafting a short story or a novel.
You’re thinking about making the narrative compelling and surprising, you’re thinking about making your main character interesting, you’re thinking about the quality of your prose, and if your themes are coming across. You’re thinking about your genre and the expectations that come with that.
I guarantee you that throughout the writing of my nineteen novels over the last ten years, I have spent little to no time thinking about symbolism.
Symbolism is something I was forced to look for in the books I read in high school. As part of AP papers I would have to write about Jane Eyre, and The Scarlett Letter, and A Tale of Two Cities.
Shit, I’m an adult now. I don’t have to think about symbolism in my writing!
And for the most part, you don’t.
When you’re drafting a story or a novel, please don’t fixate on how you’re going to integrate symbolism into the narrative. That should not be at the forefront of your mind. That should not be something that even enters your head much as you go about writing your many, many pages.
But should symbolism in your storytelling be forgotten about entirely?
I agree with King. Don’t actively try to force symbolism into your writing, but if it’s there, if there’s something working entirely as symbolism somewhere throughout your pages, then by all means, when you revise, polish that symbolism until it shines.
One of my favorite examples of symbolism in a story is the shirt within a shirt in Brokeback Mountain. Annie Proulx doesn’t beat you over the head with the symbol. It’s not all over every page. But it’s certainly there, and it’s polished enough that it lingers in the mind. And it’s what makes that incredible final scene so emotionally resonating, both in the story version and the film version.
Stephen King himself has used some effective symbolism in his work.
Think of REDRUM in The Shining, which is such a powerful symbol because in a sense it means murder, but also means to not murder.
And think of the symbol of blood in Carrie.
Blood when it comes to Carrie’s period at the beginning. Blood when it comes to the pig’s blood that’s dumped on her at the prom. Blood when it comes to all the lives she slaughters that night.
Blood is so clearly a symbol in King’s debut novel, but, again, he never beats you over the head with it. You don’t really think of it as a symbol until you begin to really analyze the story at a deeper level.
So don’t panic, okay?
Don’t think you need to have three amazing symbols in mind for your latest novel in the days before you start drafting.
If you do think of one early on, then great! Keep it at the back of your mind, and maybe try to work it in somewhere during the first draft, but feel free to leave that work for the revision instead.
And even if your symbolism is accidental, if there’s something there that strikes you, polish it throughout your revisions to bring it out in a way that makes sense and that enriches the story even more for your readers.
Anything that makes your story better is always something you should consider no matter what!