Thursday, September 23, 2010

Symbolically speaking

Mouth the words "high school literature."

I'll bet, if your high school lit courses were anything like mine, the words evoked THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, MADAME BOVARY, Hemingway and ... symbolism.

I was a puffed-up little peacock about writing back then. When my English teachers talked to us about writers using symbolism in their works, I rolled my eyes to the point I nearly had to pick 'em up off the floor.

"Symbolism? Ha!" I thought. "Writers just write. It's all these English teachers and professors who start saying Hemingway is using Christian symbolism in THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Hemingway was probably too drunk to even think about symbolism."

I held my tongue, got an A and moved onto college, where I waded through still more swamps of symbolism. Sure, I could see how poets use symbolism. But writers of prose?

It was a movie which actually showed me the power of symbolism. SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY is a particular favorite of mine, although the book was more of a mixed bag. For those of you who haven't seen it or read the book, it is about an abused woman who fakes her death to escape the clutches of her husband.

In the movie (not the book), the life she escapes is one of wealth and privilege. Her husband is OCD about things being tidy and neat. The setting for the house is ultra modern, with cold, spare lines. But the house she escapes to is old-fashioned, with romantic frilly touches.

I remember seeing those two settings, remember how the power of that hit me. It was the juxtaposition of the two styles of homes that underscored the life she'd left -- cold and sterile -- for her new life -- warm and soft. It just drove the point home in a simple, non-verbal way.

That's when I realized that the objects and situations in a character's world could echo the plot. And really, isn't that what symbolism is? A shortcut of sorts?

So do I use symbolism in my romance novels? You betcha. In THE BABY WAIT, there is one situation that I use symbolically, and I had to break a rule to do it.

My two characters, a man and wife, are literally stuck in a traffic jam. Now, in every writer's seminar you will ever attend, they warn you against having two characters in a car talking. But in this case, I used that traffic jam to symbolize where they were at that point in the plot -- stuck in transit, not anywhere close to where they wanted to be.

Most of the symbolism that I use is very brief -- an object, a place, a song. It's got to be subtle, or else it's overkill. All I want to do is to create an echo.

So now do I think Hemingway used symbolism? Oh, yeah, I think he did. Now what about you? Do you use symbolism?


Piedmont Writer said...

It's funny, I write it but I do it subconciously. Readers find it in my work ALL the time and comment on it and I'm like, huh? What are you talking about?

Jessica Lemmon said...

Hmmmm, maybe I do and don't know it!

And, I think you were right the first time, HEMINGWAY was TOO DRUNK to use SYMBOLISM. LOL!!!

Kari Lynn Dell said...

There's a rule about not having characters in a car talking. REALLY? Huh. Well, I guess cutting those ten scenes will get my book down to size.

Medeia Sharif said...

I use it subtly. When I started writing as a teenager, I went overboard with it, so it seemed forced. I scaled back dramatically. A little goes a long way.