Symbolism has been used for centuries as a literary storytelling device that offers more depth and meaning to a story. With the advent of cinematic storytelling in film — and later in episodic television — symbolism became an even more effective visual tool to further explore the concepts, themes, and messages found within any feature-length film, short film, television episode, or series.
Using symbolism helps writers and filmmakers to:
- Further communicate the intended themes and deeper meanings of their stories.
- Dive deeper into complex ideas with the usage of more simple visual and metaphorical narrative symbols.
- Evoke more emotional and cathartic responses from the audience.
- Stylize their cinematic stories with thought-provoking and discussion-building symbology.
- Layer their narrative plots and story points for enhanced viewing experiences via creative symbolic Easter Eggs.
But how can writers effectively utilize symbolism in their writing? How has it been done before in cinema, and what can writers and filmmakers learn from those examples?
Here we will delve into literary and cinematic symbolism with simple yet effective ways to inject your stories with symbolic touches that not only make your stories great for the first read or viewing, but even greater for the second, third, and beyond.
What Is Symbolism?
Symbolism is most easily defined as a common and powerful tool in storytelling using creative expression and choices to represent a concept, idea, or theme using non-literal techniques.
Writers and filmmakers are essentially using one thing to define another. Symbolism helps them to be able to further explore and communicate their intentions with the stories they tell without forcing their intentions too much to where the readers and viewers disengage from the story.
What Type of Symbols Can Writers Use?
There are a variety of ways to showcase symbolism in your stories.
You can develop characters whose traits and actions embody larger ideas within your stories. A character’s journey can symbolize personal growth that readers and viewers can identify with — or their journey could be a metaphor for societal change.
Settings and landscapes can be utilized to mirror the characters’ emotional state or the story’s central themes. A desolate, run-down location can symbolize the protagonist’s despair.
You can use objects, colors, or images to represent abstract concepts or themes. For example, a recurring red rose might symbolize love or passion, whereas the color red could symbolize blood, death, and violence. Take this visual metaphor for example: the drain is graphically matched to Marion’s lifeless eye to symbolize where all of her mistakes and greed have led her.
Sound and Music
Employing soundscapes and music can evoke emotions and communicate themes within the story and character arcs. The choice of music a character listens to can symbolize their inner arcs and emotional states.
You can create a narrative where the entire story serves as an allegory for a larger concept, such as political or social commentary.
Writers can also draw on cultural, historical, or religious symbols to enrich the story. You must always be mindful of the context and potential interpretations when using cultural symbols, yes. But because such symbols are so well known, they can be an effective visual to showcase your intended concepts, ideas, and themes.
Using symbols to hint at future events or character development builds anticipation and offers further complexity to the story. A great example of this is the “X” in The Departed, which is meant to symbolize and foreshadow the death of a character.
Subtle Subtext and Ambiguity
Using subtlety to let readers and viewers interpret symbols in their own way can be an effective approach for symbolism as well. When you leave room for ambiguity to engage the audience’s imagination, they can come to their own conclusions. This also helps to create discussions about your stories as people use the open-ended subtext not as definitive answers regarding symbolism, but as discussion starters and philosophical debates.
What Are Cinematic Examples of These Types of Symbolism?
The Floating Plastic Bag in American Beauty
With enough subtlety left beyond the character’s description of what the plastic bag means to him, we can interpret the plastic bag as also symbolizing the search for beauty and meaning in everyday life.
Frodo Baggins in Lord of the Rings
The character of Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings stories represents a clear metaphor for the themes of selflessness and the burden of responsibility that comes with it.
Weird Barbie’s House in Barbie
Weird Barbie as a character can represent many unintended or intended themes. Some point to the character as a symbol of queerness and how the world should begin to accept those who fall under that societal umbrella. Others believe she symbolizes our childhood innocence and the loss of that innocence. When we see her house within the film, we see the visual environmental symbolism of how different it is from the rest of Barbieland. The angles are odd and different, and they don’t make much sense compared to the design of the other structures. The painting design of the walls is more lively and vibrant, which symbolizes Weird Barie’s personality.
Jazz in La La Land
Jazz represents a lot of things in La La Land, but it especially encompasses the character of Sebastian. He evokes the nature of jazz in everything he does and how he lives his life. And he brings that nature to Mia, which pushes her to do the unexpected, the new, and the exciting.
The Comet and Political/Social Reaction in Don’t Look Up
The impending doom of a comet that is going to hit Earth is utilized as an allegory for the debate about climate change and its impact on the planet. Beyond that, the movie satirizes the apathy of government, politics, celebrities, and the media towards the climate crisis.
The Claymore Sword in Braveheart
While, historically, the two-handed claymore sword William Wallace used in Braveheart likely wasn’t the actual type of sword he used, that type of sword eventually became a sign of Scottish freedom after the Wallace Sword was written about in poetry and one alleged sword thought to be the true Wallace Sword was later displayed in Stirling. Regardless, the sword is featured throughout the film, symbolizing Scottish freedom and their fight against tyranny.
The Use of Red in The Sixth Sense
Upon second viewing of the film, it is revealed that the red color appears in scenes with ghosts — subtly foreshadowing the revelation that the protagonist can see the dead. We also discover that every scene that Malcolm is in also has red in it, foreshadowing the end revelation.
The Spinning Top at the End of Inception
The spinning top at the end of the movie is a symbol of uncertainty, leaving the audience to interpret whether the protagonist is in a dream or reality. That uncertainty is evident throughout the entire story as characters — and the audience — don’t always know whether they are awake or dreaming.
The Viewing Stone in Parasite
You don’t have to guess whether or not the viewing stone is used as a symbol in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite — it’s literally written into the script. When gifted the stone by his friend Min, Ki Woo literally makes a comment on how it’s symbolic. But what does it symbolize? The director has stated, “The rock is assigned this very unique position. It’s a kind of obsession for the young son [Ki Woo]. Throughout the film, he’s trying to imitate Min, his rich friend who initiated him into this world. Min disappears in this film after giving him the rock, but the rock is sort of the remnant of his character.” Essentially, the viewing stone represents the Kim family’s aspirations to become wealthy.
How Can Writers Use Symbolism in Their Stories?
As we’ve listed above — complete with complementary examples — there are many ways you can utilize symbolism in your stories.
- Visual Metaphors
- Character Symbolism
- Environmental Symbolism
- Sound and Music
- Allegory Narratives
- Cultural Symbols
- Foreshadowing Symbols
- Sutble Subtext and Ambiguity
The key thing to remember when you’re trying to inject symbolism into your stories is subtlety. The purpose of symbolism is to enhance the concepts, ideas, and themes you want to present within your writing — as opposed to using symbolic tools to overtake your story.
Pick Just a Couple of Symbolic Tools from the List
Don’t use them all. Choose which types of symbolism work best for your story, and use them effectively, but sparingly.
Decide Which Ones Work for the Genre You’re Writing In
Allegory symbolism is perfect for comedy because it also can utilize satire at the same time, much like is evident in our example found within Don’t Look Up. However, allegory can also work well in other genres like horror and science fiction.
- Jordan Peele’s Get Out serves as an allegorical exploration of how white people can exert control over Black bodies, while also appropriating and benefiting from Black virtues and strengths, alluding to the unsettling realities of racial dynamics.
- Starship Troopers is a science fiction film that works as an allegory and satire of fascism and fascist propaganda.
Figure out what types of symbolism work best with what genres of stories you want to tell.
Don’t Overstep Your Role as a Writer
If you’re writing screenplays, it’s not your job to dictate the props, cinematography, production design, specific music selection, etc. These are all elements left to the filmmakers to decide. If you have physical elements of your screenplay that the story needs to convey symbolism, you need to use them sparingly, and preferably in a way that can be interwoven into the narrative (because that is your job), as opposed to being more of a filmmaker’s choice during production and post-production.
An easy example would be the use of the Wallace Sword in Braveheart. Keeping the sword prevalent in the script is easy. And the end visual of the sword being thrown toward the enemy and driven into the dirt of the battlefield is a narrative element. However, dictating a particular song choice for a scene can:
- Alienate the reader if they don’t know the song, putting the reader’s experience in jeopardy.
- Derail the impact if the producer or studio of the eventual film interpretation doesn’t own the rights to the song.
Pepper Your Story with Subtle Symbolism
When you salt and pepper your food, you always want to avoid over-salting and over-peppering. Why? Because it will spoil and overcome the flavor of the actual meal. The same can be said with using symbolism in your writing. If your symbolism overtakes the core concept, story, plot, and characters, it will ruin the experience of your intended narrative.
Allow Audiences to Interpret Their Own Symbolism
Sometimes it’s best to leave it to the imagination. We all bring our own baggage, beliefs, and perspectives to the table when it comes to ingesting literary and cinematic stories. That’s the beauty and power of storytelling.
Steven Spielberg was often confronted with the symbolism found by audiences and critics in his iconic film E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Many believed that E.T. was symbolic of the Christ figure, given the various visual symbols, as well as the plot points of resurrection. However, Spielberg reminded them with a smile that he was Jewish. The point is that symbolism can also come from one’s interpretation of your story — you don’t always have the inject too much symbolism for readers and audiences to find some.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies and Instagram @KenMovies76
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Author: Ken Miyamoto