Quality fiction requires a theme or idea that unites the work. Ideally, the theme will connect setting, plot and characters in a significant way. It’s easier to do than you might think.
Appeals to the five senses can make short stories and novels memorable. This isn’t a device that only poets should be using. With simile, the writer compares an abstract concept with something concrete using “like” or “as” in English. “My love is like a red, red rose”—according to Robert Burns. Of course, he might have been more direct and used a metaphor declaring something is something else—for example: “My love is a red, red rose.” Simile and metaphor create imagery.
A symbol is an image that is repeated. Consider it as an association cluster presented in many ways. For instance, in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the first American symbolic novel, the author used the “A” as a symbol in many guises to emphasize the difficulties of overcoming the past, its institutions, and the values of family and society. The color red appears in numerous guises throughout the novel.
Religious writings are fraught with symbolism. Shakespeare used it effectively in his plays as did the early Greeks. In Moby Dick, Melville also uses symbolism in a varied manner. The great white whale, a finite thing, becomes symbolic of numerous sociological ideas. Melville examines the nature of good and evil through images of light and dark. Ahab’s unyielding aloneness is emphasized by images of the heart and head.
In the twentieth century, writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald were masters of symbolism. Color imagery was often used. For example, in the bullfight in The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway uses the colors red and green to create a vivid, violent scene. The images symbolically connect to his theme of the manly or macho code of behavior which was what Hemingway considered most important in life.
In The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald developed a theme he had earlier used in a short story entitled “Winter Dreams,” the love story of an American upper class girl and lower middle class young man—insider vs. outsider. Dexter Green is a romantic and his loss of Judy Jones causes him permanent pain because of the loss of his illusion of her more than the physical loss. She is a symbol of romance, just as Daisy is for Gatsby. In the novel the color green appears repeatedly and becomes a symbol for Daisy and the worldly wealth and privilege she represents. Gatsby looks longingly at the green light on Daisy’s dock across the water.
In Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, the image of the
becomes a tragic symbol of the
lack of communication and connection between two brothers. Living as I do not
far from the Brooklyn Bridge , I can particularly appreciate
this. There have been many suicides of people jumping to their death from the
bridge which I find terribly troubling. Yet although the bridge can be
considered a symbol of death and failure to connect and misunderstanding, it
can also be a symbol of life and hope. Not long ago, one Port Authority
policeman was able to stop a jumper. On that very same day in September 2014,
PA police helped to deliver a baby near the toll booths on the upper level of
the bridge. Bridges can also serve as a symbol of connection. George Washington Bridge
Contemporary authors often use symbolism. Consider Harry Potter’s scar—a symbol of his being the “chosen one”, as well as his ability to overcome evil. J.K. Rowling may have chosen to use symbolism in Dumbledore and Hagrid's names. Dan Brown wrote a thriller entitled The Lost Symbol.
In my novel Dark Moon Rising, the moon symbolizes romance. However, the moon is also a symbol of night and darkness, fear and hate. Since this is a paranormal novel fraught with mystery, moon imagery and symbolism work well with the underlying theme.
In my latest mystery suspense novel, The Inheritance, the house that the heroine has come back to her hometown to claim as part of her inheritance develops into a symbolic representation of her past and the peril in her present life.
Simile, metaphor and symbolism can effectively draw the reader into a story through vivid use of sense impressions: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.
In meaningful writing, simile, metaphor, and symbolism add depth and perspective to fiction, uniting theme with plot, setting and characterization. Writers always need to consider the big picture. What imagery will work best to imply the underlying theme?
Your thoughts, input and comments appreciated.