I've always loved me some symbolism, just the idea of all the hidden depths it reveals and implies is exciting. One of my favourite games used to be searching for the symbolism in places where it clearly wasn't intended. Music videos are an excellent source, is the chair Britney's dancing with just a prop? Or does it symbolise her attempt to make art within the restrictions of fame and the music industry? Of course partly what's fun about this is that it specifically wasn't meant (and that it drives certain people up the wall) but it also, naturally, makes you feel pretty clever to find these things and make them work.
Now that I'm writing in a more serious way I'm coming to frame the whole issue in a very different way. As an example here's a story I wrote called After. I wrote it a little while ago, so I can see all sorts of things wrong with it (too short and messy tenses just to mention a couple). None of that's important however because I just want to talk about how the story came about in my head.
The initial seed was that I wanted to write about one of those gangs you often find in post-apocalyptic stories, who attack people on the road, but I was interested in the perspective of a member of the gang. I wanted to think about what it would feel like to end up robbing people after the collapse of civilisation. As the story took shape in my head I realised that not only would you feel pretty guilty, but that actually the entire story works quite well as an analogy for that feeling. That is, like guilt, there is some awful even in the past which is having constant ramifications on how the main character acts and feels in the present. I saw that there were all sorts of ways I could play around with the situation of my protagonist, relating it back to how they felt in a very intertwined and detailed way making the whole story a symbolic re-telling of the feeling of guilt.
I'll come back to the story and what happened with it in a minute, first though I want to talk about how my feelings on symbolism developed. You see, as the above paragraph shows, initially I considered it a very important tool, a vital part of the writer's arsenal which allows you to make their message clearer and stronger. I couldn't see why you wouldn't want it. Then a few things happened.
It started with reading. I just found more and more that I was greatly enjoying what I had thought of as frivolous books, ones which set out to be fun, to tell a story well in a readable way. Equally I was less and less enjoying the books of depth, of greater magnitude, which had a deeper lesson to impart and which had much less regard for the reader. I'd always felt that a novel ought to have something to say, that if all you're doing is making up a story then you were on the same level as Mills and Boon. Obviously I'm a massive snob, but it's very strange to me that I never realised this. That that deciding that the most important person is the reader doesn't mean your book has to be shallow and devoid of real content and equally, not having some deeper message to impart doesn't preclude the existence of depth.
Like I always do when I find myself at a crossroads with ideas like this, I set out to read as much on the subject as I could. One of my favourite essays that I came across on the subject is called Settling the Colonel's Hash by the author Mary McCarthy (though at the time I read it I had no idea who she was). She sets out to explain the misunderstanding she had with some of her students on the issue. The conclusion she comes to (though really the essay is interesting enough to make it worth reading yourself) is that symbols are something which really ought to emerge from the subconscious. That they should appear in a story because the writer is a person with depth, not because they are forced in there. The most important point which she makes, is that the story should be perfectly intact if the symbolism was removed from it.
The other article of note I found on the subject is this set of replies from authors. They come from a series of surveys which a high school student in the sixties sent out to a series of writers. A surprising number of them wrote back and it's really interesting to get answers like this from the people actually doing the writing. It's very curious that they give such a range of responses, but in particular I found it interesting because it gave me the chance, at last, to see who I actually agreed with. I think (strangely, because I have mixed feelings about his writing) that the answers which make the most sense to me are those given by Ray Bradbury. He talks again about how it is a subconscious process, but also cautions that while it is a valuable piece of good writing, if it is tampered with too much it can end up ruining the quality of the work. This rather neatly brings me back to my story.
You see, what happened when I realised that I was writing about guilt was that I started throwing it at the story in spades. I put a series of my own experiences in there, weaving them all into the story so that, on the subject of this one feeling, there is quite a bit of depth, but in terms of actually telling a story the whole thing ended up quite flat. Of course, partly that's the length (only just over 3500 words something which I've struggled with for a while), but I think it's largely my fault, for focussing so completely on what should really have just been one small part of the story.
So, where do I stand now. Well I still think that this is one tool among the many that writers have and I also feel, like with most such tools, that it is only by occasionally overusing and over-emphasising it that I will ever get the hang of it at all. Really though, I agree with Bradbury, it shouldn't be something I focus on, it should just be a small, natural part of the much larger tapestry of each story. I am slowly tending towards the opinion that, like so many things, writing is one of those activities which happens the best when there is very little thought going on and it is just flowing through you (though I'm sure, given time, that opinion will be equally proven wrong).
The wonderful upshot of this particular pompousness having been popped is that now I am feeling a lot happier about writing more frivolous/fun stories and, really, that's made the entire process a lot more pleasant.