Symbolism: Give Something in Your Story a Deeper and Wider Meaning

image by LunarSeaArt

What Symbolism Is

As a literary device, symbolism gives an object a dual meaning. It imbues the object with ideas or qualities that are profound, far-reaching, and different from the object’s actual physical meaning.

Symbolism can enrich, provide a better understanding of the story, and show it has broader implications than itself.

A common example is a dove symbolizing peace.

Creating Symbolism in a Story


Suppose Camellia wants to know who she is. She carries in her handbag the letter from her deceased grandmother, which reveals her parents’ names. She rereads the letter whenever she becomes discouraged in her search for her parents.

The letter becomes a symbol for the truth of her origin. It has profound meaning to Camellia. It also ties together the people she’ll interview and touch in some way during her search. It’s no longer only a letter.


You can have an object appear several times in your story to associate an emotion or mood. In my romance, Calculated Risk, sticky notes symbolize Cisney’s way of trying to manage chaos in her life.

One example is when she’s heard bad news and wants to leave Nick’s house. She writes the bus’s departure time on a sticky note and adheres it to her cell phone. Most people would’ve used Notes or some other reminder app in their cell.

Creating Symbolism in Context

A story symbol will be understood in the context of how you set it up. You may have an apple show up in scenes to symbolize knowledge.

For ages, people have associated an apple with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden that, when eaten, revealed the knowledge of good and evil. For me, an apple left on a teacher’s desk or the apples on Apple devices also symbolize knowledge.

Or an apple in your story could symbolize a favored one as it did in the Old Testament when someone was “the apple of his eye.”

Attaching Symbolism to Something Other Than Objects

image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

Sometimes an action or an event can symbolize something. For example, saying, “I knew your Aunt Louise,” could let a fellow spy know others are safe to receive messages of national importance. In New Testament times when Christians were thrown to the lions, Christians drew a simple fish in the dust to subtly reveal they were Christians. These two actions symbolize revealing safe people.

Receiving Aid from Other Literary Devices

Other literary devices, such as a metaphors, similes, allegories, and allusions, can help create symbolism.

  • When a symbol has something in common with an idea or quality, a metaphor or simile can show this. Suppose Alec shudders every time he passes the roller coaster at the fair. Symbolism: The author has Alec pass the roller coaster when bad or good events happen in his life. Life is (or is like) a roller coaster. Both have ups and downs.
  • When Jesus’ parable of a prodigal son symbolizes a character’s life, this uses an allegory, or, if someone in the story mentions the character’s life is like the Prodigal Son’s, he employs an allusion.

Use symbolism to give your reader a better understanding of your story. Click to tweet.

What symbolism have you noticed in a story?

How to Find the Amazing Word for That Thingy, Modifier, or Action

Flip Dictionary takes you from a “meaning” you are aware of to the “word” you need.” —Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.


image by ClkeFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

In a scene, my character senses a reverent atmosphere, but I didn’t want to use atmosphere. I couldn’t summon the word I wanted. Microsoft Word’s thesaurus offered ambiance, feeling, mood, and others. I knew a better word was available but my brain couldn’t capture it.

I looked up atmosphere in Flip Dictionary by Barbara Ann Kipfer, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at
Image courtesy of fotographic1980 at

Aura. That was it!

Under the word atmosphere, Kipfer listed 16 words for different kinds of atmosphere. For example: “atmosphere of special power or mystery: mystique.”

So, today I want to plug Flip Dictionary. Let’s look at some other examples. 

Example 1

How about courage. The thesaurus supplied: bravery, nerve, pluck, valor, daring, audacity, mettle, resolution, and guts.

As Flip Dictionary does, it named all of the above from a thesaurus and then added: backbone, boldness, braveness, chin up, élan, fearlessness, firmness, fortitude, gallantry, gameness, grit, gumption, hardihood, heart, the heart of a lion, heroism, prowess, soul, spine, spunk, and tenacity.

Wow. What a wealth of words to choose from. Some have a different meaning from, but are in the scope of, courage.

image by ClkerFreeVectorImages
image by ClkerFreeVectorImages

Suppose my character is a boy who grabs a runaway dog’s leash and persists in pulling the resistant canine away from a busy street. I might use a form of:        

  • Grit – “courage and resolve; strength of character”
  • Gumption – “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”
  • Heroism – “great bravery”
  • Spunk – “courage and determination”
  • Tenacity – “the quality or fact of being determined; determination”

(definitions from New Oxford American Dictionary)

I like spunk. I don’t think I’d use it for a man. Maybe for a grandmother or a young woman. If my story is folksy, I might employ gumption.

The point is Flip Dictionary gives me words that go beyond synonyms. I like that.

Example 2

What’s the bar thingy that holds flags so they hang across a porch?

I looked up flag, and beneath it I found:

image by jill111
image by jill111

Flag hung on crosspiece, not pole: gonfalon”

gonfalon: “a banner or pennant, especially one with streamers, hung from a crossbar” (New Oxford American Dictionary)

Gonfalon was also listed under banner in Flip Dictionary.

If you can look up a clue to the thingy escaping you, often you’ll find it in Flip Dictionary.

An amazing resource that gives me words that go beyond synonyms. Click to tweet.

If you use another resource or Flip Dictionary, would you tell us about how you use it?