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

by | Writing | 2 comments

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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?

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American Christian Fiction Writers

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  1. Cleo Lampos

    I always enjoy a book with this level of writing, especially if it is not obvious.

    • Zoe M. McCarthy

      Good point, Cleo. The author needs to do the work to keep symbolism subtle but meaningful.

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