Writing Forums

Writing Forums is a privately-owned, community managed writing environment. We provide an unlimited opportunity for writers and poets of all abilities, to share their work and communicate with other writers and creative artists. We offer an experience that is safe, welcoming and friendly, regardless of your level of participation, knowledge or skill. There are several opportunities for writers to exchange tips, engage in discussions about techniques, and grow in your craft. You can also participate in forum competitions that are exciting and helpful in building your skill level. There's so much more for you to explore!

Roger Ebert (paraphrased): "If you have to explain what it symbolized, it didn't." (1 Viewer)

Status
Not open for further replies.

Backstroke_Italics

Senior Member
I think about this advice all the time when I'm writing. I like to leave some things implied or revealed through subtle clues, little treasures for the observant reader to dig up. But I've had beta readers completely miss plot points because they weren't spelled out enough. Worst case scenario, this kind of impenetrability will get you some Amazon reviews like "couldn't follow confusing story, 1/10." There is an obligation on the author to make their work understandable, not just to someone who is combing through the book over and over with a magnifying glass, but to a typical reader as well. How do you all strike the balance between subtlety and clarity?
 

bdcharles

Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9
Staff member
Media Manager
I think about this advice all the time when I'm writing. I like to leave some things implied or revealed through subtle clues, little treasures for the observant reader to dig up. But I've had beta readers completely miss plot points because they weren't spelled out enough. Worst case scenario, this kind of impenetrability will get you some Amazon reviews like "couldn't follow confusing story, 1/10." There is an obligation on the author to make their work understandable, not just to someone who is combing through the book over and over with a magnifying glass, but to a typical reader as well. How do you all strike the balance between subtlety and clarity?

I try and make such things work on both levels, so that if someone were to dig a little deeper, they might see symbolism, but if they didn't, they would just see description. For example, I have a character who turns out to be deceiptful (I'm spelling it with a p tonight, don't ask why) and whenever she's telling a whopper or covering up some sensitive area with a load of BS, she fiddles with something yellow. At its simplest, it's just a scene with some yellow things in it but for the eagle eyed reader, it's a clue. But in that instance, it requires a little prior knowledge, which some people may not realistically have. For some little easter egg that anyone could reasonably deduce, I wonder if you are talking about foreshadowing, to hint at things a little less abstractly?
 

indianroads

Staff member
Global Moderator
That's a tough one without seeing an example of what you mean.

That said however, I use symbolism in my work all the time - BUT - it's a nuance that if the gets the story has greater depth, and if they don't its still fine.

Another level of this is to give a hint of a secondary element, but again it's something that isn't integral to the main plot of flow of the story, it's just an additional thing that if the reader catches they may understand a character's motive, or why or how something was done. Again, the story still works whether they get it or not.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
I think the “green light” in The Great Gadsby is a hybrid of show and tell. If he had just placed the light and just had his character looking at it without going into more depth about its significance then it wouldn’t have embodied a concept. I wish I could recall from memory, but Fitzgerald did have to basically “place” the significance of it for the reader.


Really I think sometimes a symbol is created with a kind of discussion that the author gives the reader about a concept. Rosebud. Green light. Other symbols come about because of the story itself. A Phoenix. Narcissus. Certain symbols are obvious due to archetypes and a sort of primal understanding— like some symbols in dreams— like a bear meaning danger, the ocean meaning something ageless and vast. The metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. An echo or ripple for repeating infinitely. Although some symbols are cultural like water meaning an alternate dimension for the Maya and snakes symbolizing new life due to a shedding skin in many cultures ancient cultures.


I strongly agree with the quote after the book is written, though. You shouldn’t have to spell it out in addition to the book. “My green light I just talked about represents X in my story.” That should never go into a book. I guess unless they are cliff notes. Lol. Oh, and also if it’s that straight forward then I’m not sure you needed the book to explain it anyway. If X= Y then did we need the long version. I think it’s better if X= 2a +B + 3c. That gives you a reason for a book. I’m not even sure if I think it’s okay in The Outsiders.

In The Outsiders there was this experience of hearing someone who was dying say “Get it? Nature’s first green is gold. Gold is when you’re young!” Well, it’s weird how that explanation in the book was accepted— but I accepted it— it was kind of an aside anyway. It wasn’t the point of the book. Err... I don’t know... that is different than what I would have done, but it was very charming as part of that coming of age story. Maybe it was accepted almost because it was in a coming of age story and kind of demonstrated what it was saying— it kind of was gold to hear it put forward that way in that context. Not really something you would do in a more adult book written for adults? Or else I wouldn’t. I hadn’t thought about how brilliant it was just in that context. I know the author was 16, but we accepted in that situation that that symbol should be just lovingly spoon-fed to us. Interesting.
 
Last edited:

MistWolf

Senior Member
Years ago, when I was going to various open mics in Santa Monica and The Valley to read poetry, a friend said "If you have to explain your poem before you read it, you need to rewrite it."
 

Olly Buckle

Mentor
Patron
It also depends a bit on what you are writing and who the readers are likely to be, at the extremes, Agatha Christie no, TS Eliot quite likely if you see what I mean.
 

Backstroke_Italics

Senior Member
Years ago, when I was going to various open mics in Santa Monica and The Valley to read poetry, a friend said "If you have to explain your poem before you read it, you need to rewrite it."
That's a really good way to phrase it. I hope you don't mind if I steal this nugget of wisdom.
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
It entirely depends on what you're trying to accomplish. Whole scenes can be metaphors, creating a deeper meaning, symbolism can be moments of surprise and mystery, not necessarily to inform the reader, but rather to implant an idea subconsciously into the reader's mind. But it's the subtext that's the most interesting to me, the very words you use or the rhythm of those words that (hopefully) hypnotise the reader and have them moving onto the next paragraph, next page, next chapter, hungry for answers, sometimes answers they're not always aware of. The characters, the locations, the plot are the pill to be swallowed, while the metaphors, symbolism and subtext are the glass of water that makes the pill easier to swallow.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
How do you all strike the balance between subtlety and clarity?
I have both.

There's a clear overarching story, but if you read between the lines, you'll see the secondary story I'm trying to tell (this usually happens in my additional drafts). Then, there's the theme of the story which is given mostly through subtle wording and symbolism.

Everyone gets the overarching story. It's right there in your face. Some people will get the secondary story, some won't. Most will miss the theme altogether. It's fine by me. The theme is mostly for me and the few that'll make that connection.
 

JBF

Staff member
Board Moderator
I think the “green light” in The Great Gadsby is a hybrid of show and tell. If he had just placed the light and just had his character looking at it without going into more depth about its significance then it wouldn’t have embodied a concept. I wish I could recall from memory, but Fitzgerald did have to basically “place” the significance of it for the reader.

Gatsby is an odd case. Specifically, in that instance Fitzgerald is using the realization as part of the story development. It fits in with the Nick Carraway's growing understanding of the world in general and the closed circle of his New York associates in particular. For him it's kind of an a-ha moment. I'd argue that he can pull it off because Carraway is both fairly young man away from home for the first time and also coming from the (implied) more honest and forthright culture of the Mid-West. That we have a first-person limited narration helps. Otherwise this would probably qualify as a clunky reveal. I'd say Fitzgerald stuck the landing - this time.

At the risk of being blunt, there other factors in play when writing such a scene:

- A lot of writers aren't sharp enough to make their point, or
- They aren't confident enough in their execution of the idea, or
- A lot of readers are lazy

To work, this has to be organic. It has to fit significantly into the larger framework logically, seamlessly, and without calling attention to itself. Sometimes this means readers gloss over the point. Sometimes it means a major shift in tone while the writer decks it out in tinsel and flashing lights so the reader can't miss it.
 

Tettsuo

WF Veterans
To work, this has to be organic. It has to fit significantly into the larger framework logically, seamlessly, and without calling attention to itself. Sometimes this means readers gloss over the point. Sometimes it means a major shift in tone while the writer decks it out in tinsel and flashing lights so the reader can't miss it.

It has to APPEAR to be organic. ;-)
 

TheMightyAz

Mentor
To work, this has to be organic. It has to fit significantly into the larger framework logically, seamlessly, and without calling attention to itself. Sometimes this means readers gloss over the point. Sometimes it means a major shift in tone while the writer decks it out in tinsel and flashing lights so the reader can't miss it.

200w.webp
 

epimetheus

Friends of WF
I like to add symbolism as icing: the cake should be perfectly edible for those without a sweet tooth, but the icing is there for anyone who wants it.

I had a specific example in mind from the Lean and Mean competition, but apparently that's all disappeared?

Basically a woman fought her way into Hades to reclaim her child. I just wanted to practice writing fight scenes. But i added a couple of nuggets to suggest it was also an origin story for the Amazonians. The protogonist is named after a Scythian leader, who are sometimes thought to be the historical origin of the myth, and she gets her breast ripped off during the fight - the Amazonian women are said to have only one breast, freeing the other side for better archery - Amazon literally means without breast). None of which was required to understand the story. No idea of anyone got those clues, but it didn't matter.
 

EternalGreen

Senior Member
I try to write so the reader doesn’t HAVE to get it to follow the story,

The allegory and metaphors can give a deeper complexity to the plot of done well.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
Gatsby is an odd case. Specifically, in that instance Fitzgerald is using the realization as part of the story development. It fits in with the Nick Carraway's growing understanding of the world in general and the closed circle of his New York associates in particular. For him it's kind of an a-ha moment. I'd argue that he can pull it off because Carraway is both fairly young man away from home for the first time and also coming from the (implied) more honest and forthright culture of the Mid-West. That we have a first-person limited narration helps. Otherwise this would probably qualify as a clunky reveal. I'd say Fitzgerald stuck the landing - this time.

At the risk of being blunt, there other factors in play when writing such a scene:

- A lot of writers aren't sharp enough to make their point, or
- They aren't confident enough in their execution of the idea, or
- A lot of readers are lazy

To work, this has to be organic. It has to fit significantly into the larger framework logically, seamlessly, and without calling attention to itself. Sometimes this means readers gloss over the point. Sometimes it means a major shift in tone while the writer decks it out in tinsel and flashing lights so the reader can't miss it.

I will try to think of some other examples, but those types of symbols/concepts have to be like that— and yes, it has to be something a character is thinking. Or else it doesn’t happen/won’t work.

The Scarlet Letter in The Scarlet Letter is kind of this same type of symbol when she makes it beautiful/adorns it. It is an example of a character making something into a symbol.
 

Llyralen

Senior Member
The snow in The Dead by James Joyce would be ambiguous to most people, I’d think, if you’re trying so say X = Y, which I don’t think you can. It’s like Olly said, are we talking about T.S.Eliot level symbolism?

but it was more of the arch-type or primal types of symbols and definitely placed there and connected by the way Joyce brought the snow into the sentence. I don’t have time to look it up but it’s something like “Gabriel looked out where the snow was falling across the living and the dead.”
It’s an equalizer and might also indicate time. Everyone being covered or buried by snow. Basically saying the living are as good as the dead (or as good as dead, either) or more importantly the dead are as powerful as the living as the story showed.

Anyway, I don’t think that it is an obvious symbol and it doesn’t have to be. To me it seems like one of those primal symbols, subtext of concept almost.

Anyway... yeah... It’s not like James Joyce didn’t do an excellent job or T.S.Eliot. We got the meaning... it’s just not something to be understood on a X= Y level. It’s a X= y plus something you can’t describe and that needs to be felt level. And it took the whole story to feel it all.
 
Last edited:
Yeah, that's exactly what I was thinking, Llyralen. Good symbolism doesn't need to be explained, because it can't be explained, at least by x = y formulas. The story itself is the explanation. I think of this anecdote my choreographer friend always tells me: this famous Russian dancer escaped from Soviet Russia to the U. S., and was popular even among non-dancers for awhile because of his background. So he was on a mainstream talk show, and the host asked him to do one of his dances. The dancer performed the piece. Afterwards, the host, puzzled, asked him what it meant. "What?" said the dancer, equally puzzled. "Do you want me to do it again?"
 
Status
Not open for further replies.
Top