The Power of Symbol


One of our most human traits is that we confuse our physical reality with our abstract one.

Fear, dread, grief, courage and optimism are all abstractions – hallucinations that motivate us just as surely as feeling too cold or too hot, tasting something sweet or bitter, or feeling a headache or a caffeine buzz.

The nature of reality is neutral, and we project our abstractions onto everything we experience, to make it fit the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. 

As a writer, you can reverse engineer this human feature by using the power of symbol to create lasting feelings, moods and atmospheres in your writing. 

So often, writing with symbol and metaphor can feel foggy or disintegrated — our right brain can be so dreamy and chaotic!

How do you channel that dreaminess, and remain in control?

Start with an abstraction, give it a physical form, and then describe it physically, with sensory details.

To create a mood that lasts over 20 or 30 chapters, return to this physical description in a variety of ways, to layer the effect (and the affect!) Use a word here and there, then strengthen it with a paragraph of description, then lighten up and just drop whispers of details. This will suffuse your book with the overall tone you want your reader to experience.

One of the themes that saturates The Stranger Behind You, a thriller by Carol Goodman, is that you never know who is watching you. She creates this sense of doubt, suspicion and dread in and through her description of fog. 

The physical reality of fog becomes the abstract reality – and because we are so good at confusing our physical world (fog is damp, uncomfortable, seeps into everything, and obscures visibility) with an abstract one (fear of being watched or followed) we feel the character’s dread every time Goodman describes the qualities of the fog. 

This builds through the novel – a little bit here and there in each chapter adds up to an overall sense of dread and confusion.

How to write a powerful symbol

1. What is the emotional atmosphere your character is living in? (eg: yearning, desire, confidence, belonging, grief, etc). You don’t have to name it, but get a sense of it so you can focus.

2. What is the tone, colour, sound of that abstraction? Freewrite on this, and experiment with synesthesia and metaphor. 

3. Find something in their physical environment that you could project this abstraction on, and use as a symbol. (Hint: this can work with literally anything: weather, food, music, clothing, pottery, trees, cars…)

4. Now, describe the physical object/reality while feeling the abstraction/emotion

Here are a few examples to try:

Strawberry → hope

Horse → confidence

A pad of paper → grief

Willow tree → belonging

Congratulations! You’ve created a symbol.

Now, harness the power of that symbol with repetition and variety. 

Pick 1-3 coherent symbols to use in your book, and practice writing with them.

You can stop thinking so hard at this point, and release yourself into being and describing. Let yourself feel the emotion while you write the description. Know that the symbol carries the power.


Photo credit (top): Joseph Daniel on Unsplash.

How to use a verb: a tutorial about action.
Writing societies, collectives, and salons.


There are no comments yet. Be the first one to leave a comment!

Leave a comment