Tuesday, November 9, 2010

18 Deepening Your Novel with Imagery, Symbolism & Figurative Language

What makes you love your WIP? Is it the characters? The plot? The premise?

For  me, it's a combination of the above, but it's also that indefinable magic that suddenly makes symbols and images appear in the writing without my knowledge, the overarching, structural metaphors and symbols that bring disparate elements together and illuminate what the story is about. Often I don't have any idea where they come from. Sometimes they are purely conscious. Either way, they form the connective web between the images, themes, characters, and settings. They're the unifying force that gives life to the work, and the surprise and delight I find when they come together is a big part of what makes writing--and reading--fun.

As writers, we have a whole arsenal of tools we can use to deepen our writing and engage readers on additional levels. Among other things, we use:
  • establishing or anchoring images to set a scene.
  • closing images to underscore tone or heighten emotion.
  • symbols to build a wordless emotional vocabulary.
  • figurative language to simplify explanation at the sentence or paragraph level.
  • recurring symbols or echoes to draw attention to a theme.
  • recurring images to underscore turning points, build emotional intensity, point to what characters are feeling or thinking, or make a characters voice unique.
Chaining or repeating symbols, metaphors, or images together can be one of the simplest and most powerful ways tie scenes or subplots together.

Symbols, imagery, and figurative language are usually simple to spot and identify, but there are so many different kinds it an be hard to remember that we have a much wider range of tools than we commonly use. Each type is unique, but each is an important piece in shaping our language, pages, scenes, chapters, and overall work.

  • Establishing Shots: Usually discussed in reference to film or television, establishing shots work beautifully in written form to set up the context of a scene. In addition to providing the traditional elements of setting, they create the relationships between the characters and objects in the setting. You can build them through a quick, straight description at the beginning of your scene, but figuritive language or symbols can make them especially powerful. Think of every scene as a scene in a film, and provide an establishing shot for each.
  • Anchoring Images: An image for your readers to visualize as they move through the scene. Judicious use of props and actions can link establishing shots and various anchor images within a scene to make it play out as visually as a film.
  • Concluding Image: Underscores the emotional note of a scene and resonates with the reader longer. By using a powerful concluding image, you can say much less explicitly and achieve a greater payoff.
  • Symbols: Derived from the Greek word for "throw together" symbols draw invisible comparisons to bring additional layers of meaning into your work.  Angela Ackerman has a brilliant symbolism thesaurus on her blog, the bookshelf muse: http://thebookshelfmuse.blogspot.com/2010/02/new-symbolism-thesaurus.html.
  • Similes: A type of figurative language that explicitely compares one things to another using the words 'like' or 'as.'
    • Lips as red as roses
    • Cheeks as white as snow
    • Reeling her in like a fish on the line
  • Simple Metaphors: At their most basic, metaphors use a handful of words to liken one thing to another without explicitly saying they are alike.
    • The roses of her lips
    • The snow of her cheeks
    • Fishing for compliments
  • Extended Metaphors: These begin with a simple metaphor and add additional elements.
    • Her Snow White coloring, the rose of her lips, the snow of her cheeks
    • A shadow of her former self, ghosting through the room with so little confidence she barely made a ripple
    • All the world’s a stage and men and women merely players
    • Let me count my loves of thee, my rose garden, my heart, my fixed mark, my beginning and my end
  • Indirect Metaphors: These employ comparisons that are implied or less readily obvious because the actual comparison is veiled.
    • Her smugness ruffled my feathers (made me bristle like a bird with ruffled feathers.)
    • Surprise finally brought her back to earth (where she'd presumably been floating from euphoria or happiness)
  • Submerged Metaphors: These imply meaning in the first portion of the comparison.
    • Your eagle eye
    • The spark of imagination
    • The bloom of youth
  • Dying and Dead Metaphors: A word of caution. Metaphors (or similes) that are used too often can become cliche. Most of the examples above fall into this category. If you've heard or seen a metaphor used before, consider very carefully before you use it in your own work.
  • Active Metaphors: Instead of using a dying metaphor, think about creating something brand new. Consider what your specific character or narrator would say in his or her own voice. What life experience does he or she bring that she would use to illustrate a concept?
  • Dormant Metaphors: In trying to create new metaphors, we sometimes forget that they have to work for the reader as well as the character. Make sure your metaphors are clear and well crafted enough to be easily understood.
  • Conceptual Metaphors: These illustrate universal thoughts or concepts, and can often be easily extended. Life is a journey, for example, can be extended to show a person at a crossroads, carrying baggage, etc. Conceptual metaphors are a great way to provide start adding depth.
Consider your theme and characters. What would illustrate them best? Is there a way to add elements that unify or build on the relationship between the two? Try to bring in similar images, symbols, or recurring figurative language to help visually extend the comparison throughout your book without having to say it explicitly.

Do you already have conceptual figures in your manuscripts? Do you add them consciously, or do they just appear? What are your favorite examples from your own work?

Happy writing,



  1. Excellent post. Metaphors are tricky - I enjoy them when they are subtle enough to be clever. Sadly, too many writers overuse them :-(

  2. Awesome post! I've read script writing tips to help in novel writing and have definitely tried to work in establishing shots and closing shots into my work. I do think I add conceptual figures consciously. Setting and weather, for example, are as strong as the characters in my works. There are many examples in the blogfests I've participated in on my blog.



  3. For me, the magic is mostly organic. In THE LION AWAKENS, there is religious symbolism throughout. It's a modern David versus Goliath tale that involves an alternate universe. Think about the title alone. (Smiles) However, if you were not a Christian, you would still enjoy the book (I think). But if you are, you will recognize the symbolism and I think it definitely adds a certain magic and depth to the work. I just love it when all of the pieces come together. Even at the end of the book (the first of what will hopefully be a trilogy) we recognize that, like Jesus, the child born will play a much larger role in saving the world. I did not, however, set out on purpose to write this book full of all of this symbolism. It just came out of me. But I think it has something to do with our life experiences and our beliefs. We pull from that even though we might not realize it. And then during revision, we might see other places where we can incorporate and deepen the symbolism. Am I making sense? Anyway, great post Martina. Thank you and Marissa so much for all you do. Blessings, Buffy

  4. This is such a helpful post! I try to limit the amount of detail I put in my work and make sure that all of it either shows character or is tied to action. I have been using a lot of metaphors but still have a lot to do. My favorite ones are those that deal with natural elements, esp fire (embers, fireworks, sparks,etc).

  5. I've never seen figurative language broken down like this, especially into all these kinds of metaphors! Fascinating. I add some consciously to my work, while others magically appear. I suppose I even overuse them at times, because they make writing FUN. I really enjoy the interaction of my character to the weather...even a bright sunny day when the character is glum can work--in opposite. It's all in how the character sees it.

    A few snatches from my novel, SHAPERS, which is about sci-fi weight loss:

    Dumpy and lumpy figures lumbered past her. She felt like a sleek sailboat flanked by a fleet of barges, carriers, and freight ships. With a smile, she glided on a jaunty breeze through the entrance of the Weigh Center.

    Her body tingled, like stone trying to morph into flesh, while a bedraggled host of her blood cells struggled to navigate stiff highways of veins and arteries.

    His knobby hands scored the air like a bizarre orchestra conductor's.

  6. Excellent breakdown, especially the different types of metaphors.And thanks for the mention, too!

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. Dawn, I agree with you. Figurative language of any kind can purple your prose faster than anything if it's overused. It also slows the action, so it needs to be used judiciously. I tend to write in similes, and I constantly have to pick one out of every five or ten and eliminate the rest and make sure they add meaning or further characterization, as Saumya pointed out.

    Chris, I love the idea of setting or weather as characters! And you're right, I should read more script writing tips. I love following @jeannevb on Twitter and stopping by the #scriptchat blog at http://scriptchat.blogspot.com/.

    Buffy, that sounds like a fantastic project. I have the same kind of thing going on in one of my books, using Biblical elements to create a fantasy. It's not Christian at all though, but some of those archetypes resonate so deeply that I think anyone can relate to them. And you're dead on (for me anyway) with the process. A lot of it bubbles up from my subconscious, then I recognize seeds or shoots and start picking at them or planting a few more, and it all somehow comes together. That's my favorite part of the revision process, unearthing all those little buried pieces.

    Saumya, you make such an important point about ensuring that everything furthers character or ties to action. That's one of the reasons I like to work with very deliberate imagery. I love books that establish a shot well and early and then move into the action while maintaining the visual backdrop. As a reader, I usually find that scenes with a ton of detail result in my remembering nothing, whereas a scene with one or two surprising, important details will make the action and characterization really gel.

    Carol, your premise sounds interesting. Wasn't there a Doctor Who like that? (Yes, I'm a complete geek.) I seem to remember something about the fat that was removed from people taking on a life of its own. So weird and crazy. I loved it.

    Angela, thanks for the kind words--and your symbolism thesaurus is awesome. (As is your setting thesaurus and emotion thesaurus.) As far as I'm concerned, your site is a must for every writer!

  8. Awesome post! Loved the breakdown. There are so many ways to infuse symbols and deeper meaning into one's novel.

  9. Great discussion here! I have struggled with metaphor--trying to write fresh imagery, get the right balance, etc. But you are so right--there's magic when suddenly just the right imagery appears on the page. Recently I've discovered how a particular symbol keeps popping up in my WIP and how, as you say, it can help draw attention to the theme. Kind of stumbled on this, but it's making a big difference :-)

  10. Nicole, that's one of the things that makes every writer's story unique, isn't it? You can take the same story, give it to two different writers, and the way they shape it and deepen it will make it into something completely different.

    Kenda, I love when that happens. And I don't know if it's our subconscious mind at work or the universe trying to tell us something, but I remember sitting with Tracy Clark at the summer SCBWI conference when someone gave her a tidbit of research about an element of her plot that became the perfect metaphor. From the way she described it, it literally was the unifying element that had been there all along--except that she didn't know it even existed. So amazing to see that happen.

  11. Wonderful post! Very helpful breakdown. I'm very aware of opening and closing shots, perhaps because Donald Maass considers them so important. My MG fantasy incorporates Slavic mythology, so there are symbols throughout the story as well as a Tarot reading full of hidden meanings.

  12. Wow, I'm going to be referring to this post often. I wish I had gone to the Tracy Clark session. Thanks ladies! :D

  13. Kathryn, I love the Donald Maass books!

    Stina, Tracy didn't do a session, this was just one of those byproducts of the person-to-person connections that happen at a conference and end up being as valuable, if not more so, than the sessions. I was just pointing out to Kenda that sometimes the universe seems to send you the metaphors and images when you need them.

  14. Amazing post, Martina. I love your breakdown. I'm especially pleased with your caution. I'm not a huge poetry fan--I appreciate a well written one, don't get me wrong--and I tend to write in a somewhat lyrical form. On occasion, I use too much. Funny how my eye and even my ear misses it, sometimes. Thank the heavens for those beta readers!!

  15. Really? You make my head spin, Martina. You never cease to amaze me. Reading your blog is like taking a free class for writers. What kind of simile was that??? Eek.

  16. This is such a great article!! I am going to have to link this to the post I already published LOL. I'm not great a symbols, but I'm trying to add just a few : )

  17. Awesome post! You are right that much of this comes somewhat intuitively when we're writing - but I think consciously thinking about them (during revisions) can help deepen the novel. :)


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