The Power of Symbolism: A Guest Post by Nann Dunne

by Nann Dunne

Recently, I watched an episode of CSI:NY that had a scene that impressed me enough to stick in my mind. In the scene setup, the character Jo, a policewoman played by Sela Ward, accompanies a female witness home.

Shortly after the woman goes into her bedroom to get some clothes, Jo calls out a question to her. When the woman doesn’t answer, Jo walks to the bedroom door. She sees the woman’s legs on the floor past the end of the bed. She draws her gun and slips into the room. She gets punched in the face, and the gun drops from her hand.

Fade out.

Fade in, minutes or hours later, we aren’t sure.

Jo is lying on the living room floor, regaining awareness. A man, the serial rapist her unit has been pursuing, forces her to her feet, beats her with his fists, and slams her against a wall mirror. She falls to the floor, bleeding and barely conscious.

The rapist has her gun. He ejects the magazine into his hand and sets the gun on the coffee table. He sits in a chair and slowly flicks the bullets out of the magazine at Jo, one by one. All the while, he taunts her about how he has outsmarted the police.

He laughs and even encourages Jo as she inches across the floor to the table and wraps her hand around the gun butt.

Finally, the gun now in her hand, she struggles to a sitting position, points it at him and says in a raspy voice, “You know how most gun accidents happen and people shoot themselves?”

The guy, now sneering at her, stands up and spreads his arms wide. “Bang! You got me. You finally got me.” 

Jo gets that look on her face. You know the one. When a person is sure she’s won the battle.

The unspoken moment between them — which we understand better than he does — is priceless.

She says, “They always forget the one in the chamber.”

The camera cuts to the rapist. Realization dawns. His face sobers. His body twitches. The camera turns back to Jo… she pulls the trigger.

Out of the thousands of scenes I’ve watched over the years, this onewill stay with me.

We all like to see the bad guy get his due, and in most crime shows, he or she usually does. I asked myself what makes this scene more memorable than those others?

The answer I arrived at? The symbolism of the bullet in the chamber.

The scene is an allegory of life.

We can be sailing along with everything going smoothly, then, bam! Something turns our little part of the world topsy-turvy. The upset can affect us physically, mentally, or emotionally; it can be as small as fighting a case of the flu or as large as losing a loved one to the finality of death. Often it seems our small segment of the world shows no sympathy, even laughing at us, as we battle to return to stability.

If we keep our wits about us, as Jo did, and do our best to resolve the situation, we can find deep inside ourselves the power that the bullet symbolizes—the steel force we have ingrained in us that can give us the strength and courage to win against the struggles we face.

Symbolism in writing is a mighty tool.

We who are authors should strive to write memorable scenes that mean more than their face value. We can’t use symbolism in every scene, but two or three per book is a reachable goal.

Some common symbols, for example, are flags for patriotism; rings for commitment; the Statue of Liberty for freedom, smiley faces for happiness and friendship. We also have the not-so-nice symbols: finger-flipping for contempt; the “raspberry” for derision; the twirling finger at the temple for craziness.

And there are uncommon symbols. Images and moments that allow the reader to assign their own meaning.

Have you read or seen scenes that had such a strong effect on you that you still remember them? Ask yourself why—was symbolism involved? Use that memory as a basis to fashion your own original symbols within your story. Work to strengthen your recognition of symbolism — read some poetry, listen to songs… poets and lyricists rely on symbolism to imbue their work with power and depth.

Symbolism reaches into our readers’ minds and hearts and touches them in ways they didn’t foresee. To create these moments in our stories is to write with power.

Remember the bullet still in the chamber. Use it in your writing—and in your life.

Have you written any symbolism in your work? Do you remember any outstanding use of symbolism in what you’ve read?  

Nann Dunne is the a uthor of Dunne With Editing: A Last Look At Your Manuscript
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Image courtesy of kcdsTM

Also… check out a guest post by frequent Storyfix contributor Art Holcomb on Routines For Writers.


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14 Responses to The Power of Symbolism: A Guest Post by Nann Dunne

  1. Thanks for this post. I’m a huge fan of symbolism and try to have a few symbols that carry throughout my novels. I believe that symbols reach inside a reader and make the story more meaningful on a personal level.

    They create resonance, depth, and a timelessness that helps a good story endure.

  2. The symbol for the bad guy cometh was both visual and audible — a jangling round of keys hanging from a guvmunt mans belt loop.

    That ring was not unlike that worn by members of a street gang. I’m sure it was no accident. When you heard and saw those keys, it was always a tight shot, you knew bad news was on the way. The movie, ET.

  3. @Julie: Thanks for the reinforcement of the idea. I think I used symbolism a couple of times without realizing there was a name for it. 🙂 I remember my mother would only have to lift the paddle and we kids would stop our fighting – one of my earliest memories of symbolism in my life.
    @Curtis: A perfect example! I should have added movies to the list: books, poetry, songs, and movies. Thanks for the nudge.

  4. Great points, Nann. I agree that symbolism is a powerful tool – but also one that should be used carefully. It can make a good scene great, like in the one you described. However, overdoing symbolism, or forcing it into the narrative, can have the opposite effect. Symbols that jump at the reader too aggressively put too much focus on the symbol and not enough on the story. At that point, you’re basically beating a dead horse. The best symbols are the subtle ones that the reader may not pick up on right away, and has to do a careful read to understand.

    At the right times, utilized in the right way, symbols can certainly elevate a story to new heights.

  5. @Tim: Good point, Tim, about subtlety. That’s true in other situations, too. I once read an author whose every other line was an analogy – at least it seemed that way. I soon tired of it and put the book down. Symbolism has an almost inherent danger of being too blatant. We must guard against that.

  6. Oh definitely I’ve used symbolism often. Sometimes deliberately. I once used palmetto bugs as a symbol with two meanings – fearful and ugly to humans, fun and the promise of playtime to cats in the novel. It was multi-layered and also a good point of realism about cats. They don’t always share our ideas of things.

    Symbols can be varied. It’s all in how it’s used. A smiley face was incredibly sinister in “The Watchmen” both the movie and the graphic novel. A flag can mean patriotism or Nazi-style blind nationalism. Flipping the bird can be triumphant.

    Symbols like the chambered bullet can be more powerful than the obvious ones. Color can be symbolism too. Mentioning the colors of things can give a book more visual richness but the colors also have symbolism of their own – either assigned by the author or studied through sources like books of candle magic (which do a good job of delivering common Western interpretations of color symbolism.) It helps to stay simple with which colors though, stick to the eight or twelve color box of Crayolas unless you’re Terry Pratchett making jokes about eau de nile.

    Emphasizing bright color in one scene (mention the blue sky, mention a bright yellow leaf, mention a girl in a red dress, that sort of thing) and dull neutral colors in a different context, say the interior of a grim orphanage – gray shirts on the children, brown shoes, faded dirty beige wallpaper – and you’ve used symbolism in an expressive way. Bright primaries suggest joy at getting out of the grim place, along with a child’s joy in living, while all those muted color mentions help make the orphanage oppressive. Describe it like that and if the person running the orphanage is kind and generous, you’ve created cognitive dissonance – made her shine out against the background.

    But if you do that, give her a bright orange scarf. Warm colors – yellow, orange, red – are appealing to people and have more active energy. Cool intense colors – green, blue, violet – mean serenity and peace more than warmth and excitement.

    Since anything you can describe has color (including clear), color symbolism is easy to structure and powerful to drive the meanings of your novel.

  7. @Robert: Thanks for the expansive delineation of symbolism. One of the outstanding attributes of this site is the educational comments from those who read it. I keep learning – always a good thing.

  8. Way to set up the CSI scene. The last one in the chamber is the sweet shot. Going from vulnerable to deadly with Ms Ward feels just right.

    Thanks for the post Nann. If you haven’t read this, you might want to include the Encyclopedia of Symbolism for your readers. It has good takes in short bursts, just like Jo.

    Good stuff,


  9. @David: Good humor, there, David. 🙂 My book budget’s busted right now, but I’ll keep that one in mind. Thanks for the recommendation. And for the chuckle.

  10. A great reminder, thank you! I tend to think of symbolism in a Jungian sense, mythic scenarios, etc., but of course symbols are rife in everyday. The rest/refreshment/readiness to go on when a character stops to have a Coke (or Pepsi), not to mention the flag, the finger, the smiley. The sports car vs. the clunker — or if the hero drives an SUV what does that say about him–or her? It’s the kind of thing that unfortunately can become really noticeable when it’s gotten wrong (unless it turns out to be a clue–the false note, the thing that doesn’t fit in with the character’s alibi, etc.) Neat!.

  11. Very helpful. Despite all the symbolism thrown at me in high school and college, I’ve never really considered how it played into my own work.

  12. Susan Kersten

    This scene reminded of a real life situtation that I was in. There were a number of robberies in the neighborhood. A stray dog and a my own dog which had gotten loose gave from behind the bushes and grabed the gun from the robbers and had it to me they laugh in my face that I wouldn’t shot. I pull the trigger one is dead the other in prison missing his left leg. They figured because I was city girl that could walk all over me, little did they both my parents were sharp shooters, and I was trained by the army forces and I am deadly with a gun.

  13. Having done my post-grad work decoding the most ancient language known – that of symbols – I agree that a scene which is symbolic will be very impactive, and be remembered. Creative projects, whether art, music, literature, or media, are more powerfully presented when symbolism is used; and it stands to reason then, that one should understand the language of symbols before using it. Some symbols are relevant to cultures, some to humanity in general (archetypes, like symbols for the sun – we all see it), and to know this language is to be able to communicate in a very effective way. If you seek to know symbolism better, visit Once Upon a Time: the world of symbols blog. Good stuff.

  14. @James; @Symbolseeker: Thank you for the expansions and explanations that give even deeper meaning to symbolism. Always a help in recognizing symbols and their use.
    @Brianna: I’m planning to be more aware of symbolism. I didn’t give it a lot of consideration until I saw that TV episode. I will in future writing.
    @Susan: WOW! That had to be scary. As they say, a gun is a great leveler. Good that you knew how to handle it. Thank you for sharing that.