We’ve established that what readers are looking for (though many don’t realise it) and what editors and publishers are looking for (and many of them are very aware of it) is three-dimensional stories, stories that go beyond the linear description of one event after another, and which contain depth and thematic elements, including symbolism. We’ve worked out that this is because fiction is a mode of communication which is more primal than other modes: it utilises a unified vision of the world to convey a spectrum of effects which other ways of communicating do not.
Reports which utilise scientific method, and other forms of modern non-fiction, for example, make an enemy of subjective connectivity, linked meanings and other more traditional ways of communicating, considering these things to be a kind of ‘fog’ which prevent or hinder rational perception. Those things have their place — but it’s vital that writers of fiction don’t allow the language and discourse of non-fiction to cloud their own understanding of what they are doing.
For any fiction writer still concerned that his or her work ‘doesn’t have enough symbolism’, it’s important to understand that we’re not ‘looking for symbols’ so much as comprehending what is already there in the fiction. In other words, if you’re writing fiction which is anywhere near effective, symbolic depth will already exist within it. False divisions of the human mind into ‘conscious’ and ‘unconscious’ or ‘subjective’ and ‘objective’ are not helpful — it doesn’t matter whether you ‘knew’ you were writing symbolically or with thematic depth: fiction is that mode of communication in which 'writing symbolically’ and ‘thematic depth’ takes place by definition.
Some pre-existing symbolic elements can be perceived easily: colours are a prime example — black is often used to represent death or evil, while white frequently stands for life and purity; red can symbolise blood, passion, danger, or immorality; blue can represent peacefulness and calm. These things are part of the background of thought which goes further back than scientific analysis and is part of the raw bedrock of human thinking: chains can symbolise a coming together, ladders can represent ascension, roses can stand for romance, butterflies for transformation and so on. Did the author write a story and then consciously insert these symbolic factors? Or did the story arise with symbolic traces inherent in it? If you write fiction, you know that the latter is what normally happens.
It happens because fiction comes from a place where these things are not separated out: snakes have come to symbolise corruption or darkness over millennia of human societies, storms usually symbolise turmoil, snow is purity, and so forth. Meaning that has been attached to things in the environment has not yet been artificially removed or distanced from those things.
The things that we now call 'metaphor' and 'allegory' and 'symbolism' are the traces of a prior homogenous unity, in other words; they are the names we give to ways of thinking which have had to be given names because they have been ‘split away’ from other ways over the course of the last couple of hundred years of human culture.
You’ll see statements like this a lot in modern texts: ‘Symbolism is often used by writers to enhance their writing. Symbolism can be used to give a literary work more richness and colour; it can make the meaning of the work deeper.’ But this rings false on some level to the practising writer. Hardly any writer in practise ‘uses’ symbolism or ‘adds’ symbols to a piece of work in order to ‘make the meaning deeper’. I’m sure that a few do; I’m equally sure that the most successful and prolific do not. Successful writers write: if they do it well and understand what they are doing, the depth is there. They don’t have to ‘add it in afterwards’.
You see this in a focused way in poetry: a poem normally arises full of depth, meaning, symbols, theme, and all these other ‘mysterious’ elements. When you see a manuscript from someone like Yeats in the British Library, for example, you don’t see a scribbled poem and then a list of symbols in the margin which the poet has noted and then inserted into the work. You do see scribbled word changes and a few additions, but they are not ‘symbols’, they are changes to existing patterns or rhythms.
Writing fiction with depth isn’t about ‘adding’ some missing ingredients after a piece has been constructed — it’s about understanding and developing the ingredients that are already there.
Anyone hoping to create a career from writing fiction needs to grasp these fundamentals. Only fiction which understands what it is — and magnifies that understanding in particular and practical ways where it needs to be magnified —stands a chance of impressing readers, and editors and publishers.
These are crucial points.