Writing: Using Symbols and Metaphors



Readers process your written scenes on several levels. Make the most of the deeper layers of symbol and metaphor.

Writing Tip for Today: Here are a few tips for layering your scenes with symbols and metaphor:

Setting is Character

Your fictional setting can influence the reader’s perception of a story. You may have heard the saying that setting is character—by parallels to the character’s dilemma, you highlight corresponding emotions in the story landscape.

For instance, a character whose goal is to fulfill a longing or desire can be symbolized by a parched or dry environment. A character who is overwhelmed or embattled might face a stormy or tumultuous surrounding. Moments where the character achieves a goal might be reflected in that character noticing a fragrant or pleasant setting.

Settings can underpin or emphasize emotions or dilemmas but avoid hammering the reader. Let the scene’s setting embellish without upstaging your character. Lush prose without human emotion will have a difficult time connecting with readers. Draft over-the-top, then pull back in revision for a balanced scene.

Metaphor Go Lightly

Using similes and metaphors can also enhance and highlight your character’s wins and losses. Similes generally use the word like or as to compare unlike things, while metaphors allow unlike objects or condition to become the object or condition.

An example of a simile: The kids fought like cats and dogs, meaning fiercely and often. He was fit as a fiddle means he was healthy. Use similes to emphasize or describe a comparison. Similes are useful in describing size or to give readers an accessible mental picture of an object. They can easily be cliches, so try to be original but not silly.

Metaphors compare two unlike objects but present them as being the comparison. He had a heart of gold or her brother is a couch potato implies a continual state of being, not simply like something else. These kinds of metaphors are also often cliches or tropes, so try to be original without becoming silly or nonsensical.

 Avoid clumping similes or metaphors in the same sentence or paragraph.

Develop Over Time

When you draft your scenes, go ahead and lay on the similes and metaphors as thickly as you wish. When you revise, remember that these devices are best used for emphasis and to give readers a clearer mental picture.

Avoid clumping similes or metaphors in the same sentence or paragraph. If you’ve drafted several close together, pick the one with the most emotional impact and delete or save the rest for later. When you pile on too many literary devices in a short space, readers may not know what to emphasize or what is important.

Your revisions can also spot which metaphors can be pulled through the entire story. Don’t be afraid to use symbols or metaphors, but the most authentic may not present themselves until you’ve drafted the entire story or novel. A lost locket can symbolize a character’s losses, and a move to a different setting might symbolize a fresh start. As the writer, your job is to keep readers from feeling overwhelmed by symbols and metaphor and to choose unforgettable examples that will strengthen the character and the story emotions.

How do you use symbol and metaphor in your writing?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *