A few weeks ago, I talked about purple prose as a style. I also said I’d have a few more posts examining style. Well, here’s one of those so that’s fun. Today, I’m going to look at two very similar writing choices which can affect the style of your writing.
One of them, I write very often, one I’ve never written and never intend to (as a personal choice more than anything else).
Symbolism and allegory.
The Power of a Symbol
I’ve written a post before about symbols, but I wanted to take the time to address them here, since they’re a valuable stylistic choice. They can strongly affect the choices you make in your writing, and can produce very strong emotion in the readers who understand their meaning.
One of the most important parts of writing symbolism is this: not every reader will understand, and that’s okay. Symbolism is a background style. It’s almost subliminal. Not everyone will understand because not everyone pays attention to symbolism. Some symbols will pass over the heads of some people.
And that’s okay.
As a writer, you have to accept that not everyone is paying enough attention to catch all the nuances you write. Even you. I’ve had beta readers point out symbolism I didn’t intend to write, but they still found it. Once I knew it was there, I made sure that I was writing it well and that it came out in a way that fit the themes of my writing.
While symbolism can be powerful, presentation is everything. A forced symbol isn’t a symbol at all. If you write something purely as a symbol pointing to something else, then it has no meaning. It’s a cardboard cutout. That cardboard cutout of Ron Swanson isn’t actually Ron Swanson. It symbolizes him, but it’s not very good at being the real Ron Swanson.
In writing, it is always best to use symbols that come naturally to the story. For instance, in Lord of the Rings the ring itself symbolizes many things to many people. These things come from individual people and no two people have the exact feelings on the meaning of the ring.
It’s a natural consequence of how Tolkien wrote the story.
Personally, I don’t think he wrote the ring to intentionally inspire one or two specific themes. He wrote it as a ring of terrible power, and let every reader decide for themselves what that power meant to them.
That is a strong symbol.
All of the strongest symbols in literature are vague. They’re present just enough to make the reader think and draw their own conclusions. The weakest symbols are specific, overdramatized, and pointed out time and time again in the narrative until they lose all meaning and relatability.
Allegory: A Strong Weakness
Personally, I never write allegory. I don’t want to. It’s not that I hate allegory, I just find no draw to writing it myself. Writing an allegory well takes a lot of work, work I’m not particularly drawn to. If you are, great.
Just… do it right, yeah?
Since I don’t personally write allegory, I don’t have a lot of tips for writing it well. As an avid reader, however, I do know many ways in which allegory does not work well from the eyes of the reader (and I’ve read many of them).
Most allegories are religious in nature (for instance, Chuck Black is a highly lauded Christian Allegory writer). They’re written to point toward a religious narrative, or some other narrative outside their own.
One of the strengths of allegory is this: theme plays a huge role. Readers of allegory are supposed to come away having learned about something outside of your own work. They’re anticipating it, if they know ahead of time that your work is allegory.
Allegory primes the reader to learn.
This is attractive to those who mainly want their story to teach. Allegory attempts to use entertainment as a medium for message-spreading. This can be both good and bad, depending on how it is done.
The weakness of allegory is this: agenda can quickly overcome story in the order of importance. Now, I realize “agenda” is a hyper-charged word in today’s world, but it’s the honest word for this situation. Allegory wants learning to occur, and a very specific sort of learning.
Any other message is unimportant to allegory.
One side has to be correct and the others wrong.
The reader must agree with the writer.
And there is the weakness. When allegory focuses too much on the message, the story is set aside. It’s secondary, which is never a good idea in books. The moment the reader disagrees with the message behind the allegory, the story no longer matters.
That’s the danger of allegory.
Using Symbols and Allegories
Am I saying you should never write allegory and just write symbolism?
There is a time and place for allegory. It may be a limited time and place, but it does exist and allegory can be there to fill that time and place.
Much the same, there are times when symbolism can be distracting from the story, especially when it’s supposed to be the focal point of the story.
These stylistic choices can provide strength to your story, or weakness. The point is not to avoid them for fear of the weaknesses, but to write them in the hope that the strength comes through, and to work at them until that hope becomes a reality.