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Symbols are complex, deep, and have many different aspects. But for our purposes…
A “symbol” is basically when you have one thing represent something else.
There are three main types of symbols used in stories:
- Visual symbols
- Auditory symbols
- Action symbols
Visual symbols are things you see.
Like an expensive flashy car representing wealth. Or a teddy bear representing childhood.
Auditory symbols are things you hear.
Like a police siren representing authority. Or a certain whistled tune could represent a specific time in a character’s life.
Action symbols are things a character does.
Like saying grace at the dinner table, representing a religious belief system or connection with community. Or a patriotic gesture like saluting someone – a specific movement of the arm and hand representing respect.
These are things seen, heard, or done, that carry more meaning than is obvious.
The surface image, sound, or action is connected to a web of associations that are related to their surface content, but simultaneously more complex, complicated, and hazily defined.
Though many will probably agree that a teddy bear can easily represent childhood, what “childhood” really means to one person or another is going to vary wildly. The teddy bear doesn’t specifically mean a particular set of things that are objectively defined as “childhood” in any scientific sense. Instead they trigger a unique set of associations in each individual audience member. This is what makes symbols special.
They pack a wide range of meanings, into a compact unit.
An image, a sound, an action – when experienced, sets off a whole chain of associations. They’re almost like a shorthand. A way to embed as much meaning as possible into the fabric of your story.
Ideally, when constructing your story, you want to craft a set of interconnected symbols. Different themes and ideas that are related in some way, and all circle around the central concept of your story. So no matter where you look, the symbolic experience keeps shedding new light on the central core of the story.
Your story will have major symbols, and minor symbols.
The only real difference between the two is the significance and frequency of their use in your story.
In Minority Report the visual symbol of eyes was used repeatedly throughout the film. Echoing the general thematic idea of the pre-cogs being able to “see” the future and the consequences of that fact. That’s a major symbol.
What’s a minor symbol look like?
In Batman Begins there is an auditory symbol that is used only twice in the entire film (two and a half if we’re being super specific).
Towards the beginning of the film, a young Bruce Wayne has been rescued after having fallen down a well in the backyard. Thomas Wayne says to a young Bruce:
“And why do we fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Much later in the film, when Ducard/Ra’s Al Ghul has destroyed Wayne Manor – an adult Bruce muses that he wanted to save Gotham, and now he’s failed. Alfred tells him:
“Why do we fall, sir? So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”
Though the words themselves seem to convey advice worth heeding, the fact that Alfred says this sentence to an adult Bruce Wayne in a time of trouble, is itself a symbol. He’s not just telling him that “we fall down to learn to pick ourselves up.” He’s also reminding him of the fact that he fell down that well once upon a time, and it seemed bad – but he survived. He’s reminding him of the strength of his father. Of the love he had for Bruce. Of the responsibility they both have to try and protect the legacy of the Wayne family. And the fact that Alfred is the one asking, symbolically positions him as Bruce’s father, which he essentially is. All of these meanings, and more, are embedded in the sentence, making it an excellent auditory symbol.
Also, the symbol is initially set up, and called back once. That’s it. That’s a fairly minor symbol. Though, given its emotional impact and connection to the characters, it almost feels like you could call it a major symbol.
When crafting your symbols, you should try and tie them to some of your other cubbies.
Which ones? That’s up to you. But this does give you a chance to convey some of the story work you’ve done with the different cubbies, in a non-conventional way. Each of your different cubbies has story information to express. See if you can use symbols to express them.
Another point of note:
Opening and closing images.
Your opening and closing images should be symbolic representations of the entire story. Different images, mind you, but both should represent the story in its entirety at the beginning and end.
You don’t have to do this, but it goes a long way to making your story feel like a complete unit. It makes the tale feel whole.
A kind of prelude, and summary, at the beginning and end.
Here at Story Shamans we have our own, specific, definition of genre. We find it more useful than the ones you typically run into.
We define “genre” by tone, not content.
While others might call something a horror story because it’s got monsters, blood, or screams in it…
We’re calling it a horror story if it’s meant to scare.
There are eight different tones that a story can have:
Every genre has a different set of expectations.
It’s these expectations that define them:
- Comedy is happy.
- Tragedy is sad.
- Drama is serious.
- Farce is silly.
- Action is exciting.
- Horror is scary.
- Romance is idealistic.
- Erotica is sexy.
Genre is a lens that your story is projected through.
No matter the events of your story, the genre – the tone – will determine how these events are portrayed to an audience.
Misunderstand or mishandle genre, and your story will collapse.
If your action story is not exciting, it’s no good.
A horror story has to be scary, or it’s a failure.
Comedies are happy. They need to be lighthearted and funny or they have failed on a fundamental level.
So when constructing your story, pay attention to the intended genre. Pay attention to the context you’re creating. The tone you’re setting for the actions of the story to take place within.
The same exact story event could unfold within the eight different contexts to very different effect. Same stuff, different tone.
Say two characters take a ride on a ferris wheel. It could be exciting, or scary. It could be silly, serious, or sad. It could honestly be idealistic or even sexy. Clearly, it could also be any mix or variation of these tones.
This is how the events of your story need to be constructed – from the inside out. What’s that mean?
The events of the story are here to service the tone, not the other way around.
If you’re putting your characters on a ferris wheel, then you’re doing it specifically to instill fear, or produce excitement, or joy, or whatever you’re going for – given your desired genre.
A few more notes:
Some genres mix really well together and others are direct opposites.
Comedy, farce, action, romance, and erotica all mix nicely together because they all have a positive tone – they complement one another.
The same goes for drama, tragedy, and horror because they’re all negative tones.
That’s pretty simple, right?
- The positive tones mix with the positive.
- The negative tones mix with the negative.
Besides belonging to the positive camp, or the negative camp, some genres are inherently complementary.
- Romance and Erotica.
- Action and Horror.
- Comedy and Farce.
- Drama and Tragedy.
They go so well together because they hit some of the same notes.
You put action and horror together and you get the common “thriller” story. A “thriller” is just an exciting story (action) that veers into scary town (horror).
The direct opposites – like drama and farce, comedy and tragedy – are the hardest to mix. Because they’re on different ends of the spectrum. They don’t bleed into each other in the same way the complementary genres do. In cases like this, you’ve got to carefully craft the juxtaposition or it won’t work at all.
Regardless of difficulty though, they can all be mixed together if you put the work in.
So how do we do this?
How do we make sure we’re doing right by our genre(s)?
Every story needs a dominate genre that incorporates the subordinate ones.
A great example of this is the so-called “romantic comedy.”
Really, these stories should be called “comedic romances,” because that’s what they are. They are romance stories first, that then incorporate comedic elements.
“The Wedding Planner” has comedic elements. But the story is first and foremost, a romance.
“Wedding Crashers” on the other hand, is clearly about the laughs first, and romance second.
That’s a big difference.
You’ll notice, it’s always easier to add comedy to another dominant genre, rather than adding another sub-genre to the dominant comedy.
Just take a look at action comedies.
If you set a baseline of action, it’s real easy to add humor. You have an exciting story, then throw in jokes along the way to lighten the mood here and there.
But if you have a primarily comedic story, and try to add in bits of real action – it’s going to be tonally off. It’s doable, but quite a bit harder.
Why? Because action is exciting, and excitement is more serious than silly.
The audience will have a hard time taking a story seriously when the baseline is silly and comedic. So when the action comes in, it’ll be hard to fear for the stakes involved.
It’s always easier to lighten the mood with a joke, then turn a comedic situation serious all of the sudden.
In the end, understanding genre is really about understanding the differences and the similarities between the eight different tones. The more familiar with them you become, the more effortlessly you can utilize them in your stories.
Most of the genres are self explanatory. But to clear up any confusion…
Let’s take a look at “romance” and “erotica.”
First thing to consider, is that “romance” does not strictly mean “love.”
“Romance,” in the genre sense of the word, means to accentuate, focus on, and admire all the positive qualities of something while generally ignoring the negative. This is why we say it is “idealistic.” It focuses on the positive, and ignores the negative.
This idealism could be applied to love or a romantic relationship. But it could just as easily be applied to a job, or a city, or a sport – anything really. You can romanticize anything.
“Erotica” on the other hand, is all about sexuality. Not romance, but sexiness. The two can go together of course. There’s probably a healthy dose of sexy in your idealized romantic relationship. But they don’t have to go together.
“Erotica” has its own identity – sexually charging any situation.
“Romance” is all about idealizing any situation.
When constructing your story, it’s almost impossible to stay in one genre the entire time. So you want to control the mix.
Set a main genre, then incorporate sub-genres along the way.
The main genre will dominate, setting the overall tone for your story. Then you can add in as many other genres as is appropriate within the main genre.
Like our other cubbies before it, genre will follow the four act structure.
Say the main genre is: action. That’s the genre that will run through the entire story.
- Act 1 could focus primarily on the action.
- Act 2 could then lean on say: comedy.
- Act 3 pumps some horror into the mix.
- Act 4 pays some attention to romance.
Remember that these genres are based on tone, not content.
So when we say act three pumps the horror, this just means that it leans into what’s scary. Whatever that means for your story. It doesn’t have to mean gore or monsters or serial killers. It just means whatever’s happening is playing to the designs of creating scares.
Genre is so fluid that it can change from scene to scene, or it can change a few times within the same scene. You want to embrace this variety. Utilize it to bring out the full tonal potential of your story.
Pick a main genre, pick some sub-genres to explore during the different acts, then it’s over.