Symbol: The Depth of Your Story

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.

Major Symbols

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.

Minor Symbols

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.



Narrative Part 1: Traits & Timeline

How a story is organized and communicated to an audience.

Storytellers have a whole range of tools to use in designing how their story is specifically communicated.

First up! You’ve gotchur plots.

A Plot:

The main plot of your story.

It follows the general events of the story and the path of your main character.

B Plot:

Typically follows a supporting character and is related directly, or indirectly, to the main character and the main “A” plot.

It’s a smaller side story.

The best “B” plots are typically a smaller version of the “A” plot in some way. For instance, the main character in your “B” plot could be pursuing the same goal as the main character in your “A” plot. They have the same desire line. But maybe we see that the “B” plot character fails, while the “A” plot character succeeds. The “B” plot then stands in stark contrast. Demonstrating just how things could have gone for your story’s main character.

C and D Plots:

These are even smaller side plots that run through the story.

What else do we need to worry about when crafting our narrative?

A few key traits:

  • Perspective
  • Scope
  • Stakes

Perspective:

How the story is presented to the audience.

Is the story from the perspective of the main character? Or is it experienced from the point of view of several different people? This makes it possible for the audience to know more than the main character. It also makes it possible for them to know less.

Scope:

How wide-reaching are the events of the story?

Does it have a really wide scope with global ramifications? Or does it have a really narrow scope – two guys talking in a bar?

Stakes:

How important is the story to the characters involved?

Are they fighting to save their very lives? Or are they trying to get a date to prom?

Outside of these concerns, we’ve got to take a look at our:

Timeline:

Most stories are linear with a beginning, middle, and end, in that order. But not always.

Some stories employ a non-linear structure.

And there are many tools we can use to pull this off.

Flashbacks:

You know what these are.
The story was progressing forward in time. But then it shows you something that happened before the beginning. Reaching back to show you events you’ve never seen.

Flashforwards:

This is when the story is moving along and then shifts to a point in time far in the future. A kind of counterpoint to the “flashback.”

Anchors:

An “anchor” is a stable point in the story’s timeline that acts as the primary focus. The “present” of the story’s timeline. It gives the audience something to hold on to in their minds. Storytellers are great for establishing an anchor. We see this device used in Forrest Gump, among others.

Montage:

This is primarily a way of compressing time. You show bits and pieces of a larger period of time – conveying the gist.

Co-Current Timelines:

This is when you have two timelines going at once.
Both are considered the “present” by the audience. And at some point you connect them both up. We see this in The Notebook. You have the older versions of the characters. And the younger versions. Two timelines that eventually intersect.

To Be Continued…