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 2: Storytellers

A “storyteller” is a character in a story who is actively participating in the telling of that story.

You’ve heard of a few – a “narrator,” for instance.

If you’ve decided to utilize a storyteller, there are a few things to consider. Questions you need to answer:

Narrator? Or internal monologue?

What’s the diff?

A “narrator” is a character speaking over the events of a story.

Usually divorced from the normal flow of time. We see narrator examples in Fight Club and The Shawshank Redemption.

An “internal monologue” is when the audience can hear the thoughts of a character, as they happen, in real time.

We see internal monologue examples in Adaptation and Dexter.

If your storyteller is a narrator…

Are they speaking in first, second, or third person?

First person – a character talking about his or herself.
“I have a pervasive fear of weddings. But when offered free booze, my ailment becomes manageable.”

Second person – a character talking to a “you.”
“You never seem to remember which kid is which. But you always seem to get it together when Kelly’s in town.”

Third person – a character talking about someone they’re indirectly involved with.
“That big guy over there is Johnny Macaroni, named after his love of elbow shaped pasta smothered in cheese.”

Establish if your narrator is inside or outside of the story.

Are they an active character in the story? Like what we see in Interview with the Vampire?
Or are they outside of the story as an omniscient voice? Like what we see in Vicky Cristina Barcelona?

Is the narration justified or unjustified?

“Justified” would mean there is a reason within the story that the narrator is saying what they’re saying. They’re writing a memoir, pouring their heart out in a diary, or telling their life story to someone on a park bench. We see these types of narrators in Stand by Me and Forrest Gump.

“Unjustified” would be when there is no justification for the narrator speaking, they just are. Like in Spider-Man or Savages.

When deciding between the two, justified always seems a bit better.

Is the narrator speaking in the past tense? Or the present tense?

It’s a small difference, but it communicates to the audience whether the story is over and done with – or if it’s happening right now.

Does the narrator acknowledge the audience directly or indirectly?

Directly acknowledging the audience, would be like what we see in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. He’s speaking straight into the camera, talking directly to the audience.

Indirectly acknowledging the audience, would be like what we see in American Psycho. He isn’t directly speaking to the audience, but he is speaking as though someone is listening. He’s not talking to himself.

Is it verbal or text?

Most narrators are verbal – we hear them speaking to whoever their intended audience is. But some narrators can come in the form of text. Especially prologues and epilogues.

A classic example would be the opening text crawl in Star Wars.

Whatever form your storyteller takes, they can be a very important and necessary part of your story.

Any story with a large sprawling scope, that spans a great deal of time, usually needs a storyteller to tie it all together.

Or, if you’re looking to create a particularly intimate connection between a character and your audience – utilizing that character as a storyteller themselves is a great way to go.

Just keep in mind that storytellers can be tricky. It’s real easy to screw it up. The storyteller device is most often utilized in novels. So when bringing it to screenwriting, you’ve got to have a subtle hand to pull it off.