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Symbolism: The Symbolillical Symbology (Of Symbols):

Maelstrom
Ridiculous thread name aside, I'm here to talk to you about something really dear to my heart. No, it's not Jesus. This post is all about symbolism, and its ups and downs.

A lot of you reading this should remember symbolism from high school English/Literature classes, whether you studied the ideas of loss of innocence in Lord of the Flies, revenge and procrastination in Hamlet, or how one's greatest dreams can be one's downfall, as in The Great Gatsby. You might not have enjoyed all of these books and plays (though I certainly do, save for a couple), but they're all genuine examples of how symbolism is used in literature. I'm probably going to rehash a lot of what you learned/are learning here, so hang on for a bit.

Symbolism comes in two flavours: what we Tropes would probably call Faux Symbolism, essentially stock symbols like crosses, hearts and such, and internal symbols, which are specific to a single story or series and are reinforced throughout the book.

Faux Symbolism is a terribly, terribly inaccurate name for stock symbolism, I'll admit, but stock symbols and Faux Symbolism too often overlap, so they really have to be distinguished here. Stock symbols are ones you can consistently rely on to mean the same thing: crosses mean Christian metaphor or sometimes medical aid, stylized hearts represent love, and the brain represents intelligence and knowledge. Simple stuff that most audiences will understand, though this kind of symbolism gets used a lot. So much that it can often seem to really mean nothing and just be "there", hence the intrusion of Faux Symbolism into this territory. Here's where internal symbolism comes in.

Internal symbolism is the real core of a story built with intentional symbolism. This is stuff like Piggy's glasses and the conch in Lord of the Flies, and the light at the end of the pier in The Great Gatsby. It's totally meaningless in other stories, but in these it has serious purpose. And no, you really cannot argue that English teachers are just B.S.ing you with contrived meanings. Stories are created to tell something, to have meaning. Without meaning, a story is useless, despite any entertainment value it may have. Symbols are how authors bring these themes to the surface, whether it be portraying the protagonist as a messianic figure or using a digital watch to represent connection to civilization - internal symbolism, again, is story specific. This internal symbolism opens the gate for stock symbolism, which does work if used well, like many other tropes.

When it comes to writing, I'm heavy on the symbols. I write not only to entertain, but to advance English literature (that sounds very egotistical... :P) and to make a point, or many points as it usually ends up. Now, here I come to one of the hardest parts of literature to swallow: Artistic Unity.

Artistic Unity isn't something I hear about often. I'm not sure if it has other names or something, but that's how I know it: Artistic Unity, the idea (or rule, really) that everything in a story has to have a purpose, to advance the theme, plot or characters.

Does this get you frustrated? Are you thinking, "Screw that, why the hell should I let some literary rule restrict my writing?" I used to think that, actually, but then I realized something. I realized that hey, what bad does artistic unity do? It trims the fat off of a story, and in some ways challenges writers to find purposes for various events in their stories. Everything has to have a meaning, a purpose. It may not apply to life, but it sure applies to literature. Ask yourself: is there anything that just "happens" in your works? Be honest. Could you take that part out, and not have a gaping hole to fill in regards to plot? If so, then get rid of it. So Malcolm likes older weaponry? That's normally just a "fun fact" about the character. Symbolically, applying to the rule of Artistic Unity? Have it represent something like old-fashioned ideals, and perhaps use a foil character to contrast this, reinforcing the symbolism, thereby creating depth and internal symbolism. Easy! You have a character recite some Shakespeare? Why that specific part? In Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, John the Savage recites Miranda's line from The Tempest, "O brave new world, that has such people in it!" as a reflection of the original work (where Miranda, a little girl, was naively looking on at some shipwrecked, corrupt nobles), stating the title, and representing the character's thoughts and views, in this case, John's misunderstanding of the "civilized" dystopia he is now in, in comparison to his life on a "primitive" reserve. That kind of thing, in totally accurate literary terms, is called a "Word Bomb" my some. Definite meaning, theme and purpose, all there. That's about all there is to it.

Artistic Unity reinforces and is reinforced by internal symbolism, which in turn allows stock symbolism to fit in the story. Symbolism adds depth to a story, and Artistic Unity, though it can seem harsh, makes you think a lot harder about your own work. Like Socrates, keep on asking, "Why?" and you can make your story not only entertaining, but deep and meaningful, and true fun to write, from a literary perspective.

Remember my catchphrase: "Artistic Unity is God!!"
 2 nrjxll, Tue, 17th May '11 11:12:20 PM Relationship Status: Not war
Though I'd rather not, as that's a fairly eloquent post, I am forced to disagree with you on every level.

I write from an exclusive Watsonian perspective, with the emphasis on writing my story as if it was really occurring. As such, Narrative Filigree is the order of the day. All manner of things that are not relevant to the plot are included for the sake of verisimilitude. Things don't always work out in a convenient, plot-related fashion. No character exists simply to serve as some kind of device - do you exist solely to act as a foil to someone else? Are there things in your life that are there solely to serve some symbolic purpose? As far as we know, no, and I'm of the view that this should not be true for your characters as well.

Real life is far more complex and multifaceted than any fictional work, and if your goal, like mine, is to write a work that at least tries to capture some of that complexity, then Artistic Unity is among the first things to go out the window. I write to entertain, and I find it far more entertaining to read a work with the freedom of events found in real life then the constrained and often predictable events of a work that was solely considered as "fiction". If your goal is to write True Art, then Artistic Unity is all well and good. But if you want to write an entertaining and innovative story instead of something you've read again and again, then I suggest trying to treat your work as a reality in itself, as unpredictable and unconnected as our reality.

I want to state strongly that this is only my personal opinion on what makes a good work of fiction. In fact, it may not even work well for all types or genres of fiction - it is my firm belief that no one description can really sum up good fiction. The original post, however, does not make this distinction, and I merely wanted to say that it is certainly not the only way to write.

edited 17th May '11 11:12:58 PM by nrjxll

Maelstrom
Aha, that is where you are wrong. Who says that Artistic Unity does not allow for the complexity of life? I sure don't, and in fact the rule itself is simply that everything happens for a purpose - if you randomly get hit by a car, that has a purpose, does it not? It generally forces you to be confined to bed or walk with crutches for awhile, therefore the purpose, if it were in a story, would be to take a character out of action, or set up for something else if you want to go that route. Artistic Unity can be surprisingly pervasive, and I'm honestly a write who generally tries to emulate reality, though I do, again, write very much for theme and symbolism.

TL;DR: Artictic Unity is less that "everything is symbolic" and more "everything has an impact, reason, or purpose". Having a ninja pop into a room to say "Hi!" (excuse the ridiculous example) and then disappear, with the event never being referenced again, is an example of where Artistic Unity would come into play, though that's a totally extreme example. I couldn't think of much this late at night, on the spot.

edited 17th May '11 11:21:40 PM by Five_X

 4 nrjxll, Tue, 17th May '11 11:59:37 PM Relationship Status: Not war
Who says that Artistic Unity does not allow for the complexity of life? I sure don't

Everything has to have a meaning, a purpose. It may not apply to life, but it sure applies to literature. Ask yourself: is there anything that just "happens" in your works?

I hope I'm not the only one seeing some contradiction here. You are claiming that, under Artistic Unity, everything in a story must have some purpose. Unless you are applying that at its highest level - things being in the story solely to create a sense of a living world - then you are, in fact, claiming that Artistic Unity doesn't allow for the complexity of life, as everything must have some purpose related to the plot.

I notice that a car crash is a far more extreme example then those from your first post. For instance, take "Malcolm liking older weaponry". That does not have to have any narrative purpose at all - it's merely a detail about the character. Now, you can apply symbolism to it, but you don't have to. Particularly if Malcolm is not a protagonist, it can merely be a detail that might never come up again, included only so Malcolm is a little bit more than the bit part he was. That is, of course, a purpose, but not one in the sense that you seem to be arguing. Again, if you are defining purpose at that highest level, then we are in agreement, but if not you refer only to plot or theme.

Edit: In other words, if you claim that Artistic Unity is one and the same as The Law of Conservation of Detail, and that it's inherently good, we have a disagreement. If you claim it's broader then that - including anything put in a work for any purpose, whatever that purpose is - then we agree.

edited 18th May '11 12:14:05 AM by nrjxll

Maelstrom
But is there anything that just coincidentally "happens" in something you've seriously written? A completely random, unimportant event, anything like that. Things like that are rather common in real life.

Yes, everything has to have a reason, but not at the microscopic level, ie. "This happens leading to this other thing and this and that which ties into the ending reflecting the beginning", but on a level of: why is this here? Are you just tossing it in, or do you have a reason for it being there? A character has blue eyes, humans have blue eyes, who cares about that kind of distinction? But more distinct traits should have purpose and reason, because they'll catch the reader's eye.

But really, I'm stupidly tired right now, so I'm lucky any of this is making sense. I'm starting to read everything in iambic pentameter, so I'm going to write another sonnet and sleep. I'll debate tomorrow or something.
 6 nrjxll, Wed, 18th May '11 12:32:04 AM Relationship Status: Not war
Are you just tossing it in, or do you have a reason for it being there?

Again, it depends on what you mean by "tossing it in". I frequently do put in minor events or traits that are never brought up in any important capacity and have no symbolic meaning: they're simply in there to, as it were, round things out. Is that "just tossing it in"? Eye color, I think, is actually a pretty good example - my question is, where do you draw the line of traits that must have a purpose?

I'm not trying to have an argument here. But I'm still not clear on whether you're saying that The Law of Conservation of Detail - that every element of a work must have some significance - is always, in every instance, a good thing. And if you are, then I intend to bring up an opposing viewpoint, because my entire style and philosophy of writing says that it is not.

 7 honorius, Wed, 18th May '11 10:04:43 AM from The Netherlands
Yes, everything has to have a reason, but not at the microscopic level, ie. "This happens leading to this other thing and this and that which ties into the ending reflecting the beginning", but on a level of: why is this here? Are you just tossing it in, or do you have a reason for it being there? A character has blue eyes, humans have blue eyes, who cares about that kind of distinction? But more distinct traits should have purpose and reason, because they'll catch the reader's eye.
I think that helps make your story more immersive. Even if the details are irrelevant the reader is going to think about the character and make him sympathize more (or hate more). Of course too much of it isn't good either, no one wants to hear a half page long description of the physical properties of the spot on the ceiling.

If any question why we died/ Tell them, because our fathers lied -Rudyard Kipling
 8 deathjavu, Wed, 18th May '11 1:56:36 PM from The internet, obviously
This foreboding is fa...
I think you guys are getting confused between in story purpose, and out of story purpose.

The detail of someone having blue eyes, for example, serves no in story purpose. Out of story however, it serves to give someone a more complete mental image of the character.

In story purpose != out of story purpose. Artistic Unity, to me, makes a lot more sense as a Doylian concept.
Look, you can't make me speak in a logical, coherent, intelligent bananna.
Maelstrom
The difference between artistic unity and a simple reflection of life is, plainly, the difference between sticking a camera in a room and records what goes on for two hours versus recording the same room for 400 hours and cutting it down to two hours that make thematic sense and advance an artistic purpose. It's called Artistic Unity, after all. Because when you're writing, you're not writing "life", you're writing art. Literature is art. It has to have theme or purpose. Readers can assume that characters eat, sleep and crap regularly, you don't need to include those details in a story, unless there's thematic purpose to it, like several scenes from All Quiet on the Western Front. Diction, syntax, theme, structure: these are all parts of writing a story, and are all things you simply cannot escape when writing.

If your theme is to express the randomness and coincidence of life? Then you can have random, pointless details, because then they would have a point.
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[up]I'd argue that existence is art.

Though I'd argue that those things should be included to help make the story feel more real to the readers, without it they may feel robbed.

I actually hate it when details like that are left out, you need a balance between the world around your characters and plot , and your character and plot. Some of us like fluff, sometimes fluff is needed, sometimes fluff opens things up for new possibilities, I'm very big on creating a living breathing world where there are things going on in the back ground and in my head that I may never mention, or even allured to. I am not simply creating art and I'm creating life through Art (I took art for 10 years before even starting writing), as an author I am not the artist of a work, I am the creator of a living breathing (fictional) world, full of possibilities, characters, events, and more so that may never even reach the main plot, just like how there are things happening right now that will never directly effect your life.

I'm big on details I don't care if it's plot relevant if It can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears it should be detailed with my art, my work, and my own little ( fictional ) world.

edited 19th May '11 4:21:04 PM by Vyctorian

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 11 nrjxll, Thu, 19th May '11 4:37:32 PM Relationship Status: Not war
I'm big on details I don't care if it's plot relevant if It can be seen with the eyes or heard with the ears it should be detailed with my art, my work, and my own little ( fictional ) world.

Yes! Yes, exactly! This is what I'm talking about - this is how I write. It's not a one-size-fits-all philosophy of writing, because there is no such thing, including the kind of philosophy summed up in The Law of Conservation of Detail. The OP is in favor of it, and that's fine. I'm against it, and that's also fine. The only people insisting on there being One True Form of True Art - or art, period - are pretentious critics who I could not care less about. Again, the OP's ideas on writing are fine, but they aren't the only way to write. That's all I'm trying to say.

 12 d Roy, Thu, 19th May '11 4:53:41 PM Relationship Status: Getting away with murder
Hmm, I didn't read the rest of the thread (too long) but I think I get what the OP's trying to say. I'm actually trying to follow AU, but it takes just too much planning, and it gets in the way of superhumans trying to beat the hell out of each other.

Still, there are some themes that I really love to explore, like guilt, relationship with and importance of paternal figures, and try to put them in my work as much as possible. I believe that if you aren't writing something that completely runs in Excuse Plot, it is good to have as much meaning to everything. Such work would offer a lot of Foreshadowings, Chekhov's Gun and related tropes, and lots of Fridge Brilliance.
"Allah may guide their bullets, but Jesus helps those who aim down the sights."
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Fluff that doesn't matter can sometimes be used as unintentional foreshadowing and chevok's guns and gunmen later in the work or history of works.

[up][up] Also one form of True Art exist but it's entirely subjective and varies from person to person but it is their one true art.

edited 19th May '11 5:26:16 PM by Vyctorian

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 14 nrjxll, Thu, 19th May '11 7:50:42 PM Relationship Status: Not war
[up]Same thing, really.

Maelstrom
Fluff that doesn't matter can sometimes be used as unintentional foreshadowing and chevok's guns and gunmen later in the work or history of works.

Then it isn't "fluff that doesn't matter".
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[up]Yes, but on the reverse if I don't get publish after the first time then it is.
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In Riastrad
OP:

I don't include symbolism in my books unless it's a plot point or character trait in-universe (for instance, structure X represents something the characters muse about or have to figure out later, or, character Y has a tattoo in Z shape because it represents something to her.)

Why?

Because there's no point in it. Characters should be as close to real people as possible. I drink tea and know how to wield all sorts of old weaponry.

I'm also extremely far left politically, and I advocate the rapid advancement of technology.

People don't usually do things to symbolise something.

Likewise, stories should be realistic plot-wise; remember the golden rule: it's okay to do the impossible as long as you don't do the improbable.

Things don't tend happen on Earth for a reason, despite what religious nuts would like to tell you. Japan didn't get clusterfucked recently because they did something horrible, it happened because they are in a place notorious for natural disasters.

Also IIRC symbolism and causality aren't the same thing.

edited 20th May '11 12:21:59 PM by Diamonnes

My name is Cu Chulainn.
Beside the raging sea I am left to moan.
Sorrow I am, for I brought down my only son.

 18 jasonwill 2, Fri, 20th May '11 1:50:26 PM from West Virginia
I am more in agreement with the original poster than the other posters. Though I will admit that detail can be important, but he is saying that everything you write should have a purpose in your story. If it doesn't, and it has no answer to "why" it is there, meta or otherwise, then it probably shouldn't be there.

At least, that is what I get out of it.
as of the 2nd of Nov. has 6 weeks for a broken collar bone to heal and types 1 handed and slowly
 19 feotakahari, Fri, 20th May '11 4:24:44 PM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
I divide symbolism into three categories. The first is when the universe changes to fit a meaning—for instance, It Always Rains at Funerals. When overused, this seriously destroys my immersion. The second is when the universe objectively reflects a meaning—for instance, the stools in a cafe are chipped and damaged to reflect the fact that the cafe is making very little money and may need to shut down. I consider this symbolism a useful tool. The third is when characters only see symbolism that reflects their worldview, and the symbols noticed change as we switch between viewpoint characters who hold different worldviews—a cynical character will notice the chipped stools in the cafe, while a cheerful one will notice the camaraderie among longtime customers. This is very hard to write, because it requires writers to be aware of their own natural biases towards certain worldviews, but it's very powerful when done well.
That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
Maelstrom
I guess it is this: there are writers who are writers, and there are writers who are artists. I am solidly in the second category.

Symbols don't work if you're writing life, but see one of my posts above for my thoughts on that. I don't think many of you are understanding what symbols are. The characters themselves aren't "doing things to symbolize something", the symbols are nearly purely literary, artistic devices. If you have characters running around going, "Hey, this symbolizes my struggle to retain innocence in the face of modern life!" then you're doing something very, very wrong. Symbolism and meaning (collectively, "theme") are what give a story narrative depth. Without that, you just have some words spewed out on a page, or some stock footage. Symbolism has a very, very definite point. You simply cannot say that there's no point in it. If you say something like that to an English professor, teacher or scholar, then you'll be laughed out of the room. Why? Not because of any subjective judgement, but because you're undeniably wrong.

edited 20th May '11 7:41:36 PM by Five_X

 21 feotakahari, Fri, 20th May '11 7:18:04 PM from Looking out at the city
Fuzzy Orange Doomsayer
^ We can also objectively say that a large number of people subjectively enjoy works that only use symbolism in the broadest sense of the term, and I'm not about to say that those people suck for liking those stories.
That's Feo . . . He's a disgusting, mysoginistic, paedophilic asshat who moonlights as a shitty writer—Something Awful
Maelstrom
They key is to not only use theme and follow artistic unity, but to also tell an interesting story. It's really not that hard.
I do sometimes include random details to flesh out my world, but I have a tendency to ramble, so to compensate I try to adhere to some pretty strict conservation of detail, and it works out well - my plots have gotten tighter and more intense. So I suppose I advocate a balance. A character's physical appearance usually doesn't matter very much to the plot or theme, but I, at least, would find it annoying if it wasn't even mentioned. Likewise with other physical descriptions, and things like location. If it's a fantasy novel, some world-building for sure - culture, art, clothing. It's best if it's weaved into the plot, but every world-building detail doesn't have to correspond to a plot or theme point. A good example of fluff done well in an otherwise very lean work is how Steven Brust desribes and fleshes out Dragaera in the Vlad Taltos novels. They really add a lot to the plot. On the other hand, part of the reason I didn't really enjoy LOTR very much was because of too much worldbuilding and fluff, in my opinion.

On the other hand, I really don't think that symbolism is necessary to have a story with meaning, especially when most readers won't even catch it. To have meaning, all you need are some strong opinions and a plot that makes those opinions clear. For example, Whedon's existentialism really shows in Firefly, but that's accomplished more through the events in the plot and characters' actions than specific symbols. If you have a well-developed worldview at all, it will show in your work unless you make a conscious effort not to have it show. You don't need to add in symbols to make sure that it does. Sometimes symbolism works great for a plot, and sometimes it's a more realistic work in which symobls would look contrived and out of place. If your work falls in the latter category, that's fine. You don't have to have symoblism to have meaning.
"War doesn't prove who's right, only who's left."

"Every saint has a past, every sinner has a future."
 24 d Roy, Fri, 20th May '11 7:56:42 PM Relationship Status: Getting away with murder
[up][up] Not hard for you. If you ask me, getting either of them right is frustraingly hard.
"Allah may guide their bullets, but Jesus helps those who aim down the sights."
 25 nrjxll, Fri, 20th May '11 7:58:13 PM Relationship Status: Not war
I guess it is this: there are writers who are writers, and there are writers who are artists. I am solidly in the second category.

I freely admit I'm a writer, not an artist. All I've been trying to say is that both are equally legitimate ways of writing - "artists" are not better than "writers" or vice versa.

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