Something has been broken. It may be a spell, a relationship, a life. Whatever it is, it was important, and now it's been destroyed.
And so has something else.
An excellent way for a writer to demonstrate the destruction of something intangible is to break something tangible. The broken object could be anything, but the symbolism is usually obvious. When Bob and Alice break up, a picture of the two of them is destroyed. When Charlie dies, his prized possession is smashed to bits. When the Big Bad is defeated, his stronghold falls apart.
The extent of the damage to the Symbolically Broken Object frequently indicates the extent of the damage to the thing it symbolizes. If the object has been destroyed beyond repair, there's a good chance that the same is true of whatever else was broken. If the object can be repaired, so can the thing it symbolizes.
Compare Reality Changing Miniature when one can make the change intentionally with an object that's meant as a representative of a bigger thing, Dying for Symbolism where a living person represents an ideal, and Smash the Symbol where a character intentionally destroys something that symbolizes an ideal for another character.
Contrast It's All Junk where nothing means anything.
- In a picture drama of Code Geass after Nuannally reminisces about a plate that she, Lelouch and Euphemia looked at, Euphemia is heard on the radio, suddenly the radio is cut off and after that, the plate drops and breaks on the floor.
- Macross: the protagonist is sitting in hospital amusing himself with a miniature biplane when told his friend/squadron leader is dead. Cue dramatic slow-mo shot of the biplane falling to the floor and breaking.
- Fate's Heroic BSoD in Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha is marked by her weapon shattering after she drops it. Conversely, her jump staring its self-repair function marked the beginning of her recovery.
- In Nana, the breaking of the strawberry glasses represents the breaking of contact between Nana K and Nana O
- When Asuma dies in Naruto, his girlfriend Kurenai's teacup breaks.
- One Piece invokes this with the Vivre Card, a piece of paper linked to the condition of its owner/creator. It burns and dwindles if that person is weak or in danger, and returns to normal when he's healthy. When a character with a Vivre Card is Killed Off for Real, it's symbolized by the Vivre Card burning into nothing.
- Pokémon: Part of the way a Stoutland's death in S M 021 is shown is its furniture breaking apart.
- In Puella Magi Madoka Magica, both Mami's teacup and saucer shatter and are further shown covered in blood, symbolizing her gruesome death by the witch Charlotte
- In the The Magic School Bus fanfic The Life and Times of the Fantasmic Four, just before she leaves Texas for university in North Carolina, Phoebe breaks the head off a toy dinosaur that her ex-boyfriend Arnold had given her in a Noodle Incident years before (later depicted in The Best Chrismukkah Ever) because she's upset that their relationship is over and that she ended it despite the fact that they both still loved each other.
- In the Empath: The Luckiest Smurf story "Papa Smurf & Mama Smurfette", Tapper the village bartender keeps a broken picture of Smurfette on the wall of his tavern as a symbol that Smurfette's choice of marrying Papa Smurf has even deeply affected him despite his initial reaction of just letting things be no matter how distasteful they may seem.
- After a bitter argument in This Bites! between Tsuru and Sengoku about the morality of the latter's actions (including letting Admiral Akainu escape justice for committing genocide), Tsuru exits Sengoku's office with such force that a picture of her, Sengoku and Garp falls to the floor and shatters, with a crack in the glass separating the two former friends.
- Happens twice in Brave: the tapestry Merida slices in anger explicitly represents the broken bond between her and her mother, the cut going between depictions of the two. Later, we see a carving of the four princes that has been similarly broken, after one of them, seeking greater power, got turned into the demon bear Mor'du.
- Disney's adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan has Kala the ape lead Tarzan to the treehouse where Tarzan was found as an infant. On the floor, Tarzan finds a photograph in a broken frame with cracked glass of three humans: himself as an infant, his father, and his mother. The vicious leopard Sabor had killed Tarzan's parents, leaving only himself for Kala to rescue and adopt.
- At the beginning of Gulliver's Travels, The kings of Lilliput and Blefuscu are celebrating the upcoming wedding between their respective children, which would unite the two kingdoms. An argument over which nation's anthem should play at the ceremony results in King Bombo of Blefuscu declaring war, and — to drive the point home — he smashes the wedding cake, knocking down the cake toppers representing the prince and princess.
- Ralph Breaks the Internet: After Vanellope learns that Ralph unleashed a virus into Slaughter Race out of jealousy, she declares they're not friends anymore and throws the "You're My Hero" medal she gave him into the depths of the Internet, and Ralph finds it broken in half when he goes down to retrieve it. By the end, it's still broken, but now Ralph and Vanellope wear each half as a reminder that they're still friends even though they're apart.
- In The Parent Trap, the twin girls each have half of a ripped picture of their divorced parents.
- One poster◊ for The Dark Knight Rises shows Catwoman symbolically stepping on and breaking a Batarang with her heel.
- The Odd Way Home: After Francine's final argument with her daughter Maya, whom she hated and abused, she throws Maya's childhood doll in the fire. She plans to do the same with every picture of Maya and her father, as she blames Maya for "stealing" her husband by being sexually abused.
- The Bible:
- Book of Exodus: Moses spends a great amount of time in the mountains getting God's rules for the Israelites to adhere to. Bored of waiting, the Israelites creating golden idols to worship, hoping to get insight from their new pagan gods. When Moses returns bearing the two heavy stone tablets inscribed with the commandments, he is appalled to find the Israelites drunkenly celebrating their golden idol and smashes the tablets in outrage.
- The Four Gospels: When Jesus dies during his crucifixion, the veil in the Temple that separate the priests from their parishioners was torn from top to bottom, symbolizing that the priests were no longer the only ones who could pray to God.
- In Terry Pratchett's Carpe Jugulum, Granny Weatherwax vacates her cottage, leaving everything neatly arranged by threes. Where she has a surplus fourth plate, it is broken and in the bin. Nanny Ogg works out that this is her way of telling the other witches the original three is no more - Granny is represented by the broken plate, whose time is past. The remaining witches have to form a new symbolic triad - Nanny Ogg as the Crone, Magrat Garlick as the Mother, Agnes Nitt as the Maiden.
- Clan of the Cave Bear: Mog-ur has a vision of the Clan dying out and the Others taking over the world. When Ayla accidentally breaks the ceremonial bowl Iza uses to prepare one of her potions, Mog-ur sees it as a sign that his vision will come true.
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: Sirius gives Harry a magic mirror that will allow them to communicate. Harry tries using it after Sirius' death but it doesn't work, so he throws it in his trunk and it smashes. It later becomes a Chekhov's Boomerang.
- In Alfred, Lord Tennyson's The Lady of Shallot, the eponymous Lady imprisoned in a tower knows her death is near, when:
Out flew the web and floated wide—
The mirror crack'd from side to side
- When Aslan returns from the dead in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe the Stone Table splits in half.
- In Lord of the Flies, the destruction of the conch shell symbolizes the breakdown of civilization.
- In How Firm a Foundation, Sailys Trahskhat's lucky baseball bat earned that status because it's the one bat that never broke during a game. When he has to go Batter Up! on three armed rioters threatening to rape and murder his family, he wins the fight but his lucky bat breaks in the process. That fight was the point when Trahskhat changed from a Temple Loyalist exile to a Reformist soldier.
- In Tad Williams's The War of the Flowers, Mud Bug Button shows up on television and breaks a small stick. The goblin underclass of The City immediately began rioting and revolting against their Faerie overlords because that stick was the physical manifestation of the treaty that kept them in subjugation.
- In The Lord of the Rings, Saruman's staff is broken after his expulsion from the Order of Wizards and White Council.
- In the first Warrior Cats book, upon first joining ThunderClan, kittypet (house cat) Rusty's collar breaks in a fight against Longtail, who had been loudly taunting him about his origins. This is taken as an omen that their ancestors, StarClan, approve of him joining the Clan, and represents that he's left his old life behind.
- In Love Anthony, Beth takes down every photograph that includes her philandering husband Jimmy and rips them all to tiny shreds. Her daughters are angry at her for destroying their family pictures but by that point, it's too late.
- Doctor Who:
- When Adric dies in Earthshock, the Doctor has to use his star badge to kill a Cyberman, destroying it in the process. Then they run the Silent Credits over the image of the broken star.
- In the episode "Father's Day", when Rose's father is hit by a car we don't see him hit but rather see the vase he's carrying fall to the ground and break. When Rose saves him, the vase falls but does not break.
- In the Series Finale of Friends, the replacement chick and duck Chandler bought for Joey get trapped inside Joey's foosball table. Joey and Chandler can't bring themselves to destroy the table, so Monica does. Given that Chandler is Joey's best friend and is moving to the suburbs with Monica, breaking up the close circuit of the six characters' lives, it's pretty symbolic.
- An episode of Sex and the City had an episode where Samantha gets her boyfriend a framed painting of a heart. His reluctance to hang it on his wall symbolises his inability to give her the commitment she wants, and later he smashes it... having broken her heart.
- A really bad car wreck leaves Dean comatose and not expected to live. After seeing the Winchesters' badly damaged Impala, Bobby suggests scrapping the car. Sam goes on an emotional, not-at-all subtle rant that if there is even one salvageable piece of the car, he won't give up on it.
- After John's death, Dean is working to repair the Impala but can't quite get the car to work like it should. After insisting that he was fine all episode, Dean wails on the car with a crowbar. Anyone who watches the show knows how out of character this is for Dean, but it perfectly represents how helpless and destroyed he feels following his father's death.
- Star Trek: Voyager. In "Year of Hell", Captain Janeway finds her lucky coffee cup has survived the destruction of the Ready Room. Just then the Krenim attack and the cup is knocked off the table and smashes. In the same episode, Annorax keeps a lock of the hair of the wife he accidentally erased from time in a special container that shields it from dissipating into nothing because it can't exist in the world he created. As his vessel is destroyed, he watches helplessly as the container breaks and the hair vanishes from existence.
- In the blink-182 video for "Always", this happens to a vase of gladioli at the beginning of the video, symbolising the broken relationship between the guy(s) and the girl.
- Seen in the music video for Johnny Cash's "Hurt", with the glass in the frame of his gold record for Live at Folsom Prison broken as if punched.
- In The Glass Menagerie, one of Laura's glass animal figurines is broken by her "Gentleman Caller". The figure is a unicorn. Its horn breaks off, making it "just like all the other horses". It's symbolic of Laura herself, who is fragile and special and no one understands her.
- In The Platform, Kyle destroys the dream catcher that Agatha has been playing with. Not only does it call her, it symbolizes that the guilt she has carried, thinking she killed her son, has also been destroyed.
- In Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, the doll that Roo gives Olive at the beginning gets broken near the end, in the same scene that sees the irretrievable breakdown of Roo and Olive's relationship.
- BIONICLE: The Bohrok Online Animations begins with a storm over the Mata Nui rock, after which the rock shatters, representing the Bohrok coming to "cleanse" the island of Mata Nui.
- In Halo 4, Master Chief and his rapidly-deteriorating AI Cortana work together to destroy the Big Bad's starship. They succeed in the end, but it takes the last of Cortana's strength to save Chief, even though he was adamant she'd be cured soon. As she vanishes, the starship is seen falling to pieces behind him, representative of his shattered worldview.
- In The King of Fighters, after Rugal (his nemesis) is confirmed dead, Col. Heidern feels that he can finally move on with his life and he chooses to rip his family photo (Rugal murdered his family back then).
- In Mortal Kombat 9, the cracked amulet represents Armageddon: the further it's cracked, the closer it is.
- The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: After Midna uses the Fused Shadows to fight Ganon one-on-one, the scene cuts to Hyrule Field where she'd teleported Link and Zelda. After a massive explosion shakes the castle, Ganon appears on horseback, holding the Fused Shadow Midna had been wearing as a hat... and crushes it. Cue the last two phases of the final boss fight.
- Arknights: The Doctor notices a broken picture frame of two young familiar-looking Lung girls together. You later find out that they're Ch'en and Tallulah, and also learn that they're half-sisters.
- Gravity Falls: Mabel rips up a photo with her, Candy, and Grenda in the episode "Boyz Crazy" after temporarily breaking up with them. In the next episodes where the photo is shown, it is fixed.
- Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: Near the start of the Season 1 finale, Fred accidentally drops his dad's framed photo of Fred's Missing Mom, who was implied to be his father's Lost Lenore... and discovers that it's actually a snipping of a model from a magazine she isn't Fred's mother. The episode builds up to Fred discovering that his "father" is actually his kidnapper. The promo for the season finale used this shot to help seal the Nothing Is the Same Anymore tone of the episode.
- In Wander over Yonder, Dominator destroying a heart-shaped planet represents breaking Hater's heart.
- According to The Other Wiki, stage magicians break a wand when a magician dies.
- Also according to The Other Wiki, state funerals in the U.K. include a household official (such as the Lord Chamberlain), breaking a staff of office at the graveside to symbolize the end of service to the dead person.
- When the Pope dies, his signet ring, the Ring of the Fisherman, is broken (in recent decades, it has been given deep scratches, but not totally destroyed). Originally this was a practical step to stop the ring being used to seal official documents, but it has persisted as a symbolic act even though the ring is no longer used this way.
- When a knight was stripped of his knighthood, this was done by symbolically destroying the symbols of his status. His spurs were cast away, his belt cut, his sword broken over his head, and he was declared "no longer knight, but knave."