If you’ve ever tried to use symbolism in your writing, you may agree with me when I say that doing it well is harder than expected. I’ll be honest and say that the first time I tried to use it on purpose, I failed completely, and no one got the meaning I hid in there. That’s when I found out that symbolism is like Professor Trelawney’s Divination class – finding all kinds of symbolism in something that’s already written is amazingly easy (whether the symbolism was intended or not). Writing it into something is harder.
One of the best ways to use symbolism is to help build mood and theme. The symbolism adds to the details to enrich the world, characters, and atmosphere that are being built in the story. The story could be told without it, but it would not have as much depth and flavor.
A very good example of this is actually a film: The 6th Sense. In this movie, M. Night Shyamalan deliberately made sure that the color red was used somewhere in the picture whenever death was involved in the scene. This adds to the eerie mood and gives the viewer a visual association with the supernatural. The vibrant reds lend a sense of danger, especially in contrast to the otherwise muted colors of the film. At the same time, if the audience didn’t notice the color symbolism, they can still understand and enjoy the movie.
This type of symbolism can be added to an existing plot or even a finished book. It does, however, require paying meticulous attention to when the symbolism is used. Whatever symbolism you choose (a color, an animal, a sound, etc), you must be careful that it only occurs around the mood or character that you want it associated with. For Shyamalan’s symbolism to work, red not only had to appear in every scene with something supernatural, but it also could not appear in any scene without the supernatural. Additionally, colors similar to red would have to follow the same rules to make the symbolism clearer.
If it’s your first time writing with symbolism, you may want to choose a symbol that isn’t something you usually write about – that way, you won’t have to watch as closely to make sure you don’t use it somewhere you shouldn’t.
Warning: Sometimes writers are tempted to make the symbolism a vital part of the plot. The danger with this is that if the reader does not get the symbolism, he or she will not get the story. That makes this technique much more difficult, and it is almost always used with a very famous symbolic meaning (like something biblical). The only exceptions are works that are meant to be more abstract like poetry and novels intended for literary circles.