Symbolism is an advanced level of subtext that can be applied to virtually any aspect of story telling. Adding it to a script pushes your brawler of a script to the next higher weight class.
The technical definition of symbolism is as follows:
Symbolism (sym•bol•ism) noun: Putting ten pounds of meaning in a one pound bag.
In Storycraft I mention the core types of symbolism;
- visual symbolism
- symbolic names
- symbolic actions
- symbolic situations.
When you sit down to add symbolism to your story, the first thing you need to clarify is; what do you want to symbolize? Sounds like a question from Captain Obvious, but really, if you don’t know what you want to express, how can you find a symbol for it?
And more to the point, when writing a story, there will be a multitude of elements you “could” symbolize… In order to see the forest for the trees, you need to stop and recognize the key elements worthy of deeper subtext/emphasis and…
How are these expressions working to serve the narrative?
Beyond the basic three tier approach I outline in Storycraft, I find it useful to look at the symbolic subtext of my scripts as a separate story in unto itself.
For instance, if I’m doing a fantasy story about “sin and redemption”, perhaps the story I’ll express symbolically is “an angel’s fall from grace.”
(Of course, it’s very possible the story you want to express symbolically is a direct reflection or reinforcement of the story’s core concept—nothing wrong with that.)
The idea here is that getting a poor man’s logline or “overall idea” to a subtextual story, gives you distinct direction in focusing or gathering, your symbols.
The more time you take to figure out the concept and ideas you want to express, the better off you’ll be. Once I know the overall story I want to express, I need only figure out what symbols capture this story and where to inject them.
By its very nature developing symbolism from a story approach, even a simple story, requires multiple symbols. After all, a story expressed in one “beat”, even repeated over an entire story, is not the most effective use of narrative.
If I kept showing a creepy doll, sure, the symbolic message would be conveyed and reinforced by the end of the story, but the meaning would be… simplistic… Like whispering the same phrase into the reader’s ear over and over.