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4.21.2008

Writing Theory: Symbolism and Allusion

Before I get to the writing discussion, I wanted to jot a quick note about the jog I just took. It's 82 degrees outside right now in Jacksonville. The humidity is starting to creep up there, so I decided to grab a four mile jog out at the Spanish Pond before the day became too hot to finish it comfortably.

This is really a remarkable run. It begins on the boardwalk in the photo shown in the link above and winds through a bunch of mangroves. On either side of the boardwalk there's a series of cypress swamps filled with tawny, brackish water. The mangroves and cypress trees mingle with scrubby pines and grow over the top of the boardwalk to create a tunnel through the jungle.

After about a half-mile the boardwalk spills out onto a sandy trail that winds up and down some pretty steep dunes. This is where it gets dicey. At the entrance to the trail is a sign warning of venomous snakes. We have rattlers and water moccasins and cottonmouths and coral snakes. When it's 82 degrees outside, they like to scoot around out there. I swear, every dozen steps or so the bushes on either side of me rattled with activity. When I got to the top of the highest dune on the Temecuan Trail, I saw about a six foot indigo snake dart right across the path in front of me.

I'm not ashamed to say I yipped when I saw it.

After you summit that dune you run downhill for a stretch until you descend to sea level in a series of tidal marshlands. The trail is strewn with centuries of accumulated oyster shell and, before long, it terminates in a man-made birding platform. I had the platform to myself and I stopped to catch my breath.

The Round Marsh is really a sight to see. There were two fellows quietly trolling in a flats boat out in the marsh, but other than that it was just the puffy white clouds, the creaking oyster beds and the jumping fish. This is one of my favorite routes, but it's a bit different with so many critters around. I took a five miler out at UNF's nature trail yesterday and spooked a snake out there as well. That's in addition to the two gators Jeanne and I saw (one in a road-side retention pond!) over the weekend...

On to the writing discussion. Literary fiction, science fiction, horror and fantasy all lend themselves very readily toward the inclusion of symbolism and allusion. That's not to say that there's no place for them in the thriller/cozy/mystery/chick lit. genres, because there is. But the audience isn't as apt to require that second level of context that a symbolic reference creates in a thriller as they might in a fantasy novel.

There are two primary types of symbols: contextual and universal. An allusion is a direct reference to a work or character from classic literature, mythology or art.

In the longer work in progress I've been toiling at for the last year, I make heavy use of the universal symbol of wheat. The Greeks idealized wheat as a symbol of life and the whole of humanity. They worshipped a god of the harvest named Cronus. Numerous cultures depict the grim reaper as a hooded character with a scythe, used to collect the harvest of souls.

In my story, the protagonists are a pair of wheat farmers. The rising number of deaths in their isolated ranching community falls in line with the harvest they oversee on the ranch.

Water is a common universal symbol for life. A dove is a symbol for peace.

Contextual symbols glean their meaning from the text in which they appear. In Nick Hornby's fine story "Otherwise Pandemonium," the narrator foretells the end of the world by watching the content he finds on a magic VCR. The machine itself is a symbolic nod to how our technology is, ironically, undermining the progress of the global community.

An allusion is a reference to the classics. I'm reading Alan Lightman's novel Ghost right now. The book makes repeated references to Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." The story's central character, David, seems fated to walk a parallel path to that of the mariner at the center of the story: to live a form of existential repetition for the rest of his days. In effect, he's cursed to a life of mundane sameness, just like the narrator in Coleridge's poem.

As I said, not every narrative calls for the use of symbolism or allusion. But including these abstractions adds a layer of texture to the work. It also can be an economic means of communicating complicated ideas to a perceptive audience. Your work will let you know when you need to season with a symbol or spice with an allusion, but the more you handle them--the more you think in terms of comparisons in your daily observations--the better they'll come to you...

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