Not Symbolism: Signs and Foreshadowing

Rose in Rain - Photo courtesy of OpenPhoto on Morguefile.com

Rose in Rain – Photo courtesy of OpenPhoto on Morguefile.com

I don’t (intentionally) use it in my writing, mostly because I don’t ever find it when I’m reading. I get too involved in the story and don’t even notice it, to the horror of every literature professor I’ve ever had. To make it worse, I can read a book ten times and still not “get” the symbolism. I should be embarrassed to admit that.

Signs

Like many people, I believe in signs, perhaps a little bit too much. We look for them to know that we’re going to be all right, that the people we love are going to be all right and that the thing we want isn’t a useless dream. 

Some people feel that a sign is a single representation of something, but I think that’s too black and white. I think that signs are unique to individuals – both real people and characters. Signs can look like nothing to one person and the future to someone else. Like foreshadowing, sometimes they’re more obvious when you’re looking back on them. A few examples of real-life signs:

  • In high school, I was on a trip with my youth group and we were white water rafting down the Colorado River. The guy next to me (on whom I had a slight crush) got hypothermia (his body temperature dropped dramatically). As we were leaving on the bus to get back to camp (he’d gone ahead in an ambulance), I was praying for a sign that he would be all right when a rainbow filled the sky.
  • A much younger friend (she was 15, I was 19) asked me to meet her boyfriend. I agreed. And hated him. He reminded me of the guy who got another friend pregnant at 16. They looked similar. They worked at the same place. We all met at the same place. She had his baby a little over a year later and is still trying to make co-parenting work with him.  
Robin in Tree - Photo Courtesy of PippaLou on Morguefile.com

Robin in Tree – Photo Courtesy of PippaLou on Morguefile.com

Signs don’t have to be something that makes a lot of sense. They do have to be something meaningful to your character, if you choose to use them. You can also tie them in with foreshadowing, like in these examples:

  • I recently talked to a friend who’d been praying about having another baby for a few years now (she has two boys). In March, she was telling God that she would trust him to do what’s best for her and her family. A few minutes later, she saw a pregnant robin in her youngest son’s tree – the tree they planted after they had him. When she glanced at her oldest son’s tree, there were two pregnant robins. She said she felt like it was a promise that, someday, there would be another baby. Days later, she found out she was pregnant.
  • When I lived in France, I used to wake up clenching my French Bible on certain days. Those days always sucked. A few months after I got home, I woke up one morning clenching my French Bible. I still have no idea how it got there – I slept on the top bunk in my dorm and it was stashed on the bookshelf on the opposite side of the room. That day was one of the worst I’ve ever experienced, but at least I had a few minutes to prepare.

All of those signs are immensely personal things that wouldn’t have meant anything to someone else. But those things can also reveal something about your character and what they believe and what they think about the world. However, you can have a perfectly wonderful story without signs. As with symbols, I think that you can use signs unintentionally.

Shadow - Photo Courtesy of Whistla on Morguefile.com

Shadow – Photo Courtesy of Whistla on Morguefile.com

Foreshadowing

Foreshadowing is absolutely essential to your story – and it should be intentional. It gives your readers the ability to determine what’s going to happen next and it increases their overall satisfaction about a story. It builds tension and it lets them get involved and try to figure out what’s going to happen. You can foreshadow for a few pages ahead or several chapters ahead. Just make sure you don’t let you’re readers down.

When done right, foreshadowing doesn’t give everything away. It suggests a possible outcome. And, unlike signs, which I think are best used for character development or small things, I think foreshadowing is best used to hint at major plot events or plot twists. Like the role a background character could have in the future or how a relationship is going to change or that an event is going to take place that could change a character’s life.

Novel Example: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is riddled with signs, symbols and foreshadowing. The first example I think of is Peeta: Because he’s the boy with the bread, Katniss always associates him with life, with survival. We’re left to think that’s going to change, but then it doesn’t. For Katniss, Peeta will always mean life – survival.

Similarly, Katniss sees dandelions behind Peeta the day after he gave her the bread. That’s a sign. It reminds her that she knows how to survive – she knows where to find food and how to get it. 

What signs, symbols and foreshadowing have you noticed in your life? How do you tie that into your writing?

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Comments

  1. Hi Robin–
    Wow, this is a powerful post. It’s so nice to have your contribution here! It’s great your computer is finally HOME. Thanks for pointing out the HUNGER GAMES symbols and signs. I had no idea, but now that you mention them they make perfect sense. When I “find” elements like this in fiction I feel like I’ve solved a riddle or won a prize. It’s like I can see something someone else might not have noticed. Hidden, but well-planned, treasures. I need to put a few in my own wips.
    Michelle

    • Robin says:

      I love finding things like that in fiction. But it’s HARD to do well. It’s hard to find the balance between too much and not enough.

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  3. Drew Carson says:

    Wow, this is great! I was just reading about symbols the other day. It definitely requires some abstract thinking, but as you read through the NY Times Best-sellers, there are symbols everywhere! Some you notice, others fly right over your head, but I think all of them work to strengthen the writing.
    -Drew C

    • Robin says:

      Drew,

      I agree there ARE symbols everywhere. Sometimes, I read about them on blog posts and I think, “Oh. So that’s what it meant.” I only get the super obvious ones – like the ones where they mention gray and rain 30 times in the first three pages. I agree that they can work to strengthen writing, but I also sometimes wonder how many of the symbols people see are intentional on the part of the author and how many of them are chance. What do you think?

      -Robin

  4. I LOVE using symbols and signs and foreshadowing in my books. Sometimes it’s not intentional though, and I figure it out after the fact. LOL Thought-provoking post!

  5. I suuuuuuuck at symbolism. Seriously suck. It’s the bane of my Lit class existence. Though I imagine it’s much easier to insert them during the revision process than during the writing of the first draft.

    • Hi Lauren– You might think you suck, but you never know–someone might see the symbolism in your story that you hadn’t realized was there. That would be cool. Hey, I’ve studied the HUNGER GAMES and I had no idea that the dandelions meant anything. If you lose yourself in your writing (listen to Pandora while you write) you might surprise yourself. But yes, adding it later might be an easy choice too.
      Keep at it. At least you know it when you see it, right? If so, you’re part way to writing it in your own work.
      Best,
      Michelle

  6. Azaria says:

    Great post! I usually don’t plan on putting symbolism in, and find out later when I go to put it in that it already has it without me noticing. So I guess it works that way as well. And The Hunger Games is a great example to use! I noticed much of the symolism in it right from the start.
    ~ Azaria

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