Three Literary Elements: Symbolism

Ciao, SEers.  SymbolismToday is a two-fer. I’m writing the last of my posts on literary elements, and I’m also writing my last post of the year. And what a year it’s been, huh? Say what you want about 2020, it’s definitely one we’ll never forget. (And one I’m happy to put behind me.)

Okay, literary elements. We’ve already covered theme and subject. Please click on the links if you missed those posts or want a quick refresher. This installment will discuss symbolism and how it relates to the other two elements.

Unlike theme and subject, symbolism is pretty widely understood by authors. It’s the use of something—usually a repeated use—that comes to represent something more than its literal definition.

Some common, recognizable symbols:

  • dove = peace
  • heart = love
  • owl = wisdom
  • water = purity
  • fire = passion
  • white = good
  • black = evil
  • green = envy
  • blue = sadness
  • yellow = cowardice
  • spring = new beginnings
  • winter = endings

Let’s take a look at our tried and true example of The Wizard of Oz. There are so many symbols in the story, so I’m only going to look at a few.

Theme: always follow your heart’s desire (Dorothy’s desire is to go home)
Subject: home (Dorothy learns there’s no place like home)
Symbolism: the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers, and her actual home

The yellow brick road symbolizes the journey to your heart’s desire. There will be good and bad along the way. You must not let good things tempt you away from your goal, and you must not let bad things frighten you away from continuing.

The ruby slippers symbolize Dorothy’s power. In the story, they are magical (or powerful). Remember, once they were on her feet, she was unable to remove them. That’s because her power is always with her, whether she knows how to use it or not. And at the end, she is able to use the magic (her power) to attain her desire, which is to go home.

Yes, home is actually a symbol here. In two ways, actually.

  1. Kansas versus Oz. When we meet Dorothy, Kansas is dull and dreary. Undesirable. When she goes to Oz, everything is bright and cheery. But as she follows the yellow brick road, she learns that there are dangers around every curve, and when she finally gets back to Kansas, we see it as a soothing and calming area.
  2. The house itself. Our first introduction to Oz is in Munchkinland, which looks like a happy place, but it’s a land terrorized by the Wicked Witch of the East. Dorothy put an end to that terror—a problem she didn’t even know existed yet—with her house. It’s a tangible symbol that home is a powerful and protective force.

So, you can see how the three literary elements work together to drive home (no pun intended) an author’s message.

Theme, the most general and overarching element, is the umbrella under which everything is contained.

Subject is the vehicle through which the message is delivered.

Symbols are the items used to reinforce the author’s point.

I would argue authors use theme and subject in every story, sometimes without even being aware of it. Symbols require a bit more forethought, but they can be used quite effectively in tandem with the other two elements.

Do you use symbolism in your stories? Can you point to theme, subject, and symbol in your work or in the work of others? Or what about other symbols in The Wizard of Oz (there are a bunch). Let’s talk about it.

And, as I won’t be posting again this year, let me take this opportunity to thank you for your continued support throughout a trying fifty-two weeks and wish you a healthy and happy holiday season.

Staci Troilo Bio

58 thoughts on “Three Literary Elements: Symbolism

  1. An interesting post and great example, Staci. I do use symbols though I don’t think I necessarily plan them. They’re just there. It’s nice to see that a lot of what we do organically makes sense when analyzed as part of our craft. Have a great break and Merry Christmas. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Off the top of my head, I’ve used symbolism in my Hode’s Hill series….A St. Michael’s medal to represent a connection between a lead character and his father, daffodils to represent the both love and hate, and a specific building to represent a seedbed of evil.
    I do enjoy symbolism as both reader and writer, As a reader, one of my favorite is the use of a candle as the representation of Author’s vision in The Once and Future King.
    Great series of posts, Staci. This one is my favorite 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Staci. I love when I find symbolism in stories. Wizard of Oz is a four generation favorite in our family and you are right there is a ton of symbolism in it. I like to use nature in that way. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! xo

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m trying to think, but I can’t come up with any symbolism in my stories. If I hadn’t read your post, though, I wouldn’t have caught them in the Wizard of Oz either. I’m going to have to pay more attention to them from now on. Great post, Staci!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I love the use of symbolism in writing, Staci! You provided some great examples with the Wizard of Oz. I like to find pieces of symbolism in books that I read. Sometimes it’s obvious and some subtle, but most always there. Thank you for sharing this wonderful series and I wish you a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Staci Troilo has an absolutely wonderful post on Story Empire today. It really struck a chord with me, since The Wizard of Oz is my all time favorite movie, and when dealing with the use of symbolism in writing, Staci could not have picked a better example. Hope you’ll check out the post so you can see what I mean. And then, if you would, share it far and wide so others will see a classic example of symbolism at work. Thanks, and thanks to Staci for one of my favorite posts of of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well, now you’ve done it. My favorite movie of all time? Yep. The Wizard of Oz. I have a huge collection of WOZ memorabilia and art, and can’t watch the movie to this day without crying. (Heck, I have a Wizard of Oz Christmas tree in my family room!)

    Favorite character, besides Dorothy? Scarecrow. (Symbolizing Brains, of course, and what people could accomplish if they actually use the one they have). Of course, having a Loving Heart (like Tinman discovers) and a few ounces of courage (like the Cowardly Lion dredges up) counts for a lot, as well. There are so many, many instances of symbolism in this movie, it sort of boggles the mind.

    Do I use symbolism when I write? Not sure. I haven’t really thought about it as I was writing, but I’d say that Rabbit probably symbolizes several things, including honesty, integrity, and undaunted courage, no matter who or what he’s dealing with. As for symbolic items, I’ll have to take another look. But I do know that the underlying theme of all my stories is meant to be the Redemptive Power of Love. I hope that comes through in each book.

    LOVE this post, Staci, for so many reasons. Sharing!!! 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of my favorite movies, too. And I also have a collection (though I’m sure it’s not as big as yours). I’m actually looking at it now as I write this. I’m so glad this post resonated with you. (And you know how I feel about Rabbit.) ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do know you love Rabbit, but I wasn’t sure if he was actually symbolic or not. I suspect he is, and might even represent different things to different readers. But I’ll be looking for ways to incorporate symbolism from now on, you can bet. Thanks again! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • If a writer creates something intending it to symbolize something else, it’s a symbol. And if a reader reads something and sees it as a symbol of something else, it’s a symbol. That’s the wonderful thing about art. It speaks to everyone in a different way. There are the things we intend that are immutable truths, then there are the happy little accidents (thank you Bob Ross) that are every bit as wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Hmm. I guess that means that even if you didn’t intend the symbolism, if a reader sees it, it’s still there? (Okay, I think I’ve confused myself,now.) And btw, remind me to tell you about the time Bob Ross came to my house to meet with my friend, Brenda Harris, another TV artist. He walked right by both of us to my back porch because he heard my parrot calling, and he had to visit with the “happy little parrot” before he joined us for a chat. It was a fun day, and he was EXACTLY the same in person as he was in the tv show. Same voice, same manner of speaking, same wild hair, everything. I’ll never forget that day. Okay, now you don’t have to remind me, because I just told you. Hahahaha.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, look at it this way. Someone might watch The Wizard of Oz and decide the color red represents danger. In real life, red means stop. In the movie, red is the brick color she’s not told to take, so she’s inadvertently warned away from it. The red poppies make her and all the living creatures sleep. Red smoke signifies the Wicked Witch. Ruby Slippers are stuck to her feet and shock the Wicked Witch, so they’re powerful; maybe too powerful and even scary. (If I couldn’t take shoes off my feet and they shocked someone, I’d be scared of them.) Red could symbolize something bad in the movie.

        But in the book, Dorothy’s slippers weren’t even red, and in the movie, they ultimately helped her. She wasn’t really warned against the red brick road; she was just encouraged to take the yellow brick road. The poppies didn’t hurt everyone. And smoke of any color isn’t good. So, is red really a symbol? Or did the viewer bring her own meaning to the color?

        I believe the artist can assign meaning to a symbol intentionally. But I also believe there are times when a viewer can see symbolism in something that isn’t intentionally there just because of her own belief system and background.

        And I love the Bob Ross story! There’s a Bob Ross channel on an app called Pluto. I zoned out on it for a few hours last weekend. I needed the mellow moment.


  8. An excellent post, Staci. I generally pack my stories with symbolism but try to stay away from the obvious. I guess the symbols mean more to me than they would to a reader anyway. For example, I picked a 1956 Oldsmobile as a time travel vehicle since it meant a lot to me as a teen. I think it took me back to a kinder time of life. Not sure the reader even needs to think about that, but I have had comments that it fits into the time travel mode. I wish you a very merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Go Steelers.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I love symbols like that. Ones that mean more to the writer than they would to the reader, but then they come to mean something to the reader, too. That’s great, John.

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours. And GO STEELERS!


  9. Great post, Staci! I use the willow tree in my series as a symbol of life, strength, protection, and peace. I’ve always had a love for willow trees, so I wanted to incorporate them into my story, and they just evolved into becoming a beautiful part of the series. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  10. What an excellent, thought-provoking post! Thank you! When I write, I’m often not aware of symbolism or theme until the story begins to unfold. Is it possible that a child can be a symbol? With my latest book, an orphan child emerges as the hope for humanity. In a way, a child seems a universal symbol of innocence or hope or new beginnings. Is this possible? BTW, I’d love to be a student in a classroom with you as the teacher. 😊

    Liked by 4 people

    • A child can absolutely be a symbol. I don’t want to devolve into a religious discussion in what should be an instructional forum, but from a purely educational standpoint, look at Jesus. The Christ Child was a symbol of salvation and hope for the world, and several works of literature since then have had characters modeled after him. I know Faulkner even had a messianic character whose initials were JC, and I would imagine other authors probably did the same (though Faulkner is the only one I can remember at the moment).

      That’s such a kind thing to say, Gwen. I haven’t taught a class in over ten years, and I kind of miss it. I know you’d be a star student, but I suspect you should be a professor, not a pupil.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I agree with theme and subject being in every story. Symbolism is different. I think it is powerful and maybe we sometimes use it without being aware. After this post, I’m going to be more conscious of using it.

    Another great post, Staci!

    Liked by 5 people

    • I don’t think symbolism is in every story like the other two are. I think it’s the easiest for us to see, though. Probably because we’re more comfortable with it. But I think there are times we use it without being aware of it. I know I’ve accidentally used it before, then once I noticed it, I leaned on it and played it up.

      Thanks, Joan.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Not sure if it counts, but I tend to have an item that symbolizes a character. For example, bunnies for Lost in ‘War of Nytefall’ since that’s her pet weapon. If I do use a traditional symbol then it’s usually by accident. They’re so ingrained that it doesn’t even register when I’m editing.

    Liked by 4 people

    • I think the bunnies absolutely count. And I think I use symbols like you do—they become so much a part of our zeitgeist that they’re just ingrained at this point and often work their ways in without intent.

      Thanks, Charles.

      Liked by 2 people

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  15. I have a confession. I first saw The Wizard of Oz film as a child, and I was enchanted by the music and its magic. On the second occasion, I was supplying and handling Toto for a stage production. I was busy, but I was backstage night after night, and I still missed the symbolism.

    A post to trigger much thought, Staci; I’m sure I do use it in my writing, but not deliberately… or not yet.

    A very happy Christmas to you, your family, and everybody at StoryOrigin. Stay safe; 2021 can’t be worse!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I don’t think that’s “confession” worthy. Kids shouldn’t see symbolism in the story. It’s meant to enchant them. And the second time, I’m sure the dog kept you occupied. If he or she wasn’t a handful, I’m sure he or she was too cute to not pay attention to. Plus, you were working. I’m glad to know the post has you thinking now, though.

      No jinxing next year! I shudder to think! 😉

      Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours.

      Liked by 3 people

  16. An interesting post, Staci. I was reading your list and wondering how many of those symbolisms come from Shakespeare. A great many, I think. Wishing you and your family a very Merry Christmas. I always live in the moment, as you never know what is around the corner. 2021 could be better or worse, we don’t know yet.

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  17. great post – and I think that you are correct about how authors use theme and subject in every story (and many times without being aware) – and symbol is usually more intentional – although can happen subtly as writers do what they do

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    • It seems that we make so much of the writing process a habit that we forget to stop and think about what we’re doing and why. I know I’m guilty of it myself. One of these days, I’d like to sit and intentionally plot out a book using theme and subject and symbolism, preferably using the Nutshell method. I’d love to see what I end up with. I just need to get a few projects off my plate first. Thanks.

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