What kinds of things add richness to your life? Think details...the warmth and crackle of a fire in your fireplace that make you think of your favorite period movie or cozy read. The monthly board game nights that cause your family’s cheeks and sides to ache with laughter. The smell of baking bread that makes the day feel like a holiday even if it isn’t. The sunrise you can see from your window, unique every morning, when you have your quiet time with God, reminding you of His infinite creativity.
Little things like this make life enjoyable. And little things like this can also make people love your story.
Sometimes, when we write, we’re so fixated on the galloping plot or the characters and their interesting conversations that we don’t remember to include the details that immerse readers into our ficion. But we relate to fictional worlds very similarly to how we relate to the real world. We experience real life with our senses, and that makes memories, memories that capture specific feelings we had at the time. They are so powerful that they can make us revisit how we felt then. The same goes for fiction—fictional details make us feel like we’re really there, and guide us into appropriate emotions that deepen our reading immersion.
You don’t have to stop at just describing a sound or a smell; use them to remind your character of something, or to mirror his or her emotional state. The aroma of sizzling pizza at her friend’s house could remind a shy little girl, spending the night away from home for the first time, of fun parties at the pizza restaurant with her family, and she immediately feels happier. Or, to use an example from real fiction, Willa Cather’s character Jim in My Antonia thinks of freedom when he sees sunflower-bordered roads. It’s because he’s heard a story that the Mormons planted sunflower seeds on their way across the Western plains to Utah where they could have religious freedom. We make associations with unrelated objects all the time in real life.
But what is really rich, adding a stirring depth to your story that readers delight in finding, is when you go even farther and develop symbolism, like the scandalous scarlet A in The Scarlet Letter that burns shame into the adulterous couple’s lives, or the senseless atrocity of killing an innocent mockingbird in To Kill a Mockingbird. Some of my favorite symbolic objects in literature are the fairy-sized miniatures in Elizabeth Goudge’s The Scent of Water. This collection of delicate little objects was important to only a few characters in the book. They had a unique perspective on life that other people overlooked, and their delight in “the little things” drew them together across the generations. In one of my stories, I used the romantic blue willow pattern on china to depict Jesus’ love for us as His bride, which one of the characters needed to internalize. Each time the blue willow appeared in the story was a reminder of this truth.
Just like we use physical objects to help us remember truths in everyday life, we can use symbolic objects in fiction to help readers remember the message of our books. Of course we don’t want to go overboard, but if done with a light touch, symbolism adds a richness that will give your readers something to think about long after they’ve closed the book on The End.
Can you think of a book that used symbolism powerfully? Have you ever used it in your own fiction, or even in writing a devotional or something similar?
Kelsey Bryant is an author, blogger, and copy editor who loves the Lord. She revels in many things: the beauty of God's Word, the music of English, the wonder of nature, the joy of creativity, the freedom of motion, the richness of literature, the intrigue of history ... and much more. To learn more about her, visit her website or blog.