Gail Anderson-Dargatz  

Resources for Writers

On Revising

TrianglesWe’re sometimes taught that authors "plant" symbol in their work. In other words, they consciously decide to put a given symbol or metaphor into their fiction. But symbol and metaphor most often don't work like that as we're writing, do they? I usually don't know why a symbolic element is important to the novel until the revision process, and sometimes I don't even recognize it until much later, after the book has been published and readers start telling me what they see in the novel. I just know that the element must be there; I know it intuitively.
Still, I believe writers need to explore symbol and myth from all world cultures and their own, for inspiration. To that end, while I did my creative writing degree at university, I also studied the classics, Roman and Greek myths, and comparative religion, and I continue to read anything I can get my hands on that explores symbol and myth.
But, of course, we must be cautious of plucking symbol from a book and planting it in our writing. You don't want to bang your reader over the head, effectively saying, "Look, a symbol! Get it?" A subtle hand is required.
Or, alternatively, you can take your symbol and run with it. Is the guy in your novel feeling like an outsider? An alien? Why not make him an alien? Turn him green, let him grow an extra arm and two more eyes and have him walk around his high school like that. In my middle school novel, Iggy’s World, Iggy, who loves bugs but feels like an outsider, finally lands an acting gig wearing a bug costume in his father’s web series. He’s still an outsider, but has found a place for himself, as the thing he loves (a bug!). Don't be afraid to let your symbols run away on you from time to time.

Drawing IggyIn the end, working with symbol and metaphor isn’t about planting elements, but about discovering what's already there. Once I have a first rough draft done, I begin to comb through my writing looking for what I call "bells:" repetitive images and symbols that arise naturally from the situation and setting I’m writing about, and that contribute to the theme of the project. I highlight these repeating elements and map them out with mind-mapping (spider drawings) like the one above to see where they occur on my plotline, and then brainstorm with those elements to develop them further. In the end, my goal is to have a hammer somewhere in the novel (usually towards the end) that gets all those bells ringing, that allows the theme to resonate throughout the story or novel.

If you own a copy of Jack Hodgins A Passion for Narrative, check out his excellent chapter on the topic titled, "Making connections: Metaphors, Symbols, and Allusions." In the meantime, here's a primer on symbolism that offers examples.

Resource Categories

Blogs on Craft

On the Building Blocks of Fiction

Tips on how to craft vivid scene that allows the reader to experience events right along with the characters.

On Finding Your Big Idea

Insights into the writing process and what a writer's day really looks like, as well as perspectives on research and writing from real life.

On Getting to Know Your Characters

Advice on the many ways you can make your characters come alive on the page for both you and your reader.

On Deciding on Point of View

What is the best perspective from which to tell your story? Writers discuss how they made choices on point of view and voice.

On Choosing Your Situation and Setting

Writers talk about how they use situation and setting to build story and convey emotion.

On Developing Conflict and Structure

From how to work in different genres to finding the real story, writers offer good advice on building conflict and structure.

On Revising

Tips on how to gain distance from your work and to how to re-imagine your next draft.

On Publishing

Writers offer practical advice on the business of writing and promotion, and on the importance of finding a writing community.

On Making a Living as a Writer

Writers offer words of wisdom on living on less.

On The Writer's Life

Writers talk about their life as a writer.

About Gail

Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.