We are a people of symbols. We are wired to recognize patterns and make associations. It is the cornerstone of human learning. From our earliest days, before we can even crawl on our hands and knees, we make connections between the light patterns, air vibrations, and other things that our senses deliver to us. As we grow, the picture these things paint in our minds is edited, with details being filled in and sections being painted over or cut out to form a more coherent whole.
Our symbol-recognizing nature has one effect that is particularly interesting to storytelling: it makes possible the use of metaphor. Through symbolism, we associate all kinds of things: sounds, colors, ideas, emotions, and more. Many of the things we associate seem to have nothing to do with each other, yet somehow most people make the same symbolic connections. This gives us the groundwork to write unimaginably rich stories, immersing the readers in a precisely crafted experience through all of their senses.
We use symbolism to teach each other
different ways of thinking and feeling about the world.
The Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man
–Jan Brueghel the Elder and Pieter Paul Rubens
Consider the following two statements:
By feeling and understanding these connections, we can smith our words into sights, smells, and emotions to bring to our readers.
By feeling and understanding these connections, we can forge our words into sights, smells, and emotions to bring to our readers.
Interchanging “smith” and “forge” makes the two sentences feel different. The first speaks of the sounds of metal clanging against metal, of making words into tools to do things. If done well, the result is something to take pride in. The second sentence speaks of heat and creation, letting the words fall together to become a fine work, perhaps with some special value. If done well, the result is something to be deeply satisfied with. It is a subtle difference, but a difference nonetheless, and such a choice of symbols can be the defining feature of a chapter, an act, or an entire story.
Symbolism is the soul of art. It is how the artist can touch our thoughts, whispering things into our subconscious minds. This gift of the poet is the key to the barrier between writer and reader, letting them commune at a level we may have thought impossible with mere words.