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The Wicked Writing Blog

Welcome to the home of writing award ideas and practical advice for story contest success. Fun and sheer tomfoolery are never far away. Feel free to add your comments. (To comment on a post, or see the comments there, simply click on its title.)


How Harper Lee Used Symbols To Power Her Novels

July 23, 2015

Have you read Harper Lee’s latest novel (in fact, the first one she wrote), Go Set A Watchman? It has kicked up a storm. Why? Because - like her classic To Kill A Mocking Bird - it invokes the power of symbols.

It presses people’s buttons. You’ll either love or hate what it implies but you can’t ignore it. Her symbols stir us at a primeval level.

And that’s how books become classics.

Can you imbed symbols in your stories to give them a classic power? Writing coach Renee Vaughn tells us how.

This is not a piece of fabric.

This is not Gregory Peck.

How did one become the symbol of bigotry and the other of egalitarianism? More importantly, how can you create symbols as powerful and controversial as these?

I am thoroughly enjoying the current fuss over Go Set a Watchman.  There’s nothing better than a good stirring of black and white issues to bring out the best and worst of a culture. And what a doozy this is!

I have my opinion on the matter, as does everyone else. In fact, I could write a dissertation or three on the subject, happily taking multiple sides and even perhaps saying a few things that might get me unfriended on Facebook and banned forever from polite company.  But do I have the right to take such a stance without having read the book?

Absolutely! Why read the book when everything you need to think is online?

Publishers, editors, reviewers, contest readers, agents etc. make just such judgment calls all day long. Hell, politicians do it and affect the course of history!

But that’s not what this post is about.

I’d like to talk about the power of symbol in your writing and how to give it page-turning context.

In my post, How to Manage a Mid-book Crisis, I used To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of how to use a recurring motif to tie your plot to your theme, develop your characters and create a solid structure.  While these are important tools, the current fury over Go Set a Watchman highlights how much more important it is to use symbolic context in your writing and in marketing your work.

Let’s start with a symbol only slightly more controversial than TKAM: the Confederate flag.

Folks, in reality it’s a piece of fabric. All flags are pieces of fabric. Similarly, Atticus is just a fictional character. Harper Lee is only a writer.

But not really.

The Confederate flag can represent bigotry, lynch mobs, redneck spirit, rebellion against federalism, the enemy, or as my brother mistakenly thought when he was young- the Union Jack. It all depends upon one’s perception of what it stands for.  Similarly, Atticus is a great lawyer, a humanist, a perfect father, or for those with a classic education, a Platonist or a Christian martyr. It all depends upon context.

This is the problem with the world today.

Dare I say it’s the problem with modern literature?  People forget to put symbols into their proper context before they start tearing them down.

GSAW was a first draft. Atticus’ character might have favored Segregation in 1955 given the changes he’d seen in his lifetime and this stance may have made sense if we’d been given the opportunity to travel that path with him. Harper Lee may have originally thought presenting the South as she did in GSAW was powerful while she was writing it, but societal changes indicated a different approach. 

Possibly, it is simply unfair to expect a writer writing in 1955 to meet the expectations of an Atticus-addled populace in 2015.  Maybe the disillusionment so many feel is merely the realization that everyone is human and thus imperfect; even if it is their idealized father. 

But let’s keep TKAM’s message in mind: the moment a lynch mob stops to step into another person’s shoes is the moment it stops being a mob.  It’s the moment a symbol becomes something other than what it used to represent.

How do you create powerful symbols in your stories?

First, let’s take a look at some definitions:

1. The parts of discourse that surround a word or a passage that can throw light on its meaning.
2. The interrelated conditions on which something exists or occurs.
The organization, identification and interpretation of sensory stimuli in order to represent and understand the environment.
In short, how you interpret Harper Lee’s character, Atticus, is dependent upon everything that has ever happened to you up to the moment you first read TKAM, everything that has happened to you since then and more importantly how you have processed all those life experiences into a single opinion at this moment in time.

Because our brains are OCD efficiency experts, they take all of this information and place it into a tidy package full of meaning, resonance, experience and power: a symbol. Because so much has gone into these symbols, our brain resents any attempts to destroy them.  Hence the current upheaval over GSAW.

We don’t like change.  We want things to be what we believe them to be.

When we write, we write from the part of our brain that holds all this information for us. That’s why it is so important for writers to read, listen, watch, feel and experience as much as possible and why I think authors such as Eliot, Steinbeck, Dickens, Austen, Allende, Woolf, Hemingway, etc. are so brilliant. They took a kaleidoscopic world and made it accessible without diminishing its brilliance or complexity.

How did they do it? They started with a symbol.

It might be a character or a place or an idea.  You could pick a moment in time or an event in your character’s life.  Something as simple as a stain on the wall or a really big fish, it doesn’t matter much what you chose- all that matters is that you fill it with meaning.

To make it powerful your symbol has to mean something to you. You have to invest all your heart and guts into your own Atticus. 

Context is everything.

To give a symbol its proper context all you need to do is be sensitive to environment and language. (I know, easy to say, hard to do. That’s why it’s so important to read the masters and to think critically about one’s own opinions.)

Choose words carefully. Place your characters in situations that highlight their stronger and weaker traits.  Describe relevant environmental details such as time and place in such a way that historical and societal issues affect the story. And whenever possible, help the reader understand your perspective. 

Go ahead and have your heroic father figure take your young protagonist on his knee and say it in black and white.  Surround your symbol with so much context that it slips gently into the reader’s subconscious as a truth not to be challenged. In turn you will inspire your reader’s loyalty.

And then, if you’re smart, you’ll make your characters world depend upon keeping that symbol from changing.  Plot your book so that symbol is threatened on all levels. Deconstruct your symbol in much the same way you built it: by shattering piece by piece your character’s illusions you worked so hard to build.

End your chapter with a threat to that symbol and I can guarantee the reader will keep on reading just to see how the protagonist will either overcome the threat or adjust to changing circumstances.

But writers, take care.  Don’t have Atticus defend Segregation and expect a standing ovation. Learn from GSAW.  Always remember:

People hate change out of context.

Don’t threaten a symbol without giving people enough contextual information to make the change understandable.   Either keep the symbol intact and your character victorious or walk the reader through the changes using your characters to help get them there. 

Don’t kill a mockingbird until you’ve shown the watchman the damage it has done to the berry bushes. 

What memorable stories have you read that gained their strength from symbols? How have you used symbols in your own stories? Share your thoughts in a comment below. All comments get a fast thoughtful reply.

Renee Vaughn is a certified writing and relationship coach, freelance editor and educator.  She writes short stories and is working on three novels. She lives and teaches writing workshops on a 100 acre farm in the Hudson Valley, NY. Renee's claim to fame is her ability to act like she is an expert on anything which is why she decided to become a writer.

Gain a free expert critique of a passage from your story, or a free ½ hour creativity coaching session, at Renee’s blog:

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The Inciting Incident: 7 Tips For Starting Your Story With a Bang

July 17, 2015

Do your friends or family yawn when you show them your latest work of fiction? Are you struggling to start your story in a way that your readers never forget?

Do you want to light a fuse in your story so that your readers just have to read on and discover how the tale turns out?

Writing coach Bryan Collins shows us how to write a story that our readers can’t put down.

I’ve spent the last few months rewriting a collection of short-stories, and I’ve faced all of these problems.

I won’...

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How To Write A Best Seller While Losing Weight. Results Guaranteed

July 10, 2015

Here is the ultimate way to write a best seller while losing weight - or gaining weight, if you wish - healthily and predictably. It’s based on my own private experiments across 14 months in which I (a) lost three stone and (b) published four top-rated Amazon novels. Results are guaranteed.

Guaranteed? If my plan doesn’t work, just hand it back to me and keep your weight.

First, let’s understand what ‘losing weight’ is all about. Effective diets rely upon calorie intake. Take ...

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Want to up your writing game? Here's a novel way!

July 3, 2015

Most serious writers have joined a writing group at some time, meeting on-line or face-to-face. But have you ever thought of forming a book reading group - to improve your story writing skills?

It's another thing entirely.

A book reading club will not only open your eyes to what your fellow writers think about your work. More usefully, it will show you what your
readers are looking for! Novelist Anna Castle tells us how to do it.

It’s a familiar lament: writers don’t read enough. I ca...

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Seven Sneaky Ways To Bring Your Dialogue Alive

June 19, 2015

When was the last time you were inspired to write a story - or create a character - from a snatch of dialogue you overheard? Or you discovered some useful writing device by listening to what people in real life truly say or do?

If you're a writer, I'll wager it was yesterday. Wasn't it? It wasn't? Get out your notebook!

Here are seven sneaky- and enjoyable - ways to do it. And (let it be whispered) you might even be able to set your next lunch expenses against tax....

I sit in a pub. Mine ...

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Deep Travel: How To Write From The Heart And Win Readers

June 12, 2015

A good story is often inspired by a powerful experience, one that changed the author’s mind, their very way of looking at the world. A
great story may change the reader’s life as well.

Author PJ Reece tells us how he stumbled on the technique of Deep Travel by living through a pungent, true event. It showed him how to write compelling fiction, from the heart. Could we not do the same?

From Africa I flew to India. 

I would return home through Asia, circumnavigate the globe, prove the w...

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Five Great 'Characterization' Tips - Use Them At Your Own Risk!

June 5, 2015

What do your reading habits say about you? What’s on your book shelf or Kindle? And what’s on your characters’ shelves? I ask because The Times (22nd May 2015) has just uncovered the private reading habits of the world’s most terrible dictators.

And its revelations are alarming.

It seems that Osama bin Laden cherished The Grappler’s Guide To Sports Nutrition. Hitler collected a complete set of novels by Karl May, a German writer of cowboys-and-indians stories. Muammar Gadd...

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John Yeoman

Dr John Yeoman, MA Oxon, MPhil, PhD Creative Writing, FSRS*  is a UK university tutor in the short story. He has 42 years experience as a successful commercial writer, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy.

He has published innumerable works of humour, some intended to be humorous.

* Founder, the Society for the Rehabilitation of the Semi-colon