BY BRIAN KAUFMAN
Originally posted February 13, 2020
You are likely familiar with narrative arc (the path that characters take within a story’s plot) and character arc (the changes characters undergo throughout the story). But you may not be familiar with symbolic arc—the evolving use of a recurring symbol in fiction.
I first encountered this important concept while reading Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, a collection of short stories depicting the author’s experiences during the Polish-Soviet war (1919-1921). Simple images like a burning candle are introduced in brightly lit night scenes with romantic fervor. By the book’s end, candles are grimy, dim, and spent.
Brontë’s Jane Eyre uses the changing meaning of symbolism to reflect relationship ambivalence. Birds are a metaphoric symbol of both captivity and freedom.
In my Civil War novel, Dread Tribunal of Last Resort (shameless plug: coming in July from Five Star), a Bowie knife takes on multiple meanings. Decker Brown introduces the blade as his father’s prized possession, as evidenced by a ritual of sharpening, even when the knife goes unused. Though estranged from his father at the start of the war, Decker finds the weapon wrapped in his bundle after heading off to fight. As such, the blade becomes a symbol of unconditional love.
After the war, Decker (now running a business in Richmond) gives a Bowie knife to his foreman. It’s not the same Bowie (his father’s knife was lost at Shiloh). And Decker does nothing so evident as to think back to his father’s knife (which would be a mild insult to the reader).
Though only five years have passed, the war has radically altered Decker—he now plays the father’s role. The knife underscores the contentious relationship he has with the man to whom he gifts the blade. This echoes his relationship with his own father. And tells the reader what Decker could never bring himself to say out loud.
Nathaniel Hawthorne wasn’t a master of subtlety on this one.
A few notes about symbolic arcs:
- Your symbols can be items (icons), recurring metaphors, or even universal symbols (water symbolizing birth, approaching storms expressing inner turmoil).
- You can fit symbols anywhere because they are often revealed as tiny details. What colors do your characters wear? What books do they read? Does any of the meaning change throughout your novel?
- Symbols don’t have to change. They can, for example, be used to introduce or tag a character.
- Symbols are often missed by the casual reader. Don’t let that bother you. On one level, the accumulated impression of symbolism will add to the overall effect of the piece. And a subtle (even hidden) symbol can serve as an “Easter Egg” for the careful reader, rewarding that reader’s deeper plunge.
- Don’t be obvious. In high school, my English teacher read a passage from “The Scarlett Letter.” For laughs, I interrupted the reading, calling out, “Aha! A symbol!” I got laughs. I got a “C” in the course. I blame Hawthorne.
We all have our rituals. The first cup of coffee in the morning. And we have our icons. I have a dead bat in formaldehyde on my desk, gifted to me by a daughter with a shared sense of humor.
What are your character’s rituals and icons? And how do those very human elements change as the story arc progresses? One more layer of resonance for your work in progress.