Wicked Writing: Symbolism & Subtext in Fiction

            Very often what makes a novel a rich experience for a reader is not readily seen on the page but lives in the spaces between the words. This is where subtext and symbolism are found.

            Let’s start with definitions. Subtext is the implicit meaning of the text.Symbolism gives meaning to the words beyond what is described. Here are examples from my novel, Wicked Good.

            First, subtext.
 
            In chapter 11 of Wicked Good, Archer, exhausted and frustrated, finally finds Rory at the Mobil-to-go with bad girl, Trish. Archer sees Trish slip candy into her pocket.
 
            Rory, who doesn’t notice, is standing at the counter, speaking. “If we could turn dirt into oil we would solve the world’s energy crisis and not have to rely on other countries. Don’t you think that’s a great idea, mom?”
 
            “Yes, Rory,” Archer eyes the Monster energy drink cans on the counter, “it’s really smart. I’m tired. Can we go home now?”
 
            “Yeah. I need money to pay for this stuff.”
 
            She looks at Rory’s bounty on the counter as Trish walks up next to them. Archer holds out her hand. Trish takes the Milky Way out of her pocket and drops it into Archer’s palm.  

            The action of Trish dropping the Milky Way bar into Archer’s hand has an obvious meaning – Trish was caught almost stealing and had to fess up – but it also has an implicit meaning, a meaning beyond the act of Trish dropping the candy bar into the palm of Archer’s hand. What might that meaning be? Could it be suggesting something about the future relationship of Archer and Trish?
 
             Next, symbolism.
 
            In Wicked Good, there are many references to willow trees. Archer and Rory live on Willow Street. There is a willow tree in the back of the house that Archer and Rory planted when they moved in. Willow trees are easily conjured in a person’s mind. The long branches and hanging leaves can suggest foreboding but also hope.
 
            In chapter 27 of Wicked Good, Kitty runs from Rory chanting a spell, which includes the mention of a willow tree.
 
            In chapter 29 of Wicked Good, Rory is sitting on a bench with Trish, holding a small potted willow on his lap. Rory says: “It’s a baby willow tree, like the one in my back yard. It has special powers. It can heal wounds and burns. The Greeks used it to relieve pain, like aspirin. Some people even think the willow has the power to heal a broken heart.”
 
            Is Rory only speaking those words to help Trish, or is there a deeper meaning? And how does Rory’s use of the willow tree to heal juxtapose with the willow tree being used by Kitty as a spell?
 
            Every novel that grabs a reader’s heart is rich in subtext and symbolism. But remember to keep it subtle. If in Wicked Good we had explained the Willow tree as a symbol, it’s effect would not have been the same. And if after Trish drops the Milky Way bar into Archer’s palm, Archer says, “I guess this is the start of a beautiful friendship”, the development of their relationship throughout the novel would not have been so moving.
 
            The words – and the spaces between the words – are richer with the addition of symbolism and subtext to your fiction. 

Joanne Lewis is the co-author of the award-winning novel, Wicked Good. To learn more about Wicked Good, please visit www.amyandjoanne.com.

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