It’s Halloween Time! The Best Symbols to Throw Some Scare into Your Story

Have you ever had that feeling that something isn’t quite right? A nebulous sense of impending doom that goes beyond mere anxiety? In real life these feelings are pretty unpleasant, but think about the last novel you read that set off the alarm on your sixth sense. That vague suspicion of trouble in the air most likely created a delicious anticipation for the next chapter. In fact, what’s really satisfying is when you can’t quite put your finger on why you sense dark clouds ahead. It seems the atmosphere of the story infused you with foreboding and tension while you weren’t looking. And before you know it, the author has you right where they want you.

Hooked and hungry for more.

Humans are naturally curious. We want to go sniffing off on the trail to find out what’s going on. But our inquisitive nature has to be aroused to action first. And the feeling of tragedy-to-come or sinister shadows waiting to strike is one of the most effective ways to get us invested.

So how do the best writers create that dark, delicious tension?

They use symbols.

Symbols are like packets of instant soup. They don’t look like much at first glance. They have a long shelf life and are highly portable. They don’t do much until you decide to open them up. But when you combine your symbol soup with the water of the reader’s imagination, your story can turn into a rich, fragrant broth of possibility. By planting certain symbols along the way, your reader’s mind will start giving them clues to feed their curiosity. And if the symbols you choose are sinister in nature, the story becomes permeated with a threatening tension.

Here’s a cheat sheet of my all-time favorite bad omens:

Snake
Mr. Snake is, of course, number one on the list. Not only is he a celebrity in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but he’s widely mythologized in many different cultures as a powerful, magical sort of being. And the cool thing about the snake is that you can also use him to symbolize the duality of good and evil and the circle of life. So if you’re a writer who prefers to shy away from black-and-white thinking, the snake might be an excellent fit for you.

Buzzards
When you run across this nasty bird in a story, it’s a pretty sure bet that Death is on the way. And because their role is played after-the-fact, they represent not just death but also rot and decay. You can use them to symbolize the physical deterioration of a character, or of a place, like a family estate or a city that is slowly crumbling.

Insects
They’re essential to the eco-system of our planet, but in literature they get a bad rap. Insects usually represent greed and sensual pleasure, or plague and destruction. You can sprinkle just a few over your story, like sugar on cereal, for quick-fix, gross-out factor purposes, or you can set up a whole swarm to descend on your characters to really get things going.

Rope
It seems an innocuous enough item to stumble across, but rope symbolizes binding or limitation of freedom. If one of your characters is due for a good kidnapping, or you have plans to hold them prisoner for an extended period of time, it’s not a bad idea to consider throwing some rope around in your opening scenes. Let your character notice it too. Don’t be afraid to torment them with harbingers of their unpleasant fate, it’s what all good writers do.

Bats
The bat is very similar to the snake, in that most assume they only symbolize the bad. It’s true that the bat is known as the “Guardian of the Night” but what a lot of people don’t know is that they actually represent transformation, or the process of death and rebirth. That’s why they’re central to the vampire legend. However, you don’t have to write about vampires to use the bat effectively. Bats can appear all by themselves anywhere in your story, even in your characters’ dreams.

If you’re interested in learning more about literary symbols, the University of Michigan has an excellent reference site you can visit here. And there’s also a great website on the 12 most common archetypes you can check out here.

Halloween season is the perfect time of year to peer through the veils of reality. This October, find and follow your own literary symbols to discover your own creative kind of magic.

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12 Comments

  • Reply Dylan Newton 24 October, 2013 at 9:27 am

    Great post, Lauren! I will print this one out to hang on my writing bulletin board. The only one I’d add is the good, old-fashioned lightning storm. (Well, they creep me out, anyway!).

    Love it! 🙂

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 24 October, 2013 at 11:22 am

      That’s a good one! I’ve been watching a ton of horror movies this month to get in the mood for Halloween, and every single one seems to have a huge thunder-and-lightning scene in it. Great addition to the list!

  • Reply K.M. Alexander 24 October, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    Great post. I love symbolism. Half of the books on my research shelf have to do with symbolism. Taschen has a really good book on it called “The Book of Symbols” that I’d recommend. It’s HUUUGE, and full of tons of info.

    Symbols are an extra layer of depth an author can add to a book to really surprise a specific type of reader. I think that’s what I love about the Dark Tower series so much, everything has a reason and a meaning.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 October, 2013 at 8:45 am

      I’m reading the Dark Tower series right now and am IN. LOVE. with it. I’m on Book III with the rose and the key and I love the way the symbols actually form bridges between worlds. Stephen King is such a master.

    • Reply Margit Sage 25 October, 2013 at 1:35 pm

      This book sounds awesome! I’m looking into getting a copy right now…

      • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 October, 2013 at 3:51 pm

        I’m on Book 3, The Wastelands. The first two were AMAZING as well and I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of the series. I have fallen completely in love with Stephen King’s gunslinger, Roland of Gilead.

  • Reply Glynis Jolly 25 October, 2013 at 4:45 am

    What a great way to hint at what is coming up on the pages after. I have a tendency to give background info. at the beginning of my stories. Why I don’t consider hints to the plot I, now, find puzzling. Thanks for the wake-up call.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 October, 2013 at 8:46 am

      I give up a lot of background info at the beginning as well. For me, it’s a way to get to know the characters and the story, but I find that when I go back and do revisions I frequently cut a lot of that extraneous material I put in while writing the first draft.

  • Reply David G Shrock 25 October, 2013 at 9:38 am

    Insects don’t do it for me. Not sure why. Rope is a biggie, and so versatile working ropes or rope-like metaphors into stories. Snakes and snaky-shapes always fun. Great list!

    Dark Tower is wonderful on symbols and pure storytelling. Happy reading.

    • Reply Lauren Sapala 25 October, 2013 at 11:22 am

      Thanks! It’s definitely been happy reading thus far, I am loving it.

  • Reply Margit Sage 25 October, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Awesome post! What a great list. I’ll have to check out the resources you mention. Thanks! 🙂

  • Reply Aussa Lorens 27 October, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    I have nebulous senses of impending doom all the time… I call it “living my life.”

    Fun post 😉

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