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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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