The right way to use symbolism in stories is more difficult to learn than you might think. In large part, this is because well-done symbols should be almost invisible within the framework of the story.
Those that aren’t invisible often feel heavy-handed or even clichéd (such as the inevitable use of the American flag as a symbol of inspiration in war movies). Like the flag, some symbols are almost universal, and we utilize them to evoke reader emotions without even realizing what we’re doing. For instance, springtime is often used to symbolize new growth, redemption, or resurrection.
How to Find Effortless Symbolism in Your Story
The most powerful and unique symbols are those that flow effortlessly from your story. We find a good example in the 2000 movie The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich. After his son is murdered by a British colonel, plantation owner Benjamin Martin salvages the boy’s toy soldiers from his burning home, so he can melt the lead into musketballs.
The toy soldiers appear throughout the movie, underlining the character’s mixed emotions of loss, grief, anger, vengeance, and eventually a desire to fight for the cause his sons believed in.
Don’t Just Use Symbolism—Pay It Off
The repeated presence of the tin soldiers throughout the movie is, by itself, the right way to use symbolism.
However, the film’s coup de grâce is the moment, right before the climactic battle scene, when the main character melts down the final soldier into a final musketball—which he will use to shoot the antagonist.
It’s a superb use of symbolism that is powerful without being obvious, subtle without being ambiguous, and flows naturally from the story’s plot.