Here’s the Right Way to Use Symbolism in Your Story

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.

Toy Soldiers The Patriot

The Right Way to Use Symbolism: First, establish the symbol’s personalized meaning in the beginning of the story. (Gregory Smith in The Patriot, directed by Roland Emmerich, produced by Columbia Pictures.)

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.

Patriot Musketball Mel Gibson

The Right Way to Use Symbolism: Pay off the symbolism later in the story, preferably in a way that requires no explanation, allowing its meaning to remain largely subtextual. (<i>The Patriot</i>, directed by Roland Emmerich, produced by Columbia Pictures.)

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Can you give an example of how you’ve employed the right way to use symbolism in one of your stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I haven’t seen THE PATRIOT so your use of it was new and fresh to me. I use symbolism in my novels for me, to amuse and to add depth for the writing experience for me. Hopefully, my readers will pick up on it. If not, that is all right, too.

    Thanks for always providing an engaging, informative, and entertaining blog. It is appreciated. Roland

  2. That’s the strength of good symbolism, I think: it influences and deepens the story even if the reader never picks up on it.

  3. Thanks, K.M.–you’ve given me a helpful take on symbolism. I’ll be re-evaluating how I’ve used symbols in my WIP, and hopefully find they work well without being too obvious. Appreciate the tips!

  4. Interesting. These are things I’d never considered, but it makes sense when I think about it.

    Thanks for pointing out what should have been already obvious.

  5. @Kenda: Symbolism was something that never quite clicked for me – until I watched The Patriot for the gazillionth time and had an ah-ha! moment. Glad to share!

    @Lorna: This is what makes symbolism less than easy to grasp as a technical tool sometimes: when it’s done well, it isn’t always immediately recognizable as a symbol.

  6. That does make it challenging then, doesn’t it. :p

    Now, you’ll have me watching for symbolism to see if I can spot it in novels and movies.

  7. That’s the bane of being a writer, isn’t it? You can’t just watch a movie or read a book anymore. You’re always studying it for techniques you can steal!

    • I have your books on structure and character arc. I find that I haven’t read a book recently without checking my kindle’s percentage read indicator for plot points, inciting events, etc.
      Now you throw in symbolism to watch for. Whatever happened to just enjoying the read? 🙂

  8. It’s been a few years since I’ve watched The Patriot though I really enjoyed it, but I’d never really thought about the symbolism of Mel’s character melting the toy soldiers into musket balls. I obviously realized what he was doing, but I thought it was just an easy-to-carry source of lead! 🙂 Good post, thought provoking.

  9. Oh, and about studying movies–try taking a college course on film theory. That’ll mess you up for YEARS. If I’m not enjoying a movie or have seen it a lot, I start noticing camera angles and lighting and what not. It can be very distracting.

  10. I’ve watched it dozens of times and it never really hit me until this last time. Funny how much we miss when we’re not thinking about it!

  11. Great post!
    Thank you.

  12. You’re welcome! Thanks for watching.

  13. I love looking for symbolism in both books and movies; I like surmising on the reason and depth it gives to the story overall. Thanks for a great clip!
    Oh, and thanks for your comment on Best Friends. 🙂

  14. I always enjoy reading analyses of symbolism in fiction. It was always my favorite part of literature.

  15. Katie,
    Great post! Thanks for pointing out elements in the story that I seem to miss.

  16. That’s the beauty of the writing community: we can all help each other see through our blind spots.

  17. Great video! The use of symbolism reminds me of anton Chekov saying that if a gun is present in Act 1 of a play , then it must be fired in Act 3.
    Use it or loose it

  18. Symbolism needn’t be as overt as Chekhov’s gun, but I do think it’s highly underused in most fiction.

  19. I agree that symbolism is a powerful component of the writer’s toolbox. I’ve found that some of the most powerful symbolism comes from theology and myth.

    Nice video! Thanks for sharing.

  20. Belle L. says

    I have never thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense. The toy soldiers in “The Patriot” were such a big part of the movie, but it was done so subtlety that you really didn’t even notice how much apart of the movie they were until the last fight scene.

  21. @Mohamed: Probably because both are so deeply ingrained in humans, regardless of background.

    @Belle: Another aspect of symbolism that the movie pulled off well was the acceleration of the symbol’s importance as the movie progressed.

  22. I like the example you gave. Symbolism is not something I tend to use in my own writing. To be honest, it’s one concept in fiction that I often just ‘don’t get’.

    Your thoughts here have inspired me to think a little more about this device.

  23. Symbolism is difficult to “get,” in my opinion. Usually, it’s better not to concentrate too hard on it. The best symbols tend to create themselves as you write. Once you recognize them, you can go back and strengthen them in later drafts.

  24. I have a hard time finding them in my reading experiences. Even being such a vast reader, I haven’t even found one example of symbolism in any story :/
    So it’s always a mystery for me. How to portray it correctly?

  25. In my current WIP, I’m trying to use a rose/the color red as symbolism. The main character has a rose pendant her father gave her before he was killed in a suicide bombing. Her love interest gives her a rose because he saw the pendant. In the tragic scene of the main character’s mother dying, there’s a rose in the sidewalk crack, and main character crushes it to show grief/change, I guess. Does the repetition of the rose make the symbolism better, or am I overusing it????

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      As long as you’re not being overly obvious about it (in the sense, that you’re essentially saying, “Look! Symbolism!”), then you can’t overuse it.

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