Want a Tight Story? Streamline Your Symbolism

Write a Tight Story: Streamline Your Symbolism

This week’s video offers a surprisingly simple tip for how to write a tight story that features both varied and rich themes.

Video Transcript:

Theme can be a bit of a tricky thing to understand how to pull off in a story. The main theme will always be central to the protagonist’s character arc. It will center around the story’s moral premise, as set forth in the Lie the Character Believes versus the Truth He Will Come to Believe. But there are many other aspects to theme. You can have a story with a primary theme of mercy vs. justice, but it may also deal with such disparate topics as love, independence, change.

That’s awesome. The more interesting themes you can pack into a story, the richer it has the potential to be. But the more themes you pack in, the bigger chance you run of creating a fragmented story that’s all over the place. So how do you present deep and varied themes without letting them turn your story into a three-ring circus?

The primary answer to that is to make sure you’re choosing themes that are all tying together in some way. A coming-of-age story can very easily offer opportunities to explore love, independence, and change, while still being a tight story, because all these topics are facets of the same forward progress in the character’s arc. So your first task is to make sure all your mini themes tie back into your main theme.

Once you’ve done that, you then get the opportunity to wield an extra special tool for keeping your theme-packed story as tight and cohesive as possible. And that tool is symbolism. Once you’ve identified your main theme and all its little satellite themes, look for something you can use to symbolically represent them all. Look to your central plot. What external mechanism is fueling the character’s arc, and how can that reflect upon all your themes? Maybe the character is writing a book, maybe he’s taking dance lessons, maybe he’s rallying to a revolutionary cause. Whatever it is, let it do double, triple, or quadruple duty as a representation of all the many thematic aspects of this character’s personal growth.

Tell me your opinion: What are some of the “minor” themes in your story and how are they tying into the main theme and allowing you to write a tight story?

Write a Tight Story: Streamline Your Symbolism

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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. Steve Mathisen says

    This seems like something best tackled in the outlining phase of the writing although, it could be an idea that blossoms during the writing of the first draft and edited in through some selective re-writing.
    Great stuff! Thanks! 😀

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Everything’s better in the outlining stage. :p “Big” symbolism like this will always be less problematic if we get it figured out early on. But more subtle instances of symbolism can often be recognized and strengthened to great success in later drafts.

  2. I have to say, I’ve never liked it when people use symbolism in the way you’re suggesting. It’s always felt fake and kind of annoying. Now, a subtle touch of symbolism is fine, but I prefer the story to just tell itself without trying to symbolise the character’s inner journey by showing their progress in something unrelated. Maybe I’m not explaining myself very well :/

    • The best symbolism will always be almost unrecognizable within the story. We don’t want readers to consciously recognize the symbolism. To be at its most effective, it needs to be woven so seamlessly into the framework of the story that they don’t think about it twice.

  3. thomas h cullen says

    There are no minor themes, in The Representative: it’s too succinct – too tightly packed anyway.

    All there is are core themes – it’s a core story.

    (Katie, would you perhaps be okay with me sending you The Representative: I’m still having to wait for just one person to read it, not knowing how much longer before finally people will have looked at it.)

    You’re the best sort of person I can think of.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thomas, I appreciate the offer very much. But I’m afraid my schedule doesn’t allow me to read manuscripts or take on solicited reviews.

      • thomas h cullen says

        What if it however wasn’t anything detailed; what if all I was asking for was the simplest of reads, taking place across whatever the amount of time you felt convenient?

        It’s been more than a year, since I first revealed The Representative:

        Despite all that time, I still haven’t had a single of people confirm it back to me.

        Strictly speaking, to the text’s beginning, I have had a part critique – from a Thaddius, a magnificent writer from Writers Café.

        Nothing detailed. Nothing procedural, and in whatever desired space of time:

        It’s a promise that all the promotion I’ve exercised over the past three months and more hasn’t been insincere – instead to the absolute contrary.

        The Representative is final!

  4. Thank you! This is very helpful. I was so stuck in my writing… but now, thinking about it, I’m having new ideas for translating the themes of my novel.

  5. This is such a helpful post! Thank you! I wonder…

    “What external mechanism is fueling the character’s arc, and how can that reflect upon all your themes?”

    This sounds so right, but just now I’m boggling a bit when I try to imagine how to do it in my novel. Could you give an example? Perchance something from Jane Eyre, or anything else that springs to mind?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sure thing! One of the major themes in Jane Eyre is freedom vs. servitude/imprisonment. That’s a motif that’s symbolized again and again throughout the book – Jane is imprisoned with her evil aunt (literally so when her aunt locks her in the red room) and at school with Mr. Brocklehurst. For her, Thornfield is a sanctuary, but Bronte consistently uses imagery of cages (particularly that of birds in cages) to symbolize the manor, which is, of course, a prison for both Rochester (figuratively) and Bertha (literally). So in Jane Eyre, the external mechanism isn’t so much an action, like those I mention in this post (dancing lessons, etc.), but rather the settings.

      • Ah! Thank you! 🙂

      • Thanks so much for this big insight! My writing has surged ahead this morning, thanks to you.

      • This is probably obvious to other writers, but here’s what I just “got”: a symbol is a concrete representation of a metaphor. You take a metaphor in your story (“Thornfield is a cage”), and you show it symbolically by introducing a literal cage.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Excellent way to put it – although, of course, the actual literal representation of the symbol is often less than concrete. For example, Thornfield isn’t *literally* a cage or a prison.

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