On a television show that I was watching they showed the outside of a radio station. On the street outside, a truck drove past pulling a tractor on a flatbed trailer. It wasn’t a large tractor, just about the size you might want for one forty acre field. Later in the show another tractor appears. This time, a man is driving the tractor down the street. Once more it is a small open cab tractor. The two tractors have no purpose in the plot, but they serve as an important symbol.
Symbols are important in writing. The appearance of a tractor tells us that we are in a rural area. A fence may represent a barrier that keeps those inside in or those outside out. Death may represent the hopelessness of a situation. The symbols we use serve to say something quickly without the need for many words. In part, they are what it means to show, not just tell.
In a recent manuscript, I have a scene in which two of the main characters are on a train. One character is mentally counting her money. The other, a young girl, is resting beneath a blanket with holes in it. The train, the worry about money and the hole riddled blanket are all symbols that tell us something about the two characters. Later, when they show up at their destination and see houses that look like castles we see a symbol that tells us something about the people living in the neighborhood. From these images alone, you are able to discern much about the story.
Symbols are like small pictures that we can use to show a reader less tangible concepts. I have a character whose father comes to her wedding wearing a shirt that says, “If I look lost, just point me to the beer.” The shirt tells us that the man is a drunk. We don’t have to spend a lot of time showing him getting drunk and we don’t want to. The character is of no importance, other than to show where one of the primary characters has come from.
Some symbols need to be repeated. In For the Love of a Devil, one of the characters has a scar on her chin. Nearly every time I show her, I have her rub that scar. It would be easy to forget the scar if we don’t mention it, but because we see it every time we see her it gives her character depth that would be much more flat otherwise.
The nice thing about symbols is that they often find their way into our stories without us thinking about it. We close our eyes; imagine a scene and they pop into our heads. In one manuscript I have a scene in which a man and his lawyers are riding through the Kansas countryside in a limo. Occasionally, they have to slow down for farm equipment. The contrast between the limo and the farm equipment shows us the contrast between the man and the person he is going to visit, but I spend a lot of time thinking about that as I wrote the story. These symbols just appeared.