Using Symbolism, Metaphor, Subtext, & Coding In Your Story - Where And How

Done well, symbolism, metaphor, subtext, and coding can deeply enrich a story by adding in layers of information that would be hard to work in otherwise. Done poorly, it can make your story confusing, send mixed messages, or just look pretentious. So here's the basics you need to know.

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So what is all this stuff, anyway?

Symbolism, metaphor, subtext, and coding are all closely linked techniques and tools that allow you to convey something to your audience without saying it outright. This is useful when there's no reason a character would say it outright, or when having a character say it would disrupt the mood and flow of the story.

Subtext: The protagonists are having a quiet evening at home together when a love song plays on the radio. One of them looks toward the other and smiles. The other looks over and smiles back. Slowly, they reach toward each other's hands until their fingers touch. Though neither of the characters say that they have feelings for each other, we can infer from what's happening that this is the case.

Symbolism: The corrupt boss of a company gets a phone call where he receives word that news of his shady business deals have been leaked and there's nothing they can do. He slams the phone down on the receiver - and the vase on the edge of his desk falls to the floor and shatters. He looks down at the broken vase. Thus we are informed that he feels like he's irreparably destroyed everything.

Coding: The crablike alien stepping out of the spaceship wears a crown and purple robe. We immediately understand that this is the king of the crab people.

Metaphor: The soldiers gradually have pieces of their brains removed and replaced with computer chips that are supposed to make them "more efficient." This is a metaphor for how the military brainwashes and treats people like equipment that only exists to serve their goals.

When, where, and how to use it.

There are few hard-and-fast rules as to whether you should use symbolism, metaphor, subtext, and coding or not, but there are a few things to keep in mind. Mainly:

It's most effective and useful when you have something you want to communicate to your audience without spelling it out for them. It might be a message you want to send through your story, or it might be insight into something going on in the story itself. You might use it to drop little hints as to what's coming next in the plot, or you might want to let the audience know how a character feels or what their life situation is without having someone say it outright. You might want to make a statement about society, or what it means to be human, or what our responsibilities to each other are. Almost anything you want to say, you can express this way.

It should be expressed in a way your audience can reasonably expected to understand. Once you know what you want to say, you need to figure out how you're going to say it in a way that your audience can pick up on. What's accessible to them can vary depending on things like their age group, interests, and even their culture. The only people who honestly believe that true art can't truly be understood are those who won't try and to understand what other people are trying to say through their art, or just don't have anything to say and hope they can bamboozle the audience into thinking otherwise with something that superficially resembles something meaningful.

It may not be necessary to go digging deep into symbol dictionaries and whatnot. It can be useful at times to look up flower symbolism, color symbolism, or whatever - but sometimes, all you really need to do is stop and ask yourself what kind of associations exist in popular culture. For example, stars are associated with dreams and wishes through the general notion that stars are a thing to make wishes on. Red apples are associated with temptation due to Snow White and the Christian tradition of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil being an apple. Apples in general are associated with the season of autumn, and so are pumpkins. Orange and black are associated with Halloween. Don't think you need to go looking for something obscure if a well-known association or symbol will work just fine.

It shouldn't feel forced within the context of the story. The crab king coding example would be fine in a children's cartoon that makes frequent use of light-hearted whimsy like that, but it could strain the audience's willing suspension of disbelief in a setting that otherwise doesn't.

It shouldn't completely overwhelm the story. You don't want to get so caught up in being symbolic and metaphorical that you neglect the plot and the characters. All this stuff can be a lot of fun to work out, but most people won't be interested in trying unless they already like the rest of your story.

Coding shouldn't reinforce or reify prejudice and bigotry. It's one thing to give an alien a wide-brimmed straw hat and overalls to let us know at a glance that she's a farmer. But giving her sister blond hair and a pink dress to signify that she's shallow and self-absorbed? Not cool, since that's based in misogynist stereotypes. Likewise, giving a character a Cockney accent to signify that they're untrustworthy is super sketchy, and dressing "lazy" aliens in outfits that look suspiciously like clothes associated with Black culture is absolutely unforgivable. And using disfigurement, disability, or a disability aid (even if it's just a pair of eyeglasses) to symbolize anything is dehumanizing and ableist.

Using dark complexions to symbolize negative things and light ones to symbolize postive ones is racist. So just don't do that.

Disability and disability aids (including eyeglasses) should never be used as a symbol or metaphor for anything. It creates demeaning and dehumanizing implications about disability, so just don't.

A character's LGBTQ+ status should not be something that can only be picked up on through subtext or coding. We've come a long way since censors forced creators to use subtext and coding to write about LGBTQ+ characters, so don't do that. If you're worried about whether it might be appropriate for younger audiences or not, just ask yourself how G or PG-rated movies handle the cishet equivalent.

Thinking about making an allegory for racism? Then I'm going to refer you to LL McKinney's Twitter thread.

Be careful not to undermine your own metaphors.

Way too many writers end up undermining their own metaphors, often in ways that create some very unfortunate implications. Let's look at a few ways this can happen.

Trying to make something into a metaphor for something that has agency and a different thing that doesn't have agency often creates nasty implications. An example of this would be presenting vampirism as an infectious disease that changes victims' personalities and cannot be resisted and overcome, while using the vampires themselves as an allegory for tyrants and dictators. Together, this creates an implication that tyrants and dictators actually have no control over their own actions and are simply infected by something they have no power to manage or overcome. It also suggests that chronic illness turns people into a tyrannical parasites, which is incredibly ableist and harmful to disabled folks.

On the other hand, writing vampirism as a form of power that can potentially be abused? Depicting vampiric societies as being full of toxic egomaniacs because those who seek that kind of people tend to be that kind of person? That works. Go for it.

Another example of mutually-exclusive metaphors is to make a character into a metaphor for two mutually-exclusive personal identity journeys. An example of this is setting a protagonist up as a complete nobody from absolutely nowhere to send the message that you can make a difference even if you don't have an elite pedigree; then turning around and revealing that the protagonist is actually descended from an evil overlord to try and send the message that you have a choice in carrying on a legacy of hate and oppression, or in breaking the cycle and forging your own identity. While both of these are good and valid messages on their own, when you apply them to the same character you end up sending the message that nobodies can't actually succeed after all; that the only reason an apparent nobody could succeed is because they were secretly somebody all along.

Your protagonist can be a total nobody from nowhere, or secretly the heir of a dreadful legacy, but cannot be both of these things. You have to commit to one or the other.

Another way people undermine an attempted metaphor is by inadvertently justifying an attitude they're ostensibly trying to speak out against. This frequently happens when they use fantastic beings as an allegory for marginalized people while simultaneously giving them powers that make them legitimately dangerous to everyone else. In real life, marginalized people aren't particularly dangerous; they're just like everyone else. In fact, they're probably less dangerous on the whole simply because they lack systemic power. It's for this reason that the hate and fear against them is so unjustified. When your fantastic stand-ins for marginalized people have powers that make them significantly dangerous toward those without, and they have an actual history of using their powers against them in brutal ways, then the hate and fear is actually justified, which just doesn't map to how things work in real life. Additionally, it also suggests that the author either doesn't know or doesn't care about the dynamics of oppression, or worse, believes that being held accountable for being cruel and inconsiderate is the same as being oppressed.

So think your metaphors through. Are there any unintended implications that might come off as cruel or perpetuate harmful ideas? Do they send mixed messages to your audience? Do they really challenge prejudice or do they actually justify it? If yes, then it's time to go back to the drawing board.

Understand that making allusions and references doesn't instantly make your work deep.

Some writers think that referencing or alluding to literature or mythology widely considered to be deep will add depth to their own story. They might do this by trying to liken their characters to Biblical figures, or by giving them names that reference a famous work, or by recreating an iconic scene from a movie.

Here's the deal: Depth cannot be borrowed like this.

What allusions and references can do is say, "I'm familiar with this thing and I think it's interesting and relevant." That can be neat and entertaining in its own right, and it can clue your audiences in on what inspired your work. They can also hint at the kind of tone or atmosphere you're trying to set, or the kind of situation or scenario your work is meant to comment on. Making the boss's office resemble the Emerald City from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie to clue us in that he's a big fraud? That's good stuff.

However, it's also important to be mindful that certain references and allusions might be tacky, if not disrespectful. Likening the protagonist to Jesus and the antagonist to Lucifer might come off as a bit pretentious (is the stakes and conflict really all that comparable) or even blasphemous (does your protagonist really embody Jesus's ideals?). It might also come off as pretty stale, since Jesus/Lucifer parallels are extremely common already.

In some cases, there might even be issues of cultural appropriation to worry about. Giving a fantasy town a "meaningful" Algonquin name while the citizens themselves are as white and European as can be isn't a great look. Referencing a Jewish folktale in a way that reinterprets everything through a Christian paradigm isn't good, either.

So what does make something deep? Essentially, depth is dimension + practical insight. Something that's deep presents new ideas to explore and new avenues of thoughts to consider. It acknowledges uncomfortable truths, especially ones that "respectable" folks and those with systemic privilege would prefer to ignore. It permits complexity and ambiguity that creates nuance without playing Devil's Advocate for abusers and oppressive institutions. It encourages us to consider how our actions might have consequences and acknowledge that nothing happens in a vacuum. And finally, it leaves the audience with something actionable.

The Stepford Wives (1975) is a good example of a work with depth. The film has the wives of Stepford talk like actresses in a TV commercial (one even goes so far to say that she'd star for free in a commercial for a product they've been talking about). At the end of the film, you see the Stepford wives - which we now know to be robots - dolled up like models and greeting each other with exaggerated gentility as they shop in a supermarket. The message sent is that television commercials do not reflect reality, and that men who think women should actually be like that are effectively dehumanizing them and turning them into a kind of product. The actionable part is how the viewer can acknowledge that women are naturally complicated, imperfect people, and stop expecting them to be otherwise. No one would say that television commercials are deep, but The Stepford Wives alludes to them in a way that sends a meaningful message.

Another piece of work with depth is the Into The Woods stageplay. (Follow the link to watch a recording for free!) It uses characters from well-known European fairytales to illustrate how life doesn't work like their stories imply. It shows us that trying to follow their examples is no guarantee of safety or happiness, that when faced with extreme peril we have to look out for each other and work as a community, and that ultimately we have to think for ourselves instead of trusting in authority and conventional wisdom.

On creating your own symbolism - in and out of universe.

You can also build up your own symbols and motifs, which can exist on a diagetic (in-universe) or non-diagetic (out of universe) level. For example, you can associate a particular character with blue and green by dressing them in those colors, then later hint at their presence by depicting a room in the same colors. (Of course, it's worth asking yourself why you're using blue and green in particular - EG, does it suit this character's personality?)

In-universe symbols can also be used to quickly deliver information in a visual medium. Create a symbol for a religious order, and you won't need to exposit that your characters are stepping into one of their temples - all you'll need to do is show the symbol on a temple-looking building.

If you're creating in-universe symbols, you can make them look similar to real life symbols to make their meaning more intuitive. Yes, it does make your world look less alien, but it also decreases the amount of time you need to spend on exposition. Whether you should use familiar-looking symbols or completely alien ones is up to you to decide; it just comes down to how much you want to explain to your audience vs. how much you'd rather have them intuit things.

You should always be mindful about cultural appropriation. For example, if you're a white creator, you should not "borrow" Chinese symbols for a story where all of your characters are white (let alone "borrow" them without consulting any actual Chinese people on whether or not these symbols are appropriate to borrow in the first place).

You might also like:

Framing: What It Is And How To Use It
Writing Fantastic People & Creatures Without Unfortunate Implications
Explaining In Your Story: When You Should, When You Shouldn't, & How To Do It
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