Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#1
I absolutely adore symbolism, hidden meanings, etcetera, in my works. I love to write them, I love to read them, I adore things with layered concepts and inspirations that really make me think and show that the author has put just that much more time and thought into their piece. I feel like it can be the mark of a great author even, that their writing-brain considers many different outside aspects when crafting a scene, character, or scenario.

However... Well, I feel like it can also be really easily lost on readers. Not even due to readers being uneducated or unaware or any sort of negative implication like that, just that there may be a disconnect between author and consumer that prevents proper realization of non-obvious themes. They have god damn classes about this topic, after all - 'The Curtains Were Blue' and all that. So, I suppose my question is:

Is it worth it to include symbolism and hidden meanings or allusions? Or should we be more up-front about what we're including and drawing from? Also, what are YOUR thoughts on the use of symbolism in written work?

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#2
I like them. I think adding in symbolism makes it more fun to write, and you can see the things you hint at taking shape as it goes forward and you reveal little bits and pieces of what you've quietly alluded to earlier. If the reader doesn't get it when it's first mentioned, I kind of find that fun because it means if they ever re-read it they'll be like 'ooohhh'! And that is always wonderful. & if people read meaning where there isn't any, well they saved me having to make up a red-herring so that's cool too! 

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#3
I personally see theme as being at the very heart of writing fiction, and why fiction is art.  And symbolism is one of the major ways of conveying theme.  Excluding worldbuilding choices, I like to make the symbolic choice be done by a character, then I can have another character think about or comment on it.  Even if that second character is just baffled, it gets the reader thinking about it.  As for worldbuilding, one of the things I like about litRPG as a genre is that the existence of a system implies that someone created or at least heavily modified the world, so that gives the mc reasons to think about why the world is the way it is.  Similarly, isekai characters are confronted by culture clashes or magical environments and magical physics that make this mc think about the way this foreign culture has involves, including choice of symbols.  Surrealism appeals to me because it does a similar thing at a different level, by directly surprising the reader with dreamlike symbolism that the characters may think is normal.

So, symbolism is great.  But, it shouldn't be too subtle if you care about readers noticing it.  That thing about the color of the curtains is a background thing to set the mood, something that mild shouldn't be used to try to convey an actual thought or point to readers.

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#4
Symbolism has its place, if you're the sort of author who's willing to incorporate it. It can give depth to a story, showing hidden aspects to a story that makes readers go 'oh that is cool' when they piece it together. It's quite useful when conveying themes or morals, and also can be used to give certain characters, settings, etc. some flavor.

It is key that you do not make it a primary focus, however. It is a supplementary thing, and the story itself should be able to run smoothly without it. Think of Luke Skywalker when he gets his hand chopped off in the second Star Wars movie, and then he does the same to Darth Vader's cybernetic arm in the third, showing a reversal in a battle between good and evil. There is also a scene in the third movie (I believe) where Luke's face is half-covered in the light with the rest in darkness, symbolizing his struggle between the Jedi's ways and the Dark Side as he fights Darth Vader. 

I could also cite Toby Fox's games for obvious reasons -- Undertale and Deltarune are known for their layers and the amount of coincidences and symbolism lurking beneath their silly exteriors. It never overruns the game, however, it is simply there for the devoted to find while letting complete casuals still enjoy the gameplay. Same thing with Hollow Knight, which has a serious amount of lore and some symbolism deep inside its metroidvania world, set aside for those seeking to uncover it.

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#8
Neither. Symbolism has a very specific purpose, but shouldn't be there for only being there reasons. It has to compliment the work. Like spice to food, it can make it better but it shouldn't be a main ingredient. The story needs to hold up first without it.

This makes symbolism a bit weird, though. It creates a scene where one can watch with no understand of it and get what's going on, yet it makes a sort of second scene out of the first. Yet that first view must seem natural to the work and not just seem an otherwise random insertion of something.

As in, don't be the grapes of wrath. Where it suddenly cuts for a chapter to a turtle crossing the road. That's when you hit art house self indulgent level of smug. It's also were you start losing people hard.

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#9
We've got these food analogies here, which are useful, but we should keep in mind that things like elaborately decorated cakes and marzipan sculptures do exist and have their place; those being the equivalent of heavily symbolic and analogic or surreal pieces of writing.  They aren't the usual fare for RR, but they do have an audience, and some have become quite famous, like House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski.

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#10
As with most things, it kinda depends.

Some stories use it in very obvious ways; allegory or satire, like Orwell's Animal Farm, often rely on one thing being an stand-in for another. It can be a great way to either approach ideas from a fresh direction, or highlight the important parts of an argument and focus on what's being discussed. 

On the other end, some stories use it for very vague things, or for complex or strange connections. Joyce's Finnegan's Wake is probably the epitome of this, where he tried to cram so much meaning and connotation into the book that if you're not willing to engage with his word-games and references, the story is basically nonsense.

A lot of stories fall in the middle. Many authors bolt a bit of symbolism atop an otherwise fairly normal story, and sometimes this works pretty well. Hemmingway's Hills Like White Elephants falls here; the title (and the title drop, in the story) add a bit of extra meaning to what's going on. Without that, it's still a readable story, but it's not quite as good. This, I think, is where some people get in over their head, looking for symbolism in stories without it. Sure, it can be read in - under the assumption the author is more or less dead - but after a certain point it begins to feel like projection. (The blue curtains thing. Do authors choose their words carefully? Yes. Does that always mean symbolism? No. Can you decide it means symbolism anyway, if the author's intent has no bearing on your reading? Yes. Can you stop me from pointing and laughing if I decide you've twisted the content of the story beyond all reasonable interpretation? You can't.)

I also feel like there's a trend (especially in literary fiction) that attempts to substitute symbolism for actual meaning or plot; I've definitely read some stories that felt super meaningful-y, but upon closer inspection, nothing worthwhile happens and no conclusions are drawn. That makes me legit frustrated. It's not a written work, but I'd put Johnathan Blow's The Witness here. Great graphics, fun puzzles, but despite the philosophical sound-bites and what all looks like it could be potent symbolism... in the end (either ending) it utterly drops the ball and totally fails to resolve into any sort of story or point.

Personally, I find allegory alright, and a touch of symbolism kinda fun at times, but I refuse to look for it very hard. When it's obviously there but Joycean-levels of hard to figure out, I just give up. I'm not willing to spend that much energy on most stories. Anyone who writes symbolism has to gauge whether it adds to the engagement of the audience or drives them away, and whether they want the sort of readers who stick around or leave.

Re: Symbolism - Nonsense or Necessary?

#12
I guess it depends on how you define 'symbolism'. Stories ARE symbolism. To me, a good story is just a really elaborate symbol for something else. 

Lion King for example. Sure, it uses lions and royalty themes to symbolize courage and responsibility and all that. But the whole story is just an elaborate symbol for growing up and into your responsibility.