Symbolism and Literary Themes: Distracting or Necessary?

On Friday, a ThrillerFest panel moderated by WD contributing editor and author Steven James (Jevin Banks series) discussed whether or not literary themes and symbols interfere with a story. Here are the highlights from the panel, which included A.X. Ahmad (the Ranjit Singh trilogy), Linwood Barclay (A Tap on the Window), Carla Buckley (The Deepest Secret), Chevy Stevens (That Night), Mike Pace (Dead Light) and Jamie Freveletti (Dead Asleep).


Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 1.04.02 PMThis column by Adrienne Crezo, managing editor of Writer’s Digest
magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @a_crezo.

James: What is the difference between a theme and a symbol?

Buckley: “For me, the difference is that a theme is a running occurrence, whereas a symbol is a clue you give the reader to the themes you’re using.”

Barclay: “I am probably not an intellectual or artsy enough writer to use symbolism in my books, but themes drive the action. Mental illness and the economic downturn are running themes for me, but they drive the action and they cause the characters to do things they wouldn’t normally do.”

Freveletti: “I’ve been writing the fifth [book] in my series, [which is] placed in Africa. And the theme is slavery, which still exists in Africa. One problem I did notice is that to write about a theme that’s that powerful, it’s easy to slip into preachiness. That’s the only drawback I’ve run into so far to using a strong emotional theme.”

Stevens: “I never consciously think when I start a book, What’s the theme I’m going to use? But one theme that recurs is survival. How do you overcome these things that are happening to you? In symbolism, I don’t think its conscious, but I tend to use animals as symbols for themes for my characters. In one, a woman associates a duck with the idea of freedom, and in another, a cat reminds a woman of her daughter.

Ahmad: “My [book] was told from the point of view of an immigrant, and that was a conscious decision because I am an immigrant. I think we’re all drawn to symbolically charged material, but I think our jobs as writers is to make the characters as specific and real as possible. We take the abstract and make it concrete.”

Pace: “I wonder which came first, symbolism or the English major. You’re probably familiar with the story of [To Kill Mockingbird author] Harper Lee, who was at a Harvard lecture where students kept asking her about a particular symbol in her book, which she insisted wasn’t there. … And eventually, this professor stands up and says, ‘Excuse me, madam, but you are wrong!’ I think that most of us here, to some extent there are symbols in our writing, but they come organically. If you go in and try to insert them it’s going to go badly.”

James: “I believe that you should never write from a theme and avoid as much symbolism as possible.”

Buckley: “I am strongly of the opinion that the reason [my books are published] is that … I figured out that if I start with a theme, then it helps my work … become very clean and focused.”

Barclay: “I think [obvious symbolism] is about how artful the author is. It’s like they’re walking around with a sign … saying Here’s the theme! Here’s the symbol!”

Stevens: “Themes for me are personal, still. I think it’s a theme that runs through my life. I’m fascinated by family dysfunction, powerlessness and survival. I’m not consciously doing it, but they … run through my life.”

Ahmad: “Writers are very weird people. If you choose to sit in a room by yourself making stuff up day in and day out as an adult, you are weird. What we’re calling themes—politely, euphemistically—are obsessions. And writing those themes is working out those obsessions.”

Freveletti: “If you’re writing a book and you have a theme that’s [so] obvious [that a reader stops engaging], then you’re doing it really wrong. That’s a problem you get in every genre.”

James: “[Flannery O’Connor said], ‘When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one.’ Do you all agree?”

Pace: “I guess I agree. It’s the same thing we were talking about earlier … Trying to jam in a particular theme or a particular symbol, it’s not natural. If you can turn a cliché symbol on its head it can be interesting.”

Barclay: “I think [that the key to] that quote from Flannery O’Connor is to boil it down. ‘Don’t overthink it.’ If you’re trying to make your work sound more important than it is, your reader is going to see through it.”

Ahmad: “I want to make a distinction between plot and theme. Your plot can be boiled down to a very clear plotline that someone can grasp, is very clear to the reader, and can still have very rich themes.”

James: “Do you want readers to identify your themes and symbols?”

Buckley: “Absolutely not.”

James: “Then what’s the purpose?”

Buckley: “It’s to bring the reader to me and into my world. I don’t want my reader to say ‘Oh, that’s about a mother,’ … but I do want them to say ‘That relates to me and my life.’”

Barclay: “Themes in particular are just texture, an extra layer. I don’t read [a book and] think Wow, I love the family dysfunction theme. The theme just [makes] books richer.”


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