Symbolism can create an indelible impression on an audience. Symbolism runs through literature, poetry, and especially screenwriting, where visuals are paramount. But what is symbolism? In this article, we’ll define symbolism and show how symbols change over time. We’ll explore this topic by looking at common symbolism examples in literature and film. Pertinently, we’ll explore how symbolism can enhance your screenplay by taking a look at Eric Heisserer’s script for Arrival (2016).

What is Symbolism?

Understanding symbolism

One of the most essential literary devices out there is symbolism. Symbolic meaning, is fluid, versatile, and incredibly impactful to the audience when used skillfully.

As a screenwriter, a full grasp of symbolism is integral to writing a more visual and meaningful screenplay. So, let’s get started with a symbolism definition before we discuss how to wield this storytelling tool.


What is the symbolism?

Symbolism is the art of imbuing objects or things with meaning, making them represent something more than the sum of its parts. Symbolism in literature has a rich history, namely because it expresses the invisible or intangible through visible or sensuous representations. Although there some generally understood symbols (heart = love), symbols can evolve and vary from culture to culture. There is no definitive meaning to any symbol; symbols and meanings all depend on context.

Symbolism Examples:

  • An owl can be a symbol meaning wisdom
  • A rose can be a symbol meaning romance
  • Green can be a symbol meaning jealousy or greed

What is Symbolism?  •  Symbols and Meanings Explained

Because humans are pattern-seeking creatures, symbols are ubiquitous and serve an essential function in our life. They satisfy and reaffirm our sense of order in the universe. Any symbolism definition points to our values and norms as part of the culture.

As a thought experiment, what do you think when I mention a black cat? How about a cross? Rain on your wedding day? If you thought of anything besides "black cat," "cross," and "rain," that’s symbolism. Both common and artistically invented symbols and meanings are rooted in the culture of their creation. Let’s go deeper.

Symbolism Examples in Culture

What is symbolism in culture?

Your mind may not automatically go to culture when you think of symbolism examples, but the two are inextricably linked. To explore symbolism’s relation to culture, let’s go further into culture.

How values define symbolic meaning

As you can see, symbols are defined by the culture in which they’re created. While red may mean "anger" or "passion" or "rage" in the West, it means nearly the opposite in certain Asian cultures.

So, what are the symbols and meanings in our culture? Are there universal symbols? Can symbolic meaning change over time and circumstance? To examine this further, let’s take a look at examples of symbolism in literature and film.

Symbolism Examples in Literature and Film

Hollywood symbolism in The Old West

We all know the great American myths of the old West. Manifest Destiny, Native American slaughter, and the Gold Rush. It’s as American as apple pie with a slice of processed cheese.

Symbolism in literature was rich in the 19th century Romanticism movement. Here, the West symbolizes a place of untamed wilderness and unbridled beauty. Authors such as James Fenimore Cooper captured this Romanticism in books such as The Last of the Mohicans and The Deerslayer. For an emerging nation discovering new land, the West was a place of wonder.

Moving forward, the 20th century, filmmakers in Hollywood gave the world its first Westerns. Directors such as John Ford glorified the West. In films such as Stagecoach and The Searchers, Ford’s leading man, John Wayne portrayed the romantic frontier hero as a proud movie symbol of American dominance — Hollywood symbolism at its best.

John Wayne embodies the Hollywood symbolism definition of "The Old West"

However, as the century progressed and the American public became disillusioned by political scandals and unending war in Vietnam, the New Hollywood movement of the '60s and '70s redefined the symbolic West. Filmmaker Sam Peckinpah shot many Neo-Westerns which did little to glorify frontiersmen.

In films such as The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, he portrayed a savage, lawless land rife with grotesque violence. The West was now a movie symbol of a nation’s history of violence with a sympathetic eye turned towards the Native Americans. The West was now Vietnam.

The Wild Bunch  •  The Evolution of Symbolic Meaning

Flash forward to the new millennia where a new generation of filmmakers took their turn at the symbolic West. With its Spaghetti Western-inspired visuals, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is an example of the modern Western.

Breaking Bad  •  An Homage to the Western

Likewise, the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men and True Grit (itself a remake of a John Wayne Western) come to symbolize a new Western frontier. Gone are the days of cowboys and Indians in these interpretations. In these postmodern interpretations of the West, the "white hats" die or give in before the lawless are ever brought to justice.

Watch to this conversation from No Country For Old Men and you'll see just how far the symbolic meaning of The Old West has evolved. Download and read the No Country For Old Men script to see how the entire movie is dedicated to this idea.

“You can’t stop what’s coming”  •  Hollywood Symbolism Examples

As you can see, movie symbols have the ability to adapt and change over time. But screenwriters, in particular, can adapt symbols to fit their story. Let’s see how this is done with a close look at Arrival (2016).

Hollywood Symbolism

Symbols and meanings in Arrival

In our symbolism definition, two factors can define a symbol: common symbols and artistic invention. In storytelling, you’re free to artistically invent symbols. As a screenwriter, this is helpful because you are empowered to define your own symbols and meanings.

Let’s take a brief look at how screenwriter Eric Heisserer used symbolism examples to define the thematic elements in Arrival. Circularity is a symbol presented throughout the film. In this still, we see the alien language of the heptapods resembled as circles. 


Circular symbolism examples play a huge role in Arrival

This visual language is present throughout the film and even referred to in Heisserer’s screenplay. For anyone familiar with the film, the events unfold non-linearly. In fact, they’re circular, a loop. Louise’s daughter is named Hannah, a palindrome, a linguistic circle.

These symbols add up throughout the film and lead to a finale which epitomizes the theme of interconnectedness. The circle also becomes one of the symbolism examples to visualize the idea of timelessness. This is one of those examples of symbolism in literature and film that provides visual, thematic and narrative meaning. 

As a screenwriter, you’re free and emboldened to design your own symbols. They’re entertaining. They engage your audience. And, for a visual medium, they are indispensable tools to enrich your narrative.


Explore more literary devices

Symbolism is just one of many literary devices and types of figurative language, including allegory, euphemism, and irony. If you're a writer and want to develop your craft fully, do yourself a favor and continue this exploration. The next article on literary devices is a gateway to many of these tools that help add substance and style to any type of written work.

Up Next: Literary Devices Index →
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