What is Symbolism - Featured

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 symbols by looking at common 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 symbolic.


What is the symbolism?

Symbolism is the art of imbuing objects/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; it all depends on the context of its usage.

Symbolism Examples:

  • A rose to symbolize romance
  • An owl to symbolize wisdom
  • The color green to symbolize jealousy or greed

What is Symbolism?

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. They define our values and norms and they are 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 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, but the two are inextricably linked. To explore symbolism’s relation to culture, let’s go further into culture.

How values inform symbolism

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 does our symbolism say about our culture? Are there universal symbols? Can symbolic meaning change over time and circumstance? To examine this further, let’s take a look at symbolism examples from literature and film.

Symbolism Examples in Literature and Film

Case Study: The Frontier 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 symbol of American dominance.

Ethan (John Wayne) rescues Debbie (Natalie Wood) from Native American captors

However, as the century progressed and the American public became disillusioned by political scandals and unending war in Vietnam, New Hollywood 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 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  •  A Violent Critique

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.

“You can’t stop what’s coming”

As you can see, 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.

Importance to Screenwriters

Designing symbols

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.

Let’s take a brief look at how screenwriter Eric Heisserer used symbolism to define the thematic elements in Arrival (2016). Circularity is a symbol presented over and over again throughout the film. In this still, we see the alien language of the heptapods resembled as circles. 


Ouroboros symbols 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.

 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.


Breaking down metaphors

Ready for more literary devices? This article on metaphors helps screenwriters understand metaphor and goes even deeper. For instance, did you know there are myriad different types of metaphors? Learn more about metaphors and imbue your narrative with as much meaning as you can!

Up Next: Metaphors explained →
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