The Obvious Symbolism Police

Yesterday via Twitter, I wrote (probably with more snark than necessary): “Your daily writing tip from the Obvious Symbolism police: Avoid beginning your novel with your MC waking up. Even if they wake up a vampire.”

This got me thinking of other cases of the obvious or cliche that I see more often than I’d like. Back in January, I offered a list of specific phrases to avoid, which I still stand by 100%; this Top 5 list is more like my Obvious Symbolism complaint. Apologies in advance for sounding like a snooty liberal arts writing professor, but you’ll thank me later.

1) Waking up in the first sentence. As I already mentioned in my above tweet, this is a weak way to start your narrative. We don’t need to see how “ordinary so-and-so’s day was” when suddenly something out of the ordinary happens that sets the whole novel in motion. What we do need to see is the thing that actually happens, and we’ll know through your superior skills of developing and building a character that it’s out of the ordinary. That said, creating a nice scene that evokes the setting we’re entering, which may or may not lead to a character waking up, is acceptable as far as the O.S. Police is concerned.

2) Water = New Beginning. Baptism, rebirth, cleansing, etc. Water is literally used in these acts; therefore, water is usually used when a character is metaphorically reborn. Sure, Don Draper swimming in a pool when he decides to write his Jerry Maguire-esque letter to the editor is a nice image. Likewise, a threatening storm, a peaceful rain, or a dramatic gaze at a waterfall can all be beautifully written. Unfortunately, the symbols water represents are overdone and often transparent.

3) Colors. Specifically, I’m referring to black and white. Using black to symbolize death, danger, or something evil vs. using white to symbolize purity, hope, or “good” are pretty standard. Ask yourself if your story has to follow those standards. Other colors used as themes are gray (bleakness, blandness), yellow (both cowardly and bright, happy); blue (tranquility); or red (passion, scandal, love). There is nothing inherently wrong with using colors, but use them sparingly.

4) Ask not for whom the bell tolls. No one cares anyway. When a character’s days are numbered or their path to redemption is suddenly made clear, writers will often add a physical symbol (bell ringing in the distance, a song plays on the radio, etc. It’s safe to say that a person’s self-discovery and/or demise is not brought on by one thing. In theory, your entire novel should have been leading up to this moment. No gimmicks necessary, unless said gimmick has been a major part of the narrative the entire time.
5) It’s a bird; it’s a plane; it’s… cliche! Sorry J-Franz, but taking flight, or being obsessed with things that do, is a wee bit overused when portraying characters who are discontent and just want to escape. Or, to put it more literally, to fly away. This logic also applies to obsessions with the ocean, boats, or other methods of transportation that move through something vast and symbolic.

As with everything, there are always exceptions to all of these rules. The above-mentioned Mr. Franzen is proof of that. But, like with all exceptions to rules, it’s better to assume you won’t be one of them when you query an agent. (Sorry, but it’s true.) Once you get taken on, sell your first novel, and establish a career, then you’re safer to play around with the “rules.” But until then, the Obvious Symbolism Police will be watching.

10 thoughts on “The Obvious Symbolism Police

  1. No having a character actually looking into a mirror while self-reflecting. It's not so much symbolism as a slap on the head with an iron skillet.


  2. I thought about the “no waking up” rule when I first read Hunger Games. It begins with Katniss waking up on the morning of the reaping! Luckily it goes on to be awesome 🙂


  3. And no characters sinking in pools to show they're hitting rock bottom! I'm looking at you, 9th or 10th episode of Mad Men season 4. But that's a TV/movie thing not a book thing.

    One part I loved in Firefly (ack, another TV show) is when a character died it was snowing. And the wife wore a white dress to the funeral. Very evocative simply because opposites are being pared.


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