Thematic Metaphors: Symbols, Motifs, and Allegory

Today we are looking at how to show our theme and thematic premise through the use of metaphoric literary devices.  I’ve been waiting for this week.  I think this aspect of the craft is super fun, both to read and to write, and I’m excited to wrap my brain around it.  Let’s get to it…

“Great stories,” as James Bonnet says, “are complex metaphors, their different characters, places, actions, and objects all reflecting different aspects of [a] hidden, inner truth.”

In other words, “the explicit premise [the one-line synopsis] becomes the metaphor or myth for the psychological or Moral Premise upon which the whole story is based,” says Stanley D. Williams.  The one-line synopsis, fleshed out into the whole of the story, “describes the metaphor of that truth in a demonstrative, physical way.”

But what, exactly, is a metaphor?


A metaphor “is an implied comparison between two unlike things.” (Jessica Page Morrell)

A metaphor “describes something that is unknown by the use of things that are known.” (Mr. Bonnet)

“Metaphor consists of images connected to something they literally cannot be.” (Gabriele Lusser Rico)

A metaphor is “an analogy in which something is compared to another thing to which there is no literal relationship. It is a means of ascribing certain characteristics to something or someone in an imaginative, meaningful way.” (Robert Kernan)

Usually we (or at least I) think of metaphors at the sentence level, like the Shakespeare example I learned as a middle school student: “It is the East and Juliet is the sun.”

But the types of metaphors I’m wanting to look at here are not sentence-level metaphors, they’re more visual or “experienceable” metaphors:  symbols, motifs and allegory.


“An image that is so prominent takes on the dimensions of symbol, which is one thing standing for something else.” (Ms. Rico)

“Symbol is a technique of the small.  It is the word or object that stands for something else–person, place, action, or thing–and is repeated many times over the course of the story.” (John Truby)

A symbol is a word, concept, object, or theme with a number of associated meanings.  These add to and deepen its figurative meanings while retaining its literal meaning.”  (Chris Roerden)

“A symbol is simply a familiar object, gesture, or sign that suggests more than a literal meaning.” (Corrine Kenner)

“Symbols are things that stand for something else.” (Ms. Morrell)

“A symbol is a visible thing that by association or convention represents an invisible thing, like the eagle, which symbolizes the United States of America.” (Karl Iglesias)

“In their simplest form, though, symbols are anything outward that stands in for anything inward or abstract, such as a mood or an idea.” (Donald Maass)

“A symbol is something that is representative of another thing.” (James Scott Bell)

A symbol is “[a] term, a name, or even a picture that may be familiar in daily life, yet that possesses specific connotations in addition to its conventional and obvious meaning. It implies something vague, unknown or hidden from us.” (Carl Jung, quoted by Ms. Morrell)

“Symbols are a type of metaphor in which some object or concept is extended for the entire length of a story.  Symbols, if well chosen, can carry much emotional power because a good symbol works on more than one level. As the story goes on, the symbol may take on additional layers of meaning.”  (Nancy Kress)

A couple things to note about symbols:

First, anything can be a symbol:  Weather, Nature, Sounds, Images, Words, Objects, Textures, Colors, Characters, Abstract Concepts

Second, “Symbols don’t need to be large and recurring,” says Mr. Maass.  “They can be here and gone, like flash mobs.”  When used once, a symbol can provide subtext within a scene or it can foreshadow something to come (both talked about in later months).

That said, “symbols gain power as they recur,” says Mr. Maass.

“Whether you make symbols subtle or well-defined, they take on layers of meaning each time they’re mentioned, bocoming an integral part of the story.” (Karen S Wiesner)

Mr. Truby agrees.  “A symbol creates a resonance, like ripples in a pond, every time it appears. As you repeat the symbol, the ripples expand and reverberate in the minds of the audience often without their being consciously aware of it.”

Third, When it comes to symbols “the point is to enhance or contrast, not to allow a symbol to become a focal point,” says Ms. Wiesner. “This tangible or intangible symbol must make sense for this character and can’t be something thrown in for the fun of it.  One way or another, it has to enhance or contrast, and thereby develop the core story elements in deeper ways.

When a theme pops up in the story several times, it can resonate a mood or a theme or your premise throughout the whole story.  When a symbol does recur, it can also be referred to as a…

Motif or Leitmotif

“Motif,” says Mr. Kernan, is “a recurring element in a story. It may be a visual icon, a characteristic of language or a persistent use of certain metaphors.”

Ms. Rico calls these “recurrences–the meaningful repetition of words, images, ideas, phrases, sounds, objects, or actions throughout a piece of writing to unify and empower it.”

Joseph Paul Gulino says, motifs “are props or lines of dialogue or even patterns of behavior that are introduced (planted)–usually surreptitiously–by the writer, which are brought up later in a different context (paid off).”

“A motif is a repeated image or phrase,” says Mr. Bell.  It can be “literal at the beginning, symbolic at the end.”

Leitmotif “is a musical term meaning, ‘a melodic phrase that accompanies the reappearance of a person or situation.'” says Mr. Iglesias. “In a [story], then, a leitmotif is a recurring image associated not only with a theme, but also a person, situation, or idea.”

For Tom Spanbauer, leitmotifs, which he calls ‘horses’ are “repeated elements, which pull the reader through the story. They may be variations on a theme, objects related images, or any repetitive element.”

So, as I understand it, the difference between motif and leitmotif is that a motif is visual, something you can see like an object or the weather or nature, and a leitmotif is audible, like music or a word or phrase.  But it’s probably not important to distinguish them since people seem to use them interchangeably.

But symbolism can expand in broader ways than just an object recurring throughout the story.  At the extreme end of symbolism, we have…


“Allegory involves creating a fairly thoroughgoing pattern of symbolism in which all major events and characters in a story have a meaning beyond themselves.” (Ansen Dibell)

Allegory is “a device that uses characters and events as symbols for a deeper meaning.” (Brad Schreiber)

The allegory “pattern is that the characters represent ideas, and the events of the story are meant to show the consequences of those ideas.” (Mr. Bell)

“Allegory is a form in which the idea is everything.  The author has composed the story according to a plan; the reader’s job is to decode the plan.” (Orson Scott Card)

Allegory is “a story or representation in which a person, even or idea stands for itself and for something else; a complex metaphor. Types of allegories include parables, which are religious in nature; fables, in which animals act out moral lessons; and some forms of satire.” (Mr. Kernan)

How to find and use your metaphoric devices

1. Pants it and see what presents itself.

“Evoking symbols is often a matter of making use of what is already there,” says Mr. Maass.

“You find symbols and motifs in your work by paying attention,” says Mr. Bell. “Write scenes rich in sensory detail and look closely at what you’ve created.”

Mr. Spanbauer advises you to “Love Your Objects.  To develop your writing muscle take the time to carefully describe the objects in your narrator’s view. What objects does s/he notice, and what is his/her particular way of describing them? At a deeper level, as you develop a story, objects take on symbolic meaning, becoming the vehicle for language that is simultaneously vertical and horizontal.”  That is, the object and its description convey both the events of the story that move the story forward (horizontal) and the emotional truth of those events (vertical).

Once you’ve detailed your objects, Mr. Maass proposes an exercise to help us discover the symbolism that’s already present in our work:

  • What is one prominent object, event, or action that appears in your novel?
  • How can that object, event, or action recur at your novel’s end?
  • Find three other places where this object, event or action can recur in the course of the story.
  • Add them to your manuscript.

Mr. Maass also suggests that you note the opposite of your object, event, or action and work that into your manuscript too.

2. Plan it and plant it.

To uncover hidden symbol opportunities, Mr. Kernan suggests writing each scene (either after you outline, or after a first draft) on a notecard and shuffling them up.  Take two random cards and see if any connections come to mind.  Repeat until a symbol takes shape.

Ms Rico suggests another way, which she calls “clustering,” but is probably more commonly called mind-mapping.  Take a word or two, or a phrase, about your story; this could be your concept or your theme or whatever you want. Put the word in the center of a blank piece of paper. “Now you simply let go and begin to flow with any current of connections that come into your head. Write these down rapidly.” At some point you might feel “a shift,” a “movement from indeterminate form to focus,” where you know what you want to say, what symbols or metaphors make the most sense for your story. If you don’t feel this shift, then when you run out of steam, go back and review what you’ve written for possible symbols.  You can also cluster more than one word at a time, say, your theme plus your setting or you concept plus the character flaw. Clustering from two angles at once can yield tangible or visual representations of your story’s more subtle aspects.  “Whatever the image, let it surface by tapping your [right brain] mind through clustering. Then develop that image through recurrence in your writing. In so doing you achieve power and unity, for recurrences always act as a unifying thread to the whole.”

3. Start with a feeling.

“A simple guide to using symbol might be ‘refer and repeat,'” says Mr. Truby. “Here’s how it works:  you start with a feeling and create a symbol that will cause that feeling in the audience. You then repeat the symbol, changing it slightly.”

Mr. Truby also provides a schematic:

Feeling –> symbol –> feeling in the audience
Changed symbol –> stronger feeling in the audience

4. Tie the Beginning to the Ending.

“Recurrence is the easiest way to experience coming full circle; it is a repetition in your ending of some aspect of your beginning,” says Ms. Rico.

“From a writer’s perspective, you create a resonant ending by suggesting connections between your story and a larger context, often through the use of symbols,” says Ms. Kress.  “Often that symbol will have been introduced at the beginning of the story, in the first paragraph…. The use of the same symbolism at beginning and end creates a circular pattern that helps make even an open-ended story feel ‘finished.'”

In other words, when you’re looking for symbols, be sure to compare the beginning with the end and to look for parallels and symbolic opportunities that you can enhance.

5. Integrate a symbol into the plot of the story.

Some symbols lie on the surface of the story, and others are integrated into the plot in such a way that without the symbol, the story would cease to exist.  Ms. Kress suggests a way to integrate symbol into your story:

To build an entire story around a symbol, and thus create more complex and layered emotion, you need to:

  • Choose an object or concept that is both an integral part of the plot and something the characters can have strong emotions about.
  • Develop the story’s action around the symbol.
  • Decide whether characters are aware of the symbol’s significance or whether they will not e aware but the reader will.
  • Give dialogue or thoughts about the symbol to characters who are aware of the symbol’s significance.
  • Give unaware characters chances to interact with the symbol in ways that express their emotions.
  • Try to end scenes or even the entire story with the symbol to boost its significance even further.

Cautions – Choose Carefully

Dr. Linda Seger cautions us that “All details can have meaning, but care must be taken. The writer needs to make sure the details in a [story] are not arbitrary, as if there is no thought behind how the image fits the idea.”

Ms. Dibell agrees.  “The pattern [of symbols] must make sense, rather than seeming an arbitrary authorial whim (umbrella = ambition; galoshes = passion; fish = space travel).  The symbols chosen must be appropriate both to what they represent and to one another. The connections should be valid and reasonable in a plain literal sense as well as a metaphorical one, and be consistent through the whole story.”

“Writers sometimes get the symbols wrong or their choices are simply odd,” agrees Ms. Morrell.  “So choose wisely and pay attention to the images that swim your way via your intuition, and don’t use the writer’s version of a jackhammer when creating them.”

Top Books on Symbols, Metaphors, or Allegory

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The book cover links above are Affiliate Links, which means I get a commission if you decide to make a purchase through these links, at no cost to you.  In other words, if you’re thinking of buying a copy of one of these books for your home craft library anyway, buying said copy through this link is a no-brainer way to help support this site. And I appreciate it. Thank you!

Well, that’s it for me

I think this part of storytelling is a blast.  What about you?  Got any symbolic tools for the sharing?  Tell us in the comments!

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Up next, on Wednesday

I’m going to try to find some fresh examples of symbols, motif, and allegory.  It I can’t, I’ll repeat some of the ones most commonly referenced.  See you then!


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