The Importance of Symbolism in Storytelling



C.E. Lawrence 

C.E. Lawrence 

Webster defines “metaphor” as “A comparison between two unlike things – one thing being spoken of as if it were another.”

A pretty girl is like a melody.  The heart is a lonely hunter.  Life is just a bowl of cherries.  You may recognize these statements as metaphors.  (Some of them, of course, are similes, which is just a metaphor using “like” or “as” to make the comparison.)

“I awoke as stiff as if I’d been spray-starched.” –– Jonathan Kellerman, When The Bough Breaks

“Snow scattered, and the winds swung like vast sails between heaven and earth.”  ­– Tanith Lee, “Love in a Time of Dragons”

Metaphor, simile and allegory are all forms of symbolism.  A good symbol enhances writing because it illuminates the thing being spoken of by drawing a connection for the reader.  Poetry relies on symbolism, of course – the greatness of a poet is directly linked to his gift for metaphor.  But the use of symbolism is not restricted to poetry.


While metaphor (and simile, of course) is usually is single comparison allegory is a more universal comparison, which sets up a whole system of replacements.  Famous examples of allegory in literature are Animal Farm, by George Orwell, “Young Goodman Brown,” and House of the Seven Gables, both by Nathaniel Hawthorne, “Heart of Darkness,” by Joseph Conrad, Moby Dick, and “The Old Man and the Sea,” by Hemingway.  You may notice the last three examples take place on ships or boats. I think it’s safe to say that any time you have a self-contained society, whether on a ship or a wagon train or a space ship, you can smell out an allegory if you really try.


I believe that successful science fiction is always based on a metaphor and/or allegory; its purpose is to illuminate the human condition by presenting us with situations which are close to but not quite what we might experience; however, in really good science fiction the emotional realities are exactly the same.  Here’s an example of how allegory works in contemporary science fiction.

A peaceful, humanistic and somewhat mystical culture is invaded by a warlike, militaristic and authoritarian one.   Atrocities are committed; first by one side, and then, eventually, by both.  An underground resistance movement is born in the oppressed culture.  A fierce war ensues; and with the intervention of a third culture, the oppressors are eventually ejected, but at a great cost.  No one is untouched by the struggle.  Resentments remain, and there is lingering prejudice; hostilities flare up along the borders between the two cultures.  Extremist cults which formed during the war are having trouble readjusting to peaceful co-existence.

Sound familiar?  If it made you think of World War Two, the conflict in the Middle East or the Balkans, you were of course all correct.  But it is, in fact, a precise description of the Bajorans and the Cardassians in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

That’s allegory in action. Science fiction works because we are allowed to step back and examine a situation without guilt; it’s not us, it’s people in the distant future, or alien beings; so we’re allowed to “get it” without being on the defensive. And all good allegorical fiction, in fact, works exactly the same way.


– Write a short piece (750 words max) using metaphors and similes consciously; also, feel free to use an allegorical central image, such as a ship, a white whale, whatever.

– Take a piece you have already written, and replace every adjective or adverb with a metaphor.  Then have a good stiff drink to calm your smoking brain.