Symbolism In Screenwriting
Everyone gets lost sometimes. In order to find our way back from our wanderings, we search for familiar markers, signs, or symbols to guide us where we need to go, whether in our lives or stories.
So let’s not search blindly through the forest or gaze at the heavens for answers, but huddle our minds around our words in order to find a better path forward.
By definition, a symbol is, “a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract or intangible.” Symbols are the opposite of realism. Paradoxically, they also elevate what is real in your story by adding additional layers of meaning and texture to it.
Their level of representation may vary depending on their subtlety, context, and cultural factors. Symbols can vary from an overt cause and effect relationship such as a coffin representing death to something more suggestive, iterative, or obtuse.
Symbols are inherently more meaningful than blatant visual cues in a movie which serve as little more than a literal reminder or a sign of important plot points. For instance, a pair of ballet shoes in a hypothetical movie could be limited to acting as a reminder of a ballerina’s final gift from her grandmother before she passed or a recital on which her entire career hinges. We may see periodic glimpses of the said ballet shoes throughout the film as a gentle homage to how much ballet means to the main character.
Symbols are so powerful in storytelling because they activate the audience’s imaginations through the opaque rather than the literal. They are metaphorical by definition and therefore open to interpretation.
We need to look no further than the written language as a prime example of how we use symbolism to make sense of the world.
Our alphabet consists of symbols that represent our phonetic speech patterns. These twenty-six symbols combine to form words which hold meaning. When we arrange our words through syntax and sentences, we are able to confound separate meanings into a single greater understanding. Japanese Kanji comprises over fifty thousand characters to represent either a single or a range of meanings.
As screenwriters, we communicate the abstract inclinations of our imaginations through an intricately woven system of symbols to create a tangible material object – the script.
Every screenplay is filled with details that enhance the meaning of the narrative, but symbols can’t just be placed anywhere or exist on their own. Symbologist John Fraim explains that the goal is to, “Give them dynamic life and growth through the narrative so they reveal character and illustrate theme.”
Symbolism is a system that consists of three main elements:
Content + Context
Content – Character, Dialogue, Object, Action, Characteristic
Context – Location, Time
Subtext – Tone, Theme, Voice, Motivations, Hidden Information, Deeper Meaning
The content, and the context of the content, will often reveal the subtext.
Think of the deeper meaning behind each detail that you include in your screenplay and how that heightened detail moves the plot forward. A popular writing adage is, “Don’t show me a cup of tea unless there’s poison in it.”
Every detail should add to the momentum of the story while also being layered with nuance.
How can you layer these elements of symbolism so that they interact and communicate with other elements of your script?
Follow the two laws of symbolism. The two laws of symbolism are as follows:
Law of Duality
The universal law of duality (or opposition) dictates that two mutually oppositional things must co-exist to balance your story. There cannot be darkness without light, love without hate, or good without bad. The Yin and Yang of things. This certainly applies to screenwriting.
Often times, the internal and external conflicts that a protagonist faces deal with polarities. The goal is for a character to undergo a transformation between extremes or opposing ideals by the end of the screenplay. A slight shift will dilute the power of your story.
If an innocent character begins the screenplay extremely meek and shy, they’ll have to overcome that flaw in the second act so that they can confront the antagonist during the climax of the film through an effort of strength and leadership.
To go further, protagonists and their antagonists are often found on opposing ends of the same spectrum.
In the film Black Panther, the relationship between protagonist and antagonist speaks on the duality of identity within the African Diaspora. The antagonist Erik Killmonger can be seen as a fragmented reflection of King T’Challa, who begins the film in an already strong and powerful position. Killmonger rises from outcast to king while T’Challa falls from grace and must fight his way back. Their character arcs are parallel yet in constant complementary opposition.
Law of Correspondence
This law basically asserts that what’s below is aligned with what’s above — or a character’s internal struggle is synchronized with their external obstacles. A character’s superficial actions are influenced by their inner thoughts, beliefs, feelings and attitudes.
Both of these represent a reality or a truth. If a character changes their inner reality, their outer reality (or their perception of it) might also change. Your character’s arc affords them total control over their inner reality, but lesser control over their outer world. It is the essence of your characters overcoming fear and turning to faith.
This change can be achieved with static and dynamic metaphors.
Static metaphors are fixed understandings such as red signifying heat, anger, and passion or black signifying doom, death, and destruction. They don’t contribute much narrative value but are universally or subconsciously accepted as commonly understood conventions.
Dynamic metaphors are mapped out like plot lines and require viewer interaction. They have a beginning, middle, and end. The meaning of the metaphor is usually clearly established in the beginning when it is first introduced, provides new information and often creates conflict between characters in the middle, and then takes on new meaning in the end.
These can be objects of desire or MacGuffins like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, the ring in The Lord of the Rings, or the catspaw dagger in Game of Thrones. Each time a character interacts with the object or metaphor, more information is revealed or teased about the characters and their motivations.
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