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How to use symbolism to write a novel

Symbolism in itself is an easy concept to understand, but embedding symbols into your novel is an art in itself. In this article, we break it down for you in a way that you can adapt and use to suit your novel’s needs!


  1. Solo Symbols

Let’s call this type of symbol a ‘Solo Symbol’.

These symbols carry meaning in one scene, and one scene itself. They serve as supporters to build your scene, but don’t carry forward into the pages or chapters beyond where they live.

For example, a thunderstorm outside the protagonist’s window can be a symbol of incoming conflict in their life such as a fight with their lover. The thunderstorm creates tension, it makes the reader anxious and works along with other symbols to create effect in a scene. Another common example is a crow, often used as a symbol of bad luck.

TIP: Think of which country and culture your novel is set in. This can lead you to more symbols that are well-connected with the rest of your novel. For example, if your novel is set in China, the number 4 could become a symbol of bad-luck. If it is set in the US, the number 13 could be used as a symbol of bad luck instead.

ACTIVITY: Download our FREE Symbols resource sheet, and move your finger down the screen with your eyes closed. Stop, and open your eyes. Use this symbol in a scene of your story and see if it fits!

  1. Mega Symbols

Let’s call these ‘Mega Symbols’.

These symbols spread across your novel, often popping up repeatedly to convey a deeper meaning. They tend to be integral to the plot.

For example, in the Kite Runner (spoiler alert!) Hassan’s cleft lip is a symbol that is described repeatedly but with purpose. In the beginning, Hassan’s cleft lip symbolises his low status in society because his family is too poor to fix it. Baba, Amir’s father, pays for the surgery as an act of goodwill and fatherhood. After Amir’s betrayal of Hassan and towards the latter end of the story, Amir is being beaten and his lip splits, resembling Hassan’s cleft lip. After this, Amir becomes a father figure to Hassan’s son just the way his Baba was to Hassan. This completes the cycle of redemption, and the cleft lip symbol is instrumental to it!

The character of Hassan in the movie adaptation of Kite Runner


  1. Click here to download and use our ‘For Starter’s activity to pick a symbol. You will use it to symbolise a major change in one of your characters. (Bonus Tip: for extra depth, choose the antagonist for this).

  2. Place the object in the beginning, and then at the end.

  3. Create a change in the symbol over the course of the novel, that only the character whose development is being symbolised can see.

    • For example, if a character has managed to go through a tough time and come out stronger: Use a yellow button as a symbol at the start of the novel. Place it in a scene where the character’s bad persona is being highlighted, but right before the incident which kickstarts their development arc, such as the scene before they meet the love of their life. Perhaps the button falls and disappears.

    • Then bring the yellow button back in the last pages of your novel, and zoom into details of how the character smiles as they look into the mirror, proudly buttoning up their shirt with the yellow button. This can symbolise positivity that the love of their life brought them, and a happy ending.

    • You may chose to enter this yellow button, or thought of it into the character’s mind during moments they cross paths with the love of their life, in order to make the symbolism even more clear!

We hope this helps you build some deep connections within your novel that elevate it to the next level! Do share your feedback in the comments below.

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