Tag Archives: literary analysis

Symbols & Context

literature analysis, novel writing This little 35-page compilation of past posts was created for two reasons. The first is because new writers often  don’t know how easy it is to include thematic, foreshadowing, contextual, plot, and character clues beyond the superficial or obvious. This is a bit of a how-to guide.

The second is because I wanted my students to have easy access to all the information imparted during ( too many ) lectures when we  learn how to analyze texts.

Download and use the PDF to:

  • understand literature
  •  add depth and complexity to your novel
  • Or, if you’re a hater of literature, to mock the art of explicate de texte studied by literature majors everywhere.

Literary Symbols & ContextCLICK BELOW FOR PDF

Little Book of Symbols & Context




Where Art Thou?

settingSetting is more than just location!

Usually when folks think of setting in the literary sense they think physical location. But setting is much more than that. Authors construct setting like they do characters and plot.

Setting is a powerful element for establishing themes and often  reflect the author’s own background, biases, and perspectives.

Setting can influence, shape, and emphasize a character’s actions and ideas. Setting can drive plot, create mood, or assume the role of antagonist..

Setting can reflect the following milieus:
  • political
  • time ( minutes, hours, days, years )
  • historical
  • financial
  • socio-economic
  • cultural
  • religious
  • dystopian/utopian
  • magical
  • mythical
  • surreal
  • constructed/ alternate /parallel/imaginary
  • dream ( think Inception )
  • virtual ( think Tron )
  • psychological
  • attitudinal
  • industrial
  • seasonal
Setting can also refer to:

How are you using setting?

 Related links: Rock Your Writing

Garden of Symbolism

field of flowersNature is a symbolic powerhouse that can add depth and complexity to a novel. ( See the Symbolism post for how and why you might want to include one or two.)


Plants and trees and all-things-nature may be used in a variety of literary ways! As:
  • a metaphor
  • a symbol
  • foreshadowing
  • an allusion
  • a plot device
  • characterization
  • the literary device favorite—irony

A Few Leafy Considerations

  • Flowering suggests a blossoming or awakening of a character’s personality, intellect, morals, understanding, love etc
  • Metaphoric or symbolic indicator of something—like an idea, problem, conflict, ideology, morality, opinion, attitude—that is dead or dying
  • May foreshadow a character’s or conflict’s demise
  • Characterize an aspect that is dead/destroyed within a character’s soul or heart
New Growth
  • Denotes new beginnings, fresh starts, renewal, hope unless
  • The growth is deleterious or harmful
  • May convey the root of a problems coming to the surface
  • Reveal the unearthing of a problem or situation
  • Characterize the importance of character’s culture
Yellowed or drying leaves
  • Indicates or foreshadows that a character or situation is dying
  • Suggests the approaching end of one’s life or goals or hope
  • A tricky or hurtful problem or situation
  • Characterize a person’s temperament
  • Foreshadow problems


  • Consider type—thorny, thick, invasive, wild, sculpted, overgrown—may indicate the type of problem/conflict OR
  • Reveal a character’s personality OR
  • Foreshadow any of the above
  • Hedges enclosing a space may reveal the boundaries of a character or situation
  • Does the character leap over them? Crash into them? Trip over them? Plant them? Tend them? Cut them down? Trample them?
  • May be a biblical allusion to the Garden of Eden
  • Consider what’s growing in the garden. Plants? Rock garden? Cactus? Full of statues? Fruit trees? Vegetables? Flowers? Herbs?
  • Symmetry suggests  beauty and a well-rounded intellect
  • Is it well -tended, wild, gone to seed, in ruin, meticulous?
  • Is it a secret garden?
  •  Gnarled limbs may reveal a complex problem
  • Hint at the strength or weakness of a character ( Does the trunk bend with the wind? Is it stunted? Does it overshadow other trees? )
  • Suggest the strength of a character’s heritage/culture
  • Is the tree symbolic? See Tree Symbolism.
  • Indicate soaring ambitions
  • Does the character climb or swings from its branches?
  • Do they denote character like the “Four Skinny Trees” chapter found in House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros?
  • Pastoral or idyllic atmosphere ( unless its full of zombies or raptors )
  • Wild beauty
  • Think Bronte!
  • Desolate and dreary but can be tragically romantic
  • Something to be crossed
  • A great place to ponder one’s life
  • Add fog for some Gothic-style brooding
  • Are invasive, taking over and often obscuring or smothering other plants. Does a character or culture or conflict encroach upon your character?
  • Are they poppies  ala The Wizard Of Oz?
  • Do they have thorns?
  • What’s the symbolism behind the species?
  • Are they wilted?
  • Are they common? Read the short story Chrysanthemums by John Steinbeck for a symbolism-packed flower
  •  Or exotic like the very symbolic and tattoo-favorite lotus flower?
  • Is it the red rose of love or is it the “Sick Rose” of William Blake’s evocative poem?
  • Does it grow with others? Or is it  a single triumphant daisy growing from a crack in the pavement?
  • Are the blooms wilted? Or have the buds been nipped off?
  •  Unwanted and ugly unless…
  • They are beautiful weeds, in which case they suggest the beauty in something unwanted and ugly
  • Are they a metaphor for a character’s persistent problems?
  • Are they a symbol for the character’s troubles in life?
  • Does the character try to get rid of them or let them take over?
Wide paths
  • The physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral choice is easy
  • It is a common or frequent choice
Narrow paths
  • The physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral choice is difficult
  • It is an uncommon or infrequent choice ( The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost )
Streams and ponds
  • Pastoral and charming…usually
  • Can symbolize the conflicts in a novel
  • They can be large or small, cold, frozen, fraught with danger, or harbor giant brontosaurus-type creatures
  • In the 1999 movie Lake Placid, the idyllic lake is anything but placid! Can you say irony?
  • How fast is the water moving?
  • Is it the complex symbol found in Huck Finn where the Mississippi divides the racist east from the wide open west AND where direction denotes bias AND is the only place where Jim and Huck are free from prejudiced eyes?
  • Is it “The Bitter River” of the poem by Langston Hughes?
  • Is it the river from Fahrenheit 451 where Montag jumps into to save his life and that symbolizes his intellectual rebirth?
A FEW ADDITIONS ( not nature but often found with nature)


  • Like all doors, arches, and entry ways, gates signify movement from one realm—physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral— to another.
  • Is the gate connected to a white picket fence ( a perfect American family )?
  • Is the gate wide ( easy ) or narrow ( difficult ) ?
  • Is the gate fancy or plain? Ancient or new?
  • Connectors of two different physical, spiritual, intellectual, psychological, moral, cultural worlds
  • Broken bridges therefore reveal the schism or rift between the two
  • Often haunted
  • Check out Ambrose Bierce’s short story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” for  sophisticated bridge symbolism
  • Is it a primitive rope bridge? The Golden Gate? Quaint covered wooden? Modern steel?
  • Often places of danger
  • What’s under the bridge? Troll? Water? Dry creek bed? Deep ravine?
  • How far down is the drop from the bridge? ( the farther the fall the more dangerous )

See how much FUN you can have with the natural world?

Related links: Symbols & more symbols; Rock Your Writing

Character Morality

KohlbergWriters love creating characters. Personality. Physical Appearance. Dress. Mannerisms. Dialog: It’s what we do!  It’s how authors bring characters to life.

But did you stop to think about your characters’ morality, or more specifically, what level of morality they have achieved? Creating a character with moral issues, flaws, or strengths can add depth and understanding, often justifying and explaining why the character did what they did.

Let’s look at Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral development:

Pre-Conventional Morality

Stage 1: Obedience & Punishment Orientation:  Age: 9 & under. Standard of behavior is determined by adults and the physical consequences of following and breaking the rules. Child avoids punishment by good behavior. Child believes that if a person is punished they must have done something bad.

Stage 2. Individualism and Exchange. Child realizes authorities ( parent, teachers etc) may have more than just one right view and that different individuals will have different viewpoints.

Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Good Interpersonal RelationshipsAge: Most adolescents & adults. Moral standards are internalized by those authority figures the individual deems right/moral. These authority figures are not questioned. Any and all reasoning conforms to the group’s perspective. The individual is good because they want others in the group to view them as good. They need the approval of their group.

Stage 4. Maintaining the Social Order. The rules of society are important to the individual. Rules are obeyed to maintain law/rules and to avoid guilt.

Post-Conventional Morality: 
Individual judgment is based on self-chosen principles, and moral reasoning is based on individual rights and justice. This occurs in only 10–15% of adults and not before the mid-30s.


Stage 5. Social Contract and Individual Rights. ONLY 10-15% OF ADULTS REACH THIS STAGE and rarely before their mid-30s. The individual idealizes that while laws/rules serve the good of the majority, the laws/rules can also work against specialized groups/minorities. Thus, Right and Wrong are not clear cut.

Stage 6: Universal Principles: Individual understands that justice, equality, and human right issues are not law/rule governed. These individuals will break rules/laws to defend the greater moral principles even if if it means imprisonment or society’s disapproval. Very few reach this stage.

6 ethical typesNow let’s look at 6 ethical types. This is courtesy of The UK Times.

Philosophers are good at solving tough ethical dilemmas. They will break the rule/laws if a higher principle is at stake.

Angels  believe being good to others is important. They give people the benefit of the doubt and give second chances rather than stand on principle. 

Enforcers enforce the rules. They often lack empathy

Judgers believe moral principles are important. They’re good at solving tricky moral principles, yet tend to lack empathy.

Teachers do the right thing for humanity because it’s the right thing to do. They may break the rules if they think they know what’s best.

Guardians believe in doing what they are told to do because it’s the best course of action for everyone. Greater moral ideals are rarely considered.

Does your story require delving deeper into your character’s morality?
  • What is your character’s ethical type?
  • Where do they fall on Kohlberg’s moral development scale?
  • Are your characters acting inconsistently with their type or moral level?
  • What self-revelation causes them to change?
  • Is the change good or bad?
  • Do you need to flesh out a character’s morality?
  • Will you be able to convince a reader of their epiphany?

Related links: Readin’ & Writin’

Hot and Cold

hot coldTemperature symbolism is hot-hot-hot. Turn it up for burning anger or passion that sizzles. Turn it down to reveal character and mood. But be careful, the heated adjectives can be ambiguous in the cold reality of writing.

Temperature can:
  • reveal a novel’s overall mood
  • be a plot device
  • reveal a character’s personality
  • reveal a character’s mood
  • be thematic
  • The Great Gatsby is loaded with heat! Tom is a hot-head. Gatsby is hot for Daisy. Tom is hot ( lusting ) for Myrtle and hot ( with anger) when he discovers Daisy’s infidelity. Myrtle is hot to be wealthy. Gatsby made all his money on hot goods. Myrtle’s husband is hot to murder his wife’s killer. The rising temperature mirrors the rising anger/lust of the characters.
Hot—and all it’s scorching synonyms—can refer to:
  • lust: He got hot just lookin’ at her.
  • personality: He’s a hot head. ( aka rage-aholic)
  • anger: Tom grew hot when he learned Daisy cheated on him with Gatsby.
  • popularity: Every author dreams of being the next hot new author.
  • enthusiasm: He was hot for the next new novel by his favorite author.
  • physical appearance: Damn, his chiseled body is hot.
  • actual temperature: There are many descriptive words for hot, be sure to choose the one that reveals just how hot.
  • Heated words can refer to: lust, love, anger, embarrassment, guilt, shame

A few synonyms for hot! Warm, summery, tropical, broiling, boiling,searing, blistering, sweltering, torrid, sultry, humid, muggy, roasting, baking, scorching, scalding, searing, heated, red-hot, steamy

  • personality: The boss in The Devil Wears Prada was cold-hearted.
  • lack of emotion: His response to my question was cold.
  • remoteness: The detectives knew their leads were cold but they looked for clues anyway.
  • probability: It will be a cold day in hell when I forgive you.
  • austerity: Some folks think that modern furniture is cold-looking.
  • actual temperature
  • Chilly words can refer to anger, indifference, death, reality, conviction, cruelty

A few synonyms for cold! chilly, chill, cool, freezing, icy, nippy, wintry, frosty, frigid, bitter, biting raw, bone-chilling, arctic, frozen ,numb, shivery

So whether you’re writing His arctic glare sent chills down my spine or Her smoldering gaze lit my desires on fire

have fun lowering or raising the temperature in your novel.

 Related Posts: Symbols & More Symbols; Rock Your Writing

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CharacterizationCharacterization 101: Writers have quite an arsenal of ways for conveying a character’s personality. Whether overt or subtle, the savvy reader knows that characters are brought to life only if the writer has effectively done their job.

So how does a writer portray personality?

Fictional names act subliminally on readers. Is the name:
  • symbolic?
  • metaphoric?
  • ironic?
  • androgynous? Why does an author assign a name like Lee, Pat, Kelly, or Chris ?
  • cliché or stereotype?
  • See character names for examples and an in-depth explanation.
Physical descriptions may convey personality as well.
  • Exposition style biographical summaries—aka “telling”— are found in older fiction.
  • Body type, hair, and eye color can be conveyed gradually by “telling” or with action and/or dialog. “I’m not fooled by her baby blues.”
  • Modern authors use synecdoche— one part standing in for the whole. For example nails that are chewed may indicate a nervous personality
  • Clothes are often indicators of character, class, & lifestyle. Your character’s driving a dented, rusty economy car while dressed in knock-off Christian Louboutins and holding a fake Louis Vuitton handbag may indicate a female with high aspirations and/or a  concern with appearances. Flashy jewels and clothes usually indicate an attention-seeking personality.
  • See character descriptions for more.
A character’s dialog conveys personality. It often reveals:
  • level of education
  • ethnicity
  • geographic location
  • predominant attitudes
  • maturity level
  • biases and/pr prejudices
  • relationship status
  • respect or disrespect for other characters
  • their need for understanding. For example, are they overly wordy or pithy?
  • cognitive level. Do they ask a lot of open-ended questions?
  • What, why, and how the other character’s respond ( or not) is also relevant.
  • Let’s not forget internal dialog–-those thoughts not spoken but which are frequent in a 1st person or limited 3rd person point of view
Actions often speak louder than words. The saying “it’s not what you say but what you do” is just as important in literature. Actions reveal:
  • feelings
  • intentions
  • gut reactions
  • or they may also disguise feelings and intentions

Writers may enlist all these character builders or employ only one or two. For example, Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird never speaks and his physical description is given at the end of the novel, and yet Boo is made real from other’s dialog and his heroic actions.

Have fun creating your characters!

Related links: Readin’ & Writin‘, Rock Your Writing


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Biblical Allusions

biblical allusionjpgIn the western world, Christianity and the Bible are engrafted in our collective conscience. Most people—even non believers—know a bible story or two, which is why writers add depth and complexity with its timeless themes, stories, and iconic names.

The above photo is from the movie 300. At the end—warning: plot spoiler, King Leonidas dies and final scene shows his body position at his time of death, which really resembles that of a crucifixion. Was the screenwriter saying that Leonidas was Jesus? My guess is NO, but the position of his body does suggest that Leonidas sacrificed himself for his people. A second example is from Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. The old man carries his boat over his shoulder ( like a cross) uphill ( Calvary) at the end of the novel. There are a thousands  and thousands of examples of biblical allusions from literature and film. The more you know your Bible the easier they will be to find.

What: The Bible’s timeless portrayals of betrayal, sin, falls from grace, loss of innocence, and redemption are brought to life within its pages.

Why:  Writers allude to the Bible for many reasons. It may be to:
1. explain a theme, problem,  experience, or event
2. reinforce a theme, problem, or experience, or event
3. add irony
4. satirize
5. condemn
6. foreshadow
7. characterize a person or place


How: Here’s just a tiny sampling of symbolic or metaphoric examples of common biblical allusions.
  • names of either places and/or people
  • garden ( Paradise )
  • 7 days
  • one brother killing another
  • tree of life/ tree of knowledge of good and evil
  • serpents
  • plagues
  • flood
  • parting of waters
  • loaves of bread
  • no room at the inn
  • crucifixion
  • 40 days
  • escape from slavery
  • wandering in a desert
  • milk and honey
  • being tempted by Satan
  • carpenter occupation
  • 12 friends
  • a cock crowing 3 times
  • flaming bushes
  • last suppers

Christianity doesn’t have an exclusive on religious allusion! Read novels and poems from other countries/cultures and expect allusions to Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism, etc and their corresponding holy scriptures. Of course, if the reader is unfamiliar with the religion they won’t be able to identify the religious allusion.

So before dismissing a character’s name or circumstance as coincidental, ask yourself why the author may have alluded to the Bible ( or other religious text). For example:
  • a character named Eve ( or a variant of ) may tempt a man and get kicked out of a metaphoric paradise
  • a man with 12 friends may be betrayed by one of them

What biblical allusion have you used, read, and/or seen?

Related links: Rock Your Writing, Symbols & More Symbols


Windows & doors & stairs, oh my!


Every man’s home is his castle! It’s also full of symbolism.

The roof over your head, the window you gaze through, the threshold you walk across— all these structural features can be used symbolically in literature.

  • let in the light of knowledge/understanding
  • allow the character to view the outside world–which may or may not be a good thing. In The House on Mango Street, poor immigrant wives sit by the window staring out into a world they are never able to participate in.
  • with dirty glass might indicate the observer’s foul view of the world.
  • with always-closed drapes might reveal a characters’ closed-mindedness or fear of the outside world.
  • are the eyes of the soul—traditionally speaking.
  • of stained glass—especially those with religious  iconography—shout RELIGION. The observer sees the world through the dogma of their religion.
doors: A symbolic powerhouse!
  • represent the divide between good and evil.
  • transition from one stage in life to another.
  • a divide between one world and another.
  • with a religious symbol or object portray reveal the occupant’s beliefs. For example a mezuzah—a scroll with Hebrew words to remind one of God’s presence and commandments–is specifically placed on the doorpost of Jewish homes.
  • with locks suggest secrets and forbidden places/worlds/experiences.
  • Note: to hear the knocking—especially if comes from a door knocker—is a sign that fate is headed one’s way. Should you hear, “…some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door. “’Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door—Only this and nothing more.”–you know something ‘Poe-etically–‘ creepy is about to happen. In Macbeth, the drunken porter—making the first knock-knock jokes—signals the fateful demise of the overly ambitious Macbeths. “Knock, Knock! Never at quiet. What are you? But this place is too cold for hell. I’ll devil-porter it no further.”
  • a divine or religious entrance into another state of being
  • rebirth
  • a metaphysical time-space threshold
  • strength
  • division or barrier
  • privacy
  • the earthy realm
  • being grounded in reality
  • the material of the floor may also be symbolic. Is its marble ( wealth ) or rustic wood ( humility ), or linoleum ( low income ). Does the floor’s pattern reveal something about the culture or social class of the characters?
  • sheltering
  • keeps evil out
  • the shape of the roof is suggestive, as well. Domed roofs are emblematic of heaven, low roofs suggest restriction or being hemmed in by dogmas, vaulting roofs might be metaphor for high-mindedness or lofty ideals.
  • a transitional location
  • the place of choice before deciding which symbolic door you will enter
stairs: I know, I know, you’re breaking out in Led Zeppelins Stairway to Heaven song
  • which one ascend lead to heaven or enlightenment
  • which one descends end in depravity, wickedness, evil or  madness
  • that are winding indicates mystery–one can’t see straight ahead
  • In Effi Briest the stairs in the young wife’s home are described as “crooked, rickety, and dark” which aptly describes her feelings, the house’s history, and her marriage.
  • the domain ( traditionally ) of women
  • maternal care taking, be it with food, spiritual, or motherly nourishment
  • most obvious place to use a knife—ahem
living room/drawing rooms:
  • place where proper social behavior was expected
  • location of one’s public persona
  • outward appearances
  • love
  • lust
  • one’s true self might be revealed here
  • the location synonymous with learning, knowledge, and education
  • a place where ancient wisdom or secrets are revealed
  • where memories remain tucked away
  • a place of half-remembered or forgotten truths
  • where relics of the family’s or ancestor’s past are hidden
  • your deepest darkest secrets
  • the underworld or lower realms
  • creepy or base desires

Have fun deciding which rooms to use in your novel!

Related Links:  Rock Your  WritingSymbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.

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Blood Writes

bloodBlood is a powerful and often confusing symbol. From the Divine to the violent, our fascination with blood infuses our collective consciousness. An entire book could be devoted to the symbolism of Blood— and perhaps already has.

The reason behind the power of blood is obvious.  Blood is LIFE— a physical indicator of our existence. And yet, behind this crimson liquid life force, man has imbued blood with great spiritual, divine, and emotional dominion.

Here’s a very small sampling of words that reveal our fascination with blood.
  • Bloodline: A line or sequence of ancestors. In some primitive Amazonian tribes, Shaman are forbidden to taint their bloodline, for to do so destroys and corrupts their mystical powers. Bloodlines produced royal dynasties, perpetuated genetic anomalies and disorders, or got your kinsmen slaughtered.
  • Bloodlust: Intense desire to see people killed.
  • Bloodbath: a fight that ends with death and dismemberment OR a struggle that ends with a group’s total destruction.
  • Blueblood: A member–usually by bloodline– who comes from old historic aristocracy.
  • Oxblood: A really weird name for a color, don’t you agree?
  • Cold-blooded: Adjective to describe actions done without emotion or concern for others’ emotions or consequences.
  • Hot-blooded: Adjective describing one whose actions are determined by intense emotions, be it good or bad.
  • And there’s blood feud, blood sport, blood and guts, bloodcurdling, blooded, bloodguilt, bloodred, bloodstain, bloodstone, bloodsucker, bloody shirt, bloody-minded, lifeblood, and Bloody Mary.

Blood is symbolic of both LIFE and DEATH.

  • determines destiny
  • atones for sins—the goblet from which apostles drank held the symbolic blood of Christ
  • appeases  gods/placates angry gods—human or animal was offered as a sacrifice or gift
  • saves—the Israelites marked their doors with blood from  a slaughtered lamb so that the Spirit of the Lord knew to pass over their homes while on the way to killing everyone with a first born
  • destroys
  • heals
  • is lustful passion
  • is rage
  • is violence
  • is an ingredient in witch brews
  • is Divine—Christ’s blood
  • marks one’s entry into adulthood—blood brother rites and/or a woman’s first menses
  • contaminates—some  early cultures believed women’s monthly blood made them unclean
  • drinking was one way to absorb the power of your enemies
  • letting—in all it’s ancient and modern forms—releases emotional trauma or pain
  • brings emotional trauma or pain
  • a favorite of Vampires everywhere
  • purifies and corrupts
  • saves and curses
  • doesn’t wash off—see Lady Macbeth for details
  • incriminates and exhonerates
 Embrace the powerful symbolism connected with blood.
Have a bloody good time writing your novel!


Related Links:  Rock Your  WritingSymbolism & more symbols;


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Symbolic Geometry

shapes1Circles and squares and triangles and stars, oh my! No, this is not a post about your sugariffic breakfast cereal but about the symbolic—often esoteric—power of shapes. Before man carved pictographs and told the Gods’ tales in cuneiform, the meanings of shapes denoted meanings and were imbued with mystical power.

The following is a blog-quick look at a few common shapes.

  • universal symbol of completeness and perfection
  • God
  • the sphere of Heaven
  • circle of life
  • movements of the stars and heavens
  • Hindus and Buddhists associate it with birth, death, and rebirth
  • Wheel of law in Buddhism
  • A round table ( early management style first practiced by the legendary King Arthur ) denotes equality—all stakeholders having an equal share in solving a problem
  • Dante saw Hell as a series of concentric circles
  • A ring denotes a pledge or promise
  • a sphere represents the spiritual aspect of Heaven/Universe, which is why domes top many religious buildings
  • spirals are symbolic of energy
  • spirals drawn in a woman’s womb indicate fertility
  • the helix is also a fertility symbol and the double helix has become the visual representation of DNA—guess those ancients were on to something
Triangles—associated with the number 3
  • beginning, middle, and end
  • trinities of gods
  • body, soul, and spirit
  • man, woman, and child
  • an upward-pointing equilateral triage represents the male organ
  • fire
  • a down-ward pointing triangle is the symbol for a woman or her womanly parts
  • water
  • the base of a pyramid represents the earth; the apex, heaven
  • a pausing or suspension—not necessarily associated with negative aspects
  • stability
  • lasting perfection
  • the four directions
  • In Islam it represents the heart’s susceptibility to the divine, angelic, human, and diabolic forces
  • square halos in Christian art indicates the person was alive when painted
  • a cube is symbolic of the material universe
  • wisdom, veracity, and moral fortitude
  • the cloistered courtyard of religious structures indicate endurance and security
  • wisdom
  • spiritual counsel or advice
  • light of wisdom shining in the dark ( sinful ) world
  • mythological figures or deities
  • the dead
  • the Star of Bethlehem symbolizes Christ’s birth
  • the 5-pointed pentagram  pointed upward represents a human ( the top point is the head, 2 arms on the side points, 2 legs of the downward facing point )
  • flip the pentagram around and it’s the sign of the Devil—the two upward pointing points becoming the  Devil’s horns
  • the 6-pointed hexagram—2 interlocking triangles— is symbolic of: 1) the conjoining of male and female; 2) the four elements; 3) Star of David; and 4) Judaism
  • the merkabah is an ancient geometry dating back 3 thousand years. Some believe the shape has Egyptian origins. The symbol is shrouded in mystery and attributed with supernatural ( even divine ) power that allows one to enter enlightenment, zen, achieve spiritual and/or physical ascension, or even experience cosmic transport!
  • the 7-pointed heptagram is: 1) a magic symbol for pagans; 2) symbolic of the 7 days of creation; and 3) the 7 steps of enlightenment for Buddhists
Crosses—I could do another blog about the many different types of crosses—and probably will
  • Christianity
  • the shape predates Christianity
  • sacred shape to Ancient Egyptians  and Aztecs
  • more to come on crosses
Mandala—not a shape per se but a pattern
  • search for inner peace or spiritual enlightenment
  • pathway to the Divine or God
  • a symbolic trap for malevolent spirits
  • used as a tool or focal point in meditation
  • universe

mandala1A giant thank you to Sue O’Kieffe for allowing me to post her mandalas. For more of her gorgeous Sacred Circles click HERE.


Have fun shaping up that novel!


Related Links:  Rock Your  WritingSymbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.




From Head to Toe

head to toeThe body is a temple. We’ve all heard the expression. And everybody knows a temple is place for worship, a place to access the Divine. Even Apostle Paul said, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

It should come as no surprise that our body parts hold ancient symbolic meanings. So before fixating on a character’s body part you might want to explore the symbolism associated with it— in case you want to give your story some symbolic ZING!

Heads up! It’s time for blog-quick look at body symbolism.

  • most important part because reason, wisdom, intellect, and spirituality reside within
  • equated with authority and power ( heads of state, heads of corporations)
  • bowed is a sign of respect
  • tilts, nods, or shakes are powerful communicators
  • many-headed gods depicted different aspects or personalities —Shiva, Hecate, Brahma, and Janus have multiple heads
  • divine power and virility
  • inner and physical toughness—when Delilah snipped Samson’s tresses she reduced his physical strength
  • cutting the hair was a sign of sacrifice or surrender. In modern times—if done by women–the act symbolizes rebellion or liberation from feminine gender roles/expectations
  • Mary Magdalene’s long flowing hair was a sign of immoral sexual behavior
  • equated with a seashell or a spiral
  • associated with birth—Karma was born from his mother’s ear.
  • long ears  are linked to wisdom in Buddhism
  • the Satyr’s large pointed ears reflect his sexual and sensual nature
  • all seeing. Eye of Providence. Right Eye of Horus. Left of Eye of Horus
  • perception and spiritual enlightenment
  • giving someone the Evil Eye brings misfortune to the recipient
  • windows to the soul
  • for an entire blog on eyes click here
  • knowing
  • intrusiveness or meddlesome behavior/personality
  • valued by early man as a way of finding food
  • a phallic symbol
  • a nose that grows in length indicate lies—courtesy of Pinocchio
  • a turned up nose displays contempt
  • deemed the creative force, but it’s our mouths which can get us in trouble
  • the Mouth of Hell devours the wicked
  • articulates our heart’s desires
  • just slap a big  X-rated sign on the lips
  • symbolic of speech
  • visible manifestation of the spoken word
  • teeth are symbolic of animistic strength and aggression
  • long teeth are a sign of ambition
  • Agrippina, Nero’s ambitious mother, had double canines
  • the tongue is either a destroyer or a creator
  • sticking one’s tongue out harkens back to times when that gesture warded off evil spirits
  • strength— think Atlas holding up the world
  • power
  • carrying responsibilities
  • harbinger of death
  • Bones symbolize  strength, stability, determination
  • Chakras, the body’s energy forces, are aligned with the spine
  • intestines are symbolic of long life and eternity
  • intestines were used for divination in early times
  • the spleen is where melancholy and laughter come from ( part of the ol’ 4 Humors of the Body theory)
  • the liver symbolized passion during ancient Rome times
  • balance and movement
  • good luck
  • arms are symbolic of strength, power, protection, and justice
  • command
  • protect
  • bless/bestow
  • pledge
  • symbolize power and strength
  • teach
  • heal
  • there’s the omnipotent Hand of God
  • Hamsa hand is a protective talisman used by Muslims and Jews to protect against the Evil Eye
  • As expressive communicators, we are familiar with the meanings of: palms out, finger pointing to heaven, handshakes, hand wringing, and hand washing (Pontius Pilate and Lady Macbeth)
  • hidden hands denote respect in Asian cultures, but mistrust in western
Gender-specific body parts ( this is a PG-rated blog ). Early man was obsessed with those particular parts—wait, we still are!
  • male: strength, power, and virility
  • female: regeneration, fertility, procreation, and the miracle of birth
  • mobility
  • rooted or in touch with self and nature
  • bare feet touching the ground is man’s link to the Divine Earth
  • the monk’s bare feet signify their vow of poverty
  • in Asian cultures, feet are considered unclean so its wrong to display soles to another
  • solid foundation
  • washing another’s feet is a symbol of hospitality and humility
  • the Buddha’s footprint found at Buddhist temples indicates the Buddha’s presence
As you can see, lots of body parts were left out! This is just the tip of the Body Iceberg! A quick Google search will reveal many more symbolic aspects.


Note: I teach literary analysis and remind my students to look closely at the symbolism in a novel. Why did the author include that fruit? Or name the character Neil? Why is the protagonist sitting under a pear tree? Why is her dress blue? Why did the character lose a limb? Before jumping to any symbolic conclusions however, we look at the symbol in context of setting, history, and culture.

Related Links:  Rock Your WritingSymbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.

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Color My World

color your worldFrom “Love is Blue”  crooned by Frank Sinatra
to “My World is Blue” by White Trash Clan
to “Yellow” sung by Coldplay
to “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree” performed by Tony Orlando
to “It’s Not Easy Being Green” croaked by Kermit the Frog

color is attached to a spectrum of emotions. Savvy writers know they can use color to symbolize, reveal, and add irony to their text. Color symbolism is fraught with ambiguity and duality, making it a vibrant way to add complexity.

Warm colors like yellow, red, and orange are considered stimulating.
The cool colors of blue, indigo, violet are soothing and peaceful.

Although cultural variations exist, color symbolism is universal.

Red: A dual-tinted mix.
  •  passion and lust
  • anger and aggression
  • war and revolution
  • fire and flame
  • All these emotions spur one to action.
  • The red planet Mars is named after the Roman god of war
  • Associated with the Root  Chakra located at the base of the spine ( our connection with earth )
Yellow: On the good side…
  • sun and gold ( metal )
  •  enlightenment and wisdom
  • flowers and warmth
  • On the bad side….
  • cowardliness
  • envy and treachery
  • Associated with the Solar Plexus Chakra
Orange: A mix of the first two.
  • luxury and splendor
  • a renunciation of earthly pleasures—think Buddhist monks garb.
  • Associated with the Sacral Chakra (the reproductive organs ).
  • In ancient Rome, a bride wore a saffron-colored wrap and an orange veil.
Blue has as many hues as meanings.
  • sky and infinity
  • the divine—the Egyptian god Amun and Hindu gods, Rama, Shive, and Krishna are blue
  • tranquility and reflection
  • intellect
  • depression
  • sexual proclivities—blue movies
  • socio-economic status—from blue-collar to blue blood
  •  In Egypt, blue was the color of truth.
  • The Virgin Mary’s blue robe signifies her purity.
  • Indigo is the color of the Brow, or Third Eye Chakra  of spiritual knowing and intuition.
  • spring  and new life
  • fertility and nature
  • youth and inexperience
  • hope and joy
  • envy and jealousy and decay
  • Recently connected with safeguarding our planet’s resources promoted by the Green Movement
  • Color associated with the Heart Chakra.
  • royalty and wealth
  • luxury
  • power—Roman senators were identified by the purple stripe on their togas
  • religion—Catholic clergy don purple vestments during Advent and Lent
  • associated with the bliss, oneness, serenity, and spiritual wisdom of the Crown Chakra
  • temperance—because it’s a mixture of red  ( action & hot ) and blue (calm & cool )
  •  femininity
  • baby girls
  •  gay pride
  • evil or darkness
  • despair and death and mourning
  • mortality
  • secrecy
  • ill-fortune
  • disease
Gray, in its many shades…
  • gloom
  • anonymity or inconspicuousness or namelessness
  • old age
  • uncertainty and unreliability and risk
  • purity and innocence—brides and those being baptized are clothed in white
  • goodness
  • holiness
  • In China, Japan and India, white is associated with death and mourning.
  •  surrender and peace

Have fun adding some color to your novel!

Related Links:  Rock Your WritingSymbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.

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Fun Literary Terms

lit termsWARNING: Not for the literary faint of heart!  Welcome all word nerds and novel geeks!

For the more mundane terms, take a blog-quick jaunt through A Few Literature Terms.

For die hard bibliophiles, bibliomaniacs, literati,or clerisy enjoy the brief tour through Literary Land.

Aesthetics: Philosophy of art, studying the nature of beauty in literature.

Allegory: Literature/poetry in which every character, setting, and event is a metaphor or represents something else.  Contains a moral, religious, political, social, or satirical message.
  • Ex: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Faerie Queene, Gulliver’s Travels
Anachronism: Object, custom, person, thing, or event that is totally out of its natural place in time.
  • Ex: Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court; A striking clock in Julius Caesar

Aphorism: Truism or maxim about some aspect of life or the human experience.

Apostrophe: Summoning or crying out for a person who is dead, absent, or imaginary.
  • Ex: “Oh, Muses three, come to me!”

Bowdlerize: Removing immoral, indecent or pornographic words or passages from a piece of writing. Censorship.

Cacophony: Harsh, grating loud sounds with the constants b, d, g, k, t. Used in poetry but also an  effective authorial technique in dialog or to describe a discordancy.

Computational stylistics:  Analysis of aspects of author’s style that are measurable. Prepositional phrases, multi-syllabic words, and syntax ( sentence length) can  be found in many editing computer programs.

Deux ex machina: Latin for “god from the machine.” American for “You gotta be kidding me!” You might remember this phrase from your high school days. It describes any contrived or artificial rescue or solution to get characters out of trouble or danger. Melodrama employs this…and many movies. A long lost spinster aunt saves the farm. A tree falls in front of a the bad guy as he chases the good guy. In the movie The Adjustment Bureau—plot spoiler—God (the Chairman) allows the couple to stay together.

Explication de texte: Detailed analysis and very close reading of a passage or text. A thorough examination of style, syntax, tone, symbolism, and diction is done to achieve a greater understanding and appreciation for the author’s work. And, by the way, it’s what I teach. Fun stuff!

Freytag’s pyramid: The structure of a 5-act tragedy.Freytags pyramid





Gestalt: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. For literature, that means the prose is best experienced and understood in its entirety.

Hamartia: Sorta-kinda like a tragic flaw but more encompassing. It can be poor judgement, bad luck, error, accident,or misinformation that cause a character’s downfall.

Hermeneutics: Interpreting sacred texts in a grammatical, ethical, allegorical, or mystical manner. The parts must be studied in concert with the whole, and the interpretation, as well as the interpreter, are also important considerations.

Jeremiad: Named for the biblical Jeremiah, it is the dire prophesy of destruction if <<insert evil group here>> continue their wicked ways.

Kunstlerroman: Like a bildungsroman, but instead of chronicling a youth’s growing to maturity, the novel focuses on showing an artist’s development.
  • Ex: Margaret Atwood’s  Cat’s Eye
Litotes: Saying the opposite or using an ironic understatement to give impact to one’s statement.
  • Ex: Saying ‘He’s no dummy’ instead of “he is intelligent.’
Malapropism: A character who substitutes a word ( perhaps unintentionally) for a very similar sounding world. This is done for comedic impact,and a device often employed by Shakespeare.
  • Real life example: A student said he was going to defile me. He meant to say defy. We all had a good laugh and it was a teachable moment.
  • Example from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” & spoken by Bottom. ‘I will aggravate my voice so’—he probably means moderate; ‘…there we may rehearse most obscenely‘—he means obscurely;  and ‘Thisby, the flowers of odious savours sweet’—he means odorous.

Nom de plume: Using a pen name, but the French version sounds ever so much more sophisticated Oui? Some authors use different names when they write other genres or to conceal their gender or identity. Or perhaps to appear more mainstream.

Pathetic fallacy: Giving human emotions to something in nature. John Ruskin didn’t like the term personification.

Peripeteia/ peripety:  The sudden change in fortune of the protagonist. Aka, the reversal. See Freytag’s pyramid.

Roman a clef: French for ‘novel with a key.’ Real people are disguised in novels with fictitious names.
  • Ex: All The Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren; Point Counter Point by Aldous Huxley
Verisimilitude: Appearance of truth. The most famous might be H.G. Well’s War of the Worlds.
  • Ex: Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year

I advise NOT using these terms in normal conversation as they tend to give one an air of snobbery.

Related Links:  Rock Your WritingSymbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.

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Household Symbolism

homegoodsA man’s home is his/her castle. It’s also chock full of symbolic furnishings and doodads. Give your story some symbolic zing by being familiar with a few of the household symbolic heavyweights.

Books: Wisdom and learning.
  • Is the book old or new?
  • Are pages torn out (think Dead Poet’s Society) or bent?
  • ls print large or small? Do the book need a translation?
  • Does book contain esoteric or forbidden or dangerous information? ( Remember  the movie The Mummy when the Egyptologist yells,”You must not read from the book!” )
Bowls: The feminine—it’s a womb thing. Prosperity.
  • Is bowl full or empty?
  • What are the contents?
  • What material is it made from?
Box: The unconscious mind—think Pandora. Containment of emotions. Limitations. Close-mindedness.
  • Is the box open or closed? Locked?
  • What is box made of?
  • Where is box kept?
  • Who opens box?
  • Who locks box?
Broom: Spiritual cleaning. Ridding home of evil. Protection against curses. Witch transportation.
  • Who is doing the sweeping?
  • What problem is swept away?
  • Is broom constructed from a specific ( and therefore symbolic) wood?
Fan: Femininity. Social class. Dispels evil spirits. Releases soul into immortal realm (Taosim).
  • Who is holding fan?
  • How is it used— to cool, hide, flirt, conceal?
Hearth: Home. Family. Emotional warmth. Females. Maternal nurturing.
  • Is fire smoldering, blazing, or cold?
  • Who is tending the fire?
  • Who is beneficiary of the warmth?
  • What is burning? ( a romantic  or incriminating letter, a body, evidence?)
  • How big is the fireplace?
  • Is hearth ornate or simple? Luxurious, pretentious, or utilitarian?
Key: Access to wisdom. Freedom. Success. Secrets. 2 crossed keys are a Christian emblem of the Gates of Heaven.
  • What is key made of?
  • Who is using key?
  • Why is door locked?
  • Does key work in the door?
  • Who and why does someone steal the key?
Knife: Death. Sacrifice. Cutting away emotions/ideals/prejudices/etc.
  • Who is wielding blade?
  • What is being cut?
  • Is blade dull or sharp?
Loom: Mother Goddess. Luna goddess. Feminine power.
  • Who is looming?
  • What pattern is created? What colors woven?
  • What material is used?
Mirror: A zillion meanings—well, almost. Vanity. Truth. Clarity.  Distortion. Reflection of soul. Inner calm (Taoists). Transitory nature of reality (Hinduism).
  • Who or what is reflected?
  • What is NOT reflected?
  • How is mirror framed?
  • Does the mirror break? And if so, what really broke?
Pen & Ink: Learning. Creativity. Destiny.
  • What is written?
  • Who is the  writer?
  • Does writer make mistakes or blot paper?
  • Is script illegible, elegant, precise?
  • What surface is written on?
Purse: Wealth. Vanity. Prosperity. St. Matthew—once a tax collector. Judas Iscariot—betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver.
  • Is purse full or empty?
  • What material is purse? Remember you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
Screen: Mystery. Concealment.
  • Who is behind the screen? Is it titillating or frightening?
  • Who is looking at the person /thing behind the screen?
  • What material is screen made of?
Table: The Last Supper. Equality—of round. A coming together. Circle of Life. The Divine.
  • What shape is table?
  • What material is it made from?
  • Who sits at the head of the table?
  • Who arrives and who leaves?
  • Is something spilled upon the table?
Thread: One’s lifetime as determined by the gods.
  • Who cuts  thread?
  • What material is thread?
  • What is thread stitching together?
  • Did thread become loose?
Timepiece: Mortality.
  • Does clock run fast, slow, or exact?
  • Does someone stop time?
  • Is time more important for one character than another?

Have fun with symbolism!


Making Eyes

making eyesEyes are powerful symbols.

The mere glance glimmer gawk gaze ogle glare bore focus beam sparkle peek peer look goggle gape leer ( did I miss any?) reveals a character’s emotions.

No wonder the eyes are the windows of the soul. But there’s more to eyes than…well, meets the eye!

Eyes are powerful symbols whose meanings have ancient beginnings.

  • The Right  of Horus– or God of Ra, is the sign Wadjet, the sky god who is depicted as a falcon ( and that’s why the eye is falcon-ish in appearance) and associated with the sun, protection, royal power, and health.
  • The Left of of Horus  represents the moon. Shown together, they represent the entire universe.
  • The Third Eye or ajna (connected to the brow chakra) is associated with spiritual sight, enlightenment, or a heightened state of awareness/consciousness. It’s the eye used by clairvoyants, mediums, psychics, and seers.
  • The Eye of Providence or all-seeing eye of God, is often depicted enclosed by a triangle (the trinity) with emanating rays of light signifying God’s omnipresence and omnipotence.
  • The Evil Eye describes someone looking at you with an evil intent such as hatred, wicked envy, or malevolence. This look it is so fraught with negative energy it’s dubbed the Evil Eye. The greatest injury is to those who do not know the Evil Eye was aimed at them–thereby allowing negative energy to permeate their bodies and souls. To counter this, people wore amulets to deflect these cursed stares. See Lucky Charms.
Eyes are symbolic of:
  • enlightenment
  • knowledge
  • wisdom
  • discernment
  • spirituality
Greek Myths:
  • Cyclopes had one eye, which suggests they did not have the wisdom or self-awareness of the humans they enjoyed terrorizing.
  • The Eye on a Peacock‘s feathers indicate mankind’s penchant for being overly concerned with appearances and the external world.Goddess Hera tossed the giant Argos’ 100 eyes (he only closed a few at a time when sleeping) onto the bird’s feathers.
Does the color of a character’s eyes matter?
  • Brown eyes are opaque and seen as less emotional and more ordinary.
  • Black eyes are deemed evil or cold-hearted OR, conversely, their emotions are of a fathomless depth.
  • Blue eyes are associated with emotional and/or ethereal qualities, perhaps they appear more transparent, and thus believe we can see into their soul. Blue eyes are associated with the water and sky, two divine and mysterious elements. It’s also easier for others to see pupil dilation in a blue-eyed person–which we know indicates emotion.
  • Green eyes are deemed mysterious, exotic, magical, and are often equated with witches and sorcery.
Eyes—no matter what color—can be described as:
  • cold = unemotional
  • hard = uncaring
  • warm = kind
  • soft = loving and affectionate
  • watery/cloudy = stricken with overwhelming emotion
  • deep = harboring secrets or unexpressed emotion
  • sparkling = excited, anticipatory, happy, and/or smitten
  • dilated = indicating sexual arousal or drug use
  • glowing = creepy, netherworld, evil, OR divine and celestial
  • bright = keen, intelligent, curious
  • sharp =accusatory, wary
  • wide = wonder, amazement, incredulity
  • blank = devoid of emotion, socio-pathic, zombie-like

A word about blindness: In literature, blindness is equated with wisdom. Prophets (Tiresias) in Greek plays are blind. They see with their hearts the truth in an event, character, or circumstance. Visual seeing is NOT believing. When Oedipus blinds himself after discovering he fulfilled the prophesy he tried avoiding, the reader understands the symbolic nature of his act. A more current example is Neo in The Matrix. In the final movie, he no longer needs to see, his inner sight/intuition/conscious the only sense he needs to “see” the truth. Another fun movie that “focuses” on eyes and is rife with eye symbolism is Equilibrium.

Have fun seeing your characters with new eyes!

Related Links:  Rock Your Writing; Symbolism & more symbols;
Click  Amazon link for novels.

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