Tag Archives: writing with purpose

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




Dog Days of Writing

bradley at computerHas your writing gone to the dogs? Are you in need of some insPAWration?

There are days whendoggone it—writers feel like they’re workin’ like a dog with nothing to show for it.




  • Is your manuscript on a genre leash?
  • Are you chewing on the bones of a plot devoid of meat?
  • Does the manuscript need to be groomed and the adverbs trimmed?
  • Does the diction needs a good brushing with tone?
  • Does the manuscript need a dose of Frontline weak verb repellent?
  • Are you trying to breath life into an old dog manuscript instead of romping away with a new one?
  • Dog-tired with editing?
  • Growling at a plot snafu?

bradley readingBEST IN SHOW

  • Feeling like you have a dog’s chance of getting an agent?
  • Not getting any ” hot diggity dog” replies after sending all those queries?
  • Feel like you’re barking at the moon when you send those queries?
  • Are you showing a dogged determination to have your query and ms be the pick of the slush litter?
  • Are you barking up the wrong agent tree?
  • Are you sniffing around for the best way to build your author platform?


  • Do you have a bone of contention with someone in your critique group?
  • Are you still licking your wounds over a beta reader’s comments?
  • Did you join a writing group expecting belly rubs and “atta boys” only to play fetch with another pup’s manuscript?
  • Feeling a breed apart from all the authors and wanna-be’s?


  • Suspicious of writers making up shaggy dog stories about their successes?
  • Feeling meaner than a junk yard dog after being bitten by a troller?
  • Are you inadvertently biting the hand that feeds you with posts and tweets that insult your readers ( or potential readers) ?
  • Is your tail between your legs after a social media gaffe?
  • Are you guilty of begging for Facebook likes and Twitter retweets?

Howl if you must, but it’s time to put on the dog, play “Who Let the Dogs Out” and let loose the dogs of writing!

A bark of thanks goes to my daughter for sending photos of her very cooperative poodle!

Related Links: Readin’ & Writin’ and Rock Your Writing

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POV1Point of View!

It’s an important decision for a writer because it impacts EVERYTHING  an author writes.
Quick true story: At a writers conference, a man told me about the murder/mystery he was writing.
“What’s the POV ?” I asked, pretending to be interested.
“I’m not sure.” He shrugged his shoulders.
“How can you not know? Whose head are you in? Do you use ‘he said, she said’ or ‘I said’?”
“I’m not sure. Does it really matter?”
“You’re joking, right?” I tried not to look appalled.
“Well, I don’t get hung up on all that stuff…I just write a good story.”


There’s lots of great books with comprehensive information about  POV ( I like The Art of Fiction by David Lodge).

A blog-quick recap of point-of-view:

1st person POV= “I”
  • the narrator is a character and uses “I” throughout the story
  • the reader doesn’t know any more than the character/narrator does
  • the reader is only in the narrator’s head
Writing issues include:
  • offering only a limited perspective to the reader. Is there a reason why you are telling the story through the eye of the protagonist/antagonist?
  • making certain narrator/character’s voice is authentic and believable. >>>Example: A highly educated character/narrator will use different words and syntax than a young child<<< AND their views and understanding of the world are very different.
  • finding ways to add “off screen” action or dialog that does not include the character/narrator.This can be achieved through another character’s telling of events or using font changes or chapters to indicate POV changes or multiple 1st person POVs.
  • accidentally assigning thoughts to another character that the character/narrator would not know. Unless, like Sookie Stackhouse, the character/narrator reads minds.
  • writing events/perceptions the narrator/character would NEVER know given their very limited perspective. <<Example: While showering, I heard the key in the front door downstairs rattle.>>Really? You heard that in the shower? I can’t tell you how many times I read impossible sensory perceptions by new writers. Remember, unless your character has eyes in the back of their head, you cannot write “the killer snuck up behind me and lifted his hand over my head.”
  • making sure thoughts of other characters are evident through action and/or dialog <<< Example: Mom was angry   vs   Mom burst into my room, then slammed the door behind her  OR Mom looked angry.>>>
3rd POV= “he” “she”
Most novels these days are written in limited POV
Writing issues include:
  • choosing how limited or omniscient the 3rd person POV will be. There’s a broad spectrum, from very limited (thoughts inferred by actions and/or dialog only) to completely omniscient ( mind reading narrator)
  • how many heads do you want your reader to be in?
  • more importantly, why do you need to be in a particular character’s head? Does it add to theme or plot? What purpose do multiple perspectives serve?
  • An advantage of omniscient POV is the reader gets to see into many characters’ heads. This adds depth and complexity to thematic issues or plot. It is also a way for  writers to manipulate/trick readers.)
  • One disadvantage of being in multiple heads is that it gives the story a more contrived feel.
  • A second disadvantage is that inexperienced writers do a lot of head-jumping for no specific story purpose, thus accidentally confusing a reader.

Mixing it up:

Multiple points of view are just that!
  • multiple first persons ( Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants)
  • Ist person and 3rd person ( anywhere on the limited/omniscient spectrum)
Multiple POVs issues:
  • is there a purpose?
  • can you execute that purpose? Read Kafka on the Shore for a mind bending look at multiple POV in action.
  • how does it reveal theme or drive the story?

Have fun reading your characters’ minds!

Related Links:  Rock Your Writing; Click HERE for Amazon link.

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Dining & Feasting

mealsIt was the best of times. It was the worst of times! Oh, the drama of the family meal! People eating and drinking together is tasty with yummy symbolism.

Why is that, you ask? In ancient times, sharing one’s meal symbolized hospitality and goodwill. Certain foods, drink, or days were associated with religious and social rituals.

If one was breaking bread with someone, it indicated friendship, truce, partnership, or an alliance. The human race hasn’t changed all that much—we still enjoy eating with those we like–and eschew eating with those we don’t.

Eating and/or fasting rituals are found in most religions. And I can’t think of a holiday that doesn’t center around or end in eating! Eating together & sharing food is an act of communion/agreement/fellowship/harmony.

I’m sure you can picture a few eating scenes in movies! (My favorite is the scene in Flashdance where the rich guy watches his date eat a lobster in a most provocative manner!)

Shared meals can:
  • be a plot device
  • reveal character
  • reveal the relationships between characters
  • be thematic
  • be an allusion to other famous religious meals or foods ( the Last Supper, maror & matzo of Passover)
  • be an allusion to famous literary meals (Tom Jones, Like Water for Chocolate, Good Earth,  Oliver Twist)

Writing a meal scene is challenging, but can reveal much about the plot, character, relationships, family dynamics, setting, or culture of the novel.

A few symbolism-weighty factors to consider:

  • Who is sharing the meal? Enemies? Lovers? Family? Strangers?
  • What foods are they eating? Is the food and drink symbolic of religion or social class, OR  is the food itself fraught with symbolism. See the posts Fruit of the GodsSacred Spices, and Foods of Life for information regarding the symbolism of some common foods. In the Merkabah Series, there are several eating scenes–each revealing something about the characters and their relationships. One character orders a flambeed dish. Yep! You bet it’s symbolic.
  • Why is this particular meal described? Why is it significant to the plot/character?
  • How does the meal end?  Did someone choke? ( plot device or sign of character “choking” on their own words or that of another’s).
  • Did someone stalk off—an indication the communing/fellowship/agreement went wrong. Remember the scene in Great Gatsby when Tom jumps up from the table to take a phone call from his girlfriend?
  • How is the character eating? Are they nibbling ( dainty ), gobbling ( glutton ), selective ( picky ). Sloppy or neat or overly fastidious? Did a character stop eating mid meal–and why? Is a woman enjoying her meal with great delight indicative of her sexual appetite? (Is she smacking her lips, making mmmm & aaahh & oohh noises?)
  • How does the character feel about the meal? Do they hate the food (closed-minded?) Trying new food (open-minded?)
  • Does a character take food from another’s plate? Do they refuse to share?
  • Does a character become sick? (is it a plot device OR is a character “sick of” or “sickened by” a character, conversation, or turn of events at the table?)
  • Is a character eating with his favorite 12 friends?( allusion to Last Supper)
  • Do the characters share a utensil, straw, or drink ( either accidentally or with purpose).
  • Does one character feed another? This may be erotic, suggestive, a prelude to sex, or reveal who is the boss in the relationship
  • What’s happening under the table? Hand-holding, clenched fists?
  • Is a character refusing to eat? In effect saying, I’m here with you, but I don’t like/approve of you.

An eating scene is full of chewy symbolic deliciousness.

Have fun feeding your characters!

Related Links:  Rock Your Writing;

Getting Wet

WATER is symbolic! You know that!

We use water to bless, baptize, cleanse, and purify.

Authors use a dunk under water to indicate a character’s spiritual change or spiritual rebirth!

A character might:

  • dance in the rain, indicating joy at their new lease on life.
  • jump in a lake/pond/river/ocean/pool of their own accord, signifying a determined effort to change.
  • be pushed or dragged into a lake/pond/river/ocean/pool, which may indicate their unwillingness to change OR they emerge as BAD/EVIL–think the Joker in Batman who falls into the vat of acid.
  • accidentally slip or trip into the water signifying a less purposeful change

Once immersed in water, the character can:

  • grab some driftwood and float merrily along with the current. This might signify the character’s understanding and acceptance of his rebirth. In Fahrenheit 451, Montag jumps into a river to escape death, grabs some driftwood and floats toward a new life–I think there’s about 3-pgs of his thoughts while floating.
  • almost drown.This might be the big slap-in-the-face-scene. It might serve as the character’s revelation; reveal guilt or failure; be thematic; or act as a plot device. In I Robot, the main character realizes the inhumanity of technology when the robot calculates the odds and saves him instead of the little girl. His a-ha moment.
  • drown. Once again this might be a plot device, or a poignant too-late revelation for a character.

Other symbolic factors to consider:

  • Is the water polluted?
  • Does the character float on his back and gaze at the sky (symbolic of divinity or limitless possibilities)
  • Does character struggle or get tangled in seaweed?
  • is the character dragged down by their possessions?
  • Is the water warm or cold or arctic?
  • Does someone SAVE the character?
  • Does character refuse to be saved?
  • Does the character save himself?
  • What is the body of water? The Ganges river or Red Sea might have a different meaning than a scummy pond or chlorinated swimming pool.
If character is baptized/reborn by rain, is it :
  • a summer shower
  • a hail storm
  • a drizzle
  • a torrential downfall
  • a storm complete with divine thunder and lightning
  • of flood-like epic proportions ( symbolic slap in the face and allusion to the Bible)

Remember IRONY blows this all “out of the water!”

Have fun soaking your characters!

 Related Links:  Rock Your Writing;Click HERE for Amazon link.

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Location location location

Rock Your Writing“Ain’t no river wide enough…ain’t no mountain high enough…to keep you away from me, babe.”

We know it’s not a real river or mountain but a symbolic obstacle to overcome.

Geography is more than just the setting of your novel!

It can express theme.
It can be a plot device!
And it may indicate or foreshadow a character’s:
  • moral growth or decay
  • emotion
  • problems or dilemmas

Geography can also serve as an indicator of morality, emotion, intellect, or spirituality.

Here’s a few examples of geography’s symbolism:

  • Mountains and higher elevations indicate moral righteousness or spiritual  awareness–it’s the whole closer to God thing. There’s a reason why the guru in every joke sits atop a mountain. In Frankenstein, the monster leads his creator across the tallest mountains and glaciers in Europe. This is ironic, since both monster and creator are immoral, indignant, murderous, insane, arrogant, and angry. Although the Dr. played god when he created the monster, neither character is high-minded nor virtuous enough to do the right thing. It’s an ironic and symbolic double whammy!
  • Steep ground suggests trials and tribulations to surmount. Think The Sound of Music song “Climb every mountain…”
  • Flat land may reveal the “flatness” or dullness of a character’s life.
  • Swamps imply low morals, poverty, lack of faith, a dirty or degraded sense of self, a connection to the primordial ooze of the earth so to speak.  WAIT! I know exactly what you’re thinking! “In Star Wars, Luke finds Yoda living in a swamp! Yoda is a master Jedi who did NOT go to the Dark Side. What’s he doing living in a swamp?” Well…it could be Lucas throwing some irony into the mix OR  be plot device AND/OR  might represent the now disrespected, disregarded state of the  Force.
  • Forests are dark and fraught with danger, implying emotional/spiritual/moral ignorance or heading into a place of emotional/spiritual/moral danger. In Effi Briest the two lovers take the low road into the dark forest only moments before the married protagonist decides to have an affair. (It’s like being hit in the head with a symbolic 2 by 4)
  • Gardens with flowers symbolize beauty, a desire for beauty, sex ( bees “pollinating” flowers), and if it’s a rose garden–well, roses have thorns–so a character is going to get hurt.
  • Vegetable gardens suggest practicality, abundance, frugality, and health, but not necessarily fertility.
  • Orchards–depending on the fruit or nut–is associated with  fertility, abundance, and prosperity.
  • Deserts hint at a character’s hopes and dreams drying up OR they have become an emotional/spiritual/moral wasteland.
  • Jungles are dangerous and contain scantily-clad heathens. Expect some loosening of morals OR spiritual soul searching OR primitive behavior.
  • Caves, as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave suggests, is all about shadows vs reality and  philosophical enlightenment ( yeah, I know, a total over-simplification)
  • Cliffs. Remember the Cliffs of Insanity in Princess Bride? Precipices shout DANGER! A character OR sentiment OR perception OR judgement OR insight OR  Truth is going over the edge–dashed to bits by the rocks below. If you have a cliff in your novel–put it to symbolic use.
  • A setting in the city may indicate the story’s fast-paced cosmopolitan complex plot OR the character’s urban lifestyle OR serve as a sharp contrast to either.
  • Small town or rural settings tell a reader the plot will be charming, cozy OR small town creepy OR serve as irony.

Don’t forget IRONY trumps any of this!

So take some advice from realtors—it’s all about location, location, location!

Related Links:  Rock Your Writing; Click HERE for Amazon link.

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Character Illness

diseaseHave you created a character who  sickens and/or dies?

Or maybe a character—for plot’s sake—just has TO GO!

Make it awesome by having their illness be SYMBOLIC or IRONIC or DIVINE .

Writers often use illness to reveal a character’s:
  • flaws or weaknesses
  • last thoughts
  • emotional/psychological/spiritual growth


  • A weak heart or heart attack  might be a metaphor for their heartlessness, or an indication they have too much heart/compassion, or a sign of a broken heart (tragic love).
  • Cancer may be symbolic of their evil nature or reveal the emotional damage inflicted by others. Brain cancer might be a metaphor for a character who thinks too much or not enough! Where the cancer originates could say a lot about your character’s proclivities, flaws, or strengths.
  • Malaria ( bad air ) could reveal the character’s penchant for spreading nasty rumors or, conversely, be the target of malicious gossip.
  • Seizures might reflect the character’s inability to control their emotions or be a physical manifestation of  the thrashing he receives from society/group/individual.
  • Consumption was the demise of many a character in novels written during the 19th century. It’s symptoms provided just the right amount of melodrama–deathbed confessions, long goodbyes, change of hearts, etc
  • HIV/AIDS may be a metaphor for a character who is not immune to the emotional hurt inflicted by society/culture/other characters.
  • Ebola & other hemorrhagic fevers may suggest a character’s emotional “bleeding.”
  • Bone disorders or back problems can reflect a character’s having “no back bone” or being weak willed ( FYI: bones symbolize strength)
  • Rabies may be symbolic of a character’s repressed hostility and aggressiveness.
  • Leprosy would surely indicate some kind of Biblical divine wrath.
  • In Effi Briest, the protagonist’s mother suffers from blurry vision brought on by some unknown ailment, thereby symbolizing her inability to “see” her daughter’s sin or “see” the hypocrisy of her aristocratic society.
  • In Joseph Conrad’s classic, Heart of Darkness,  Mr. Kurtz—the ivory transporter gone native—doesn’t die until returning to the boat bound for civilization. Symbolic? You betcha!
Diseases can be:
  • horrifyingly ugly and/or painful
  • tragic
  • picturesque
  • mysterious
  • the result of divine wrath
  • a plot device
  • ironic

So whether you’re killing a character or just making them sick, think about the symbolism it could imply.

There are lots of diseases! Choose one that gives your story an added punch!

Have fun infecting your characters!

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

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Character Descriptions

rockyour writingYOU see the characters in your mind
…more importantly, does the reader? And is it necessary they see your vision?

Although physical descriptions and a thorough biographical summary of each major character is found in older fiction, the current trend is to reveal character details through action and dialog.

Clothes, hairstyles, accessories, and body type reveal a character’s:
  • personality
  • socio-economic class
  • lifestyle
  • occupation
  • hobbies/interests
  • emotional or psychological state
OR may:
  • provide irony
  • reflect a particular social/cultural/political  issue
  • serve as a plot device
  • reveal a 1st person narrator’s biases and prejudices

However, what you do describe about a character is just as important as what you do not! Readers don’t need every little detail! Don’t believe me? Ask friends to describe a well-known literary character—one not already brought to life on the silver screen. Chances are your descriptions differ just a bit. Although, Colin Firth is Jane Austin’s Mr. Darcy.

Physical descriptions are important–or NOT–depending on the plot–and are often  fraught with symbolic meanings.
  • Height: Does the character stand head and shoulders above the rest because they’re morally/socially/emotionally superior?
  • Build: In Duong Thu Huong’ Paradise for the Blind, the protagonist is a sickly, frail young woman, which suits her personality and emotional state.
  • Hair color: Can you imagine Scarlet O’Hara with blonde hair? I think not! How many male heroes do you know with red hair? Mmmm….
  • Hair texture: Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, possesses the silky textured hair of white folk—making her more white in this novel about racism and self-fulfillment.
  • Eye color: The darker the iris the more mysterious or sinister the character appears. If eyes are the window to the soul, the black-eyed character is mysterious indeed. See Eye Symbolism for more in-depth information.
  • Skin color: In Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, the love interest is described with chocolate-hued skin which is ever so important to the plot and theme of the tragic novel about the Indian caste system. In the novels by Preston & Child, the FBI agent Pendergast is described with alabaster skin and wearing the somber dark clothes of an undertaker. Creepy, somber, unknowable, and a bit mystically weird—just like the character.
  • Scars: A symbolic smack in the face!  The location, size, and shape of a scar can add depth to a character, and usually represents an emotional trauma. A scar across the chest (heart) means something different than a scar on the face. Does the character keep the scar concealed or do they flaunt it? And why? Is the scar’s size in direct proportion to their inner emotional scars. Are you thinking about Harry Potter’s lightening bolt scar on his forehead? Yes? Good!
Readers interpret physical descriptions:
If a character has bright red head, most people think  the character will be assertive, spunky, and feisty. It’s pretty cliche—and that’s OK—if the character is supposed to be a cliche.
  • Does an upturned nose suggest the character is stuck up or arrogant?
  • Do small eyes reveal the character is narrow-minded or prejudiced?
  • Does a broad forehead indicate the character is exceptionally intelligent?
  • Do narrow hips foreshadow trouble giving birth?
  • Do overly large hands reveal the character’s helpfulness or are they always looking for a hand out?

In the German tale of adultery, Effi Briest, the paramour, Crampus is described as having one arm shorter than the other, which is indicative of his dishonesty and cheatin’ ways.

Authors play God with characters, so when creating them, think about how much, how little, and why you’re including a heart-shaped mole on your protagonist’s left shoulder!

I’m always disappointed by characters who are physically damn-near perfect and beautiful. It’s annoying and does not endear me to the character. Unless, you mean to do something with that perfection. Are they tormented souls? Do they discover the true cost of beauty? Are they ugly on the inside?

Have fun describing your characters!

 Related Links:  Rock Your Writing; Click HERE for Amazon link.

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