Maybe you feel like you have a central theme in your life: Always running late? Always getting hit on by the wrong guys? Toilet always occupied?
Well, at least fate got some funny running gag on you. And maybe, just maybe, when you dig really deep, it all means something entirely different: You value your time a lot more than other people’s time; you can’t ever be happy with what you get; you are just too damn slow.
Sometimes things have an underlying, deep-rooted meaning that tells us about the nature of the world. In stories, these meanings underline the beauty of poetry and give it room to breathe. Good stories are more than meets the eye. We can feel they are.
That double layer, that underlying texture, shall be the topic of this article. You will get a hands-on instruction on how to create deeper meaning in your story.
How do you find the perfect symbol for your story?
How can you connect it to your plot?
What are some examples for excellent symbols, and what do the different colors mean?
And of course: How does Chekhov so masterfully use his main symbol in the Cherry Orchard?
Maybe you know what the “theme behind your story” should be, but you are not sure how to express it in your actual plot.
44 Key Questions: Your Free Checklist
Also, if you are asking yourself if your subtext is any good or not, here is the perfect checklist. It features 4 test questions about subtext, and 44 test questions about characterization, plot, language and more, so you can check your story yourself. This list will test your story to its core (it’s free):
Here is your step-by-step guideline to rich subtext:
YOUR RECIPE TO INJECT SUBTEXT AND BACKBONE INTO YOUR STORY
THE BASIC IDEA:
1. Freely Associate
First, take a sheet and write down your main theme. Around it, write everything your mind instinctively connects to that main theme. Don’t think, just investigate your mind as if it was one of those lucky bags for kids: Which surprises can you feel out in the dark? Is there something you would want to play with?
For example, let’s say your story is about a couple on honeymoon on an island and you want to introduce the key question of what happiness means. So you write down happiness and investigate your mind.
Let’s get personal. On my sheet, I would as a quick first thought write down words like: warm, cozy, feeling good, velvet, smooth, easy, happiness is a warm gun (Beatles), freedom, laughter, adventure, creativity, comfort, love, big red heart, lightness, light-heartedness, lucky, good, want.
Now I would cross out freedom, adventure and creativity, because those are more my personal first associations, but I would insert more general ones like: family, best friends, success, recognition…
2. Connect Your Associations to Your Story
Now, as a second step, look how these associations could manifest themselves outside, in the material, touchable world of your story.
If you look at the list above, happiness might manifest itself as a big red velvet heart, or it might be a friendly clown, handing out candy to kids (if you are not of the kind who finds clowns spooky…).
It might be a guy jumping around yelling “Yipeee!” at the top of his lungs, a winning lottery ticket in an excitedly sweaty palm, a red balloon rising up into the bright blue sky and disappearing…
But as this is about a couple on honeymoon, let’s think a little more along honeymoon lines: The couple could stay in a big, red, fudge-formed house during their honeymoon, or maybe the village they live in is heart-shaped.
Happiness could lie within a pink box of chocolates or in a secret, secluded spot on the island, where the couple is left alone between soft, warm sand and the sight of an endless, fresh, clear, baby-blue ocean. It could be as simple as two gorgeous, colorful exotic birds, gliding through the garden of the house on light feathers…
Did you just notice how important colors, textures and our senses are in conveying an underlying message? What you can see, hear, feel, smell or taste gives the deeper parts of your reptilian brain a lot of information. You can read more on how to make use of senses in your symbols below.
3. Do This When You Connect Your Symbol to Your Plot
Once you have found your symbol, fearlessly connect it to your plot.
Don’t force anything though. View it as a puzzle: Do you know that feeling when puzzle pieces almost fit together, but you have to use just a little bit of force to push them into each other and in the end they look a little crooked? If they don’t fit effortlessly, don’t force it – just take them apart and try again!
Try as many times as it takes, till you are totally happy with the outcome. Looking for clean and complete solutions distinguishes the professional from the amateur. You will feel it when that little piece of puzzle goes “click” and it will all look like it has come together naturally.
Here is the main trick though: Don’t just let your symbol show up, but also equip it with a pivotal role in your story.
Your duck, silk curtain, fire truck, cactus, or whatever it is, should be pivotal for the entire story, something that sets your plot into motion or turns it into a whole new direction.
Think about how you could incorporate that thing into your story the most natural way: Maybe the protagonist is on a quest for that thing, maybe it’s something she loses or wins. Maybe it just crosses her path and changes her or the course of events. Maybe it’s something she doesn’t even notice affecting her in a major way. Yada, yada, yada… anything pivotal.
Let’s go back to our original honeymoon example. How could we fittingly introduce a symbol for, say, things turning bad between the couple?
Let’s say in their hotel, a water damage occurs, just at the time when issues arise between them. Now they are forced to move out and change hotels. Some damage of the pipelines; a damage of the connections, so to speak.
Yes, that would work.
And maybe those two gorgeous, colorful exotic birds we created before are left outside and die in a sudden cold. “A sudden cold” – you get it?
Tie your symbol tightly to your main plot, and make it moody at the same time.
If you are still wondering which symbol you could use as your main theme, take a look at the following list. It is meant to inspire you with a wealth of suggestions.
Your Quick Checklist When Looking for Symbols
1. Colors and Senses
Colors always send strong messages. Every hue has a very different meaning. In two stories, the same color could even stand for very different things.
For example, red could stand for love, lust and passion, but also for anger, fury and the devil. Generally, red stands for high energy and boiling emotion.
Blue, on the other end of the spectrum, is the color of the cold, coolness and rational thinking. But then again, it’s also the color of the ocean and the sky, of freedom, depth and the unfathomableness of life.
Question to you: In a movie, would a hot, passionate love scene shot with blue colored filters make sense?
Answer: It depends on the meaning of the scene. If the goal is to highlight the heat and the passion – pull out the filter and behead the director! On the other hand, if the girl is going to murder him with a stiletto after this last act of love, blue will give the scene a great twist by undermining the content of the scene (passion) with its opposed color (blue), hinting at the awful things to come. Blue would also be justified, for example, if you wanted to express melancholy above anything else.
It’s all a matter of context.
But it’s not just the visual sense that sends a message. Another sense, touch, leaves particularly subtle hints: Surface tells us about the essence of things. When you touch smooth silk, what feelings does it evoke in you? When you hit coarse gravel, what does it remind you of? If that’s not enough, imagine licking over raw sandpaper – aaah, now you feel it!
An example for the symbolic use of smell would be Patrick Süskind’s novel Perfume. The protagonist, a recluse and sinister murderer, communicates with the world mainly through his genius sense of smell. Everything in the world is all smells to him. The message and subtext? This guy has an air of animal about him.
And speaking of animals…
2. Animals and Plants
Animals make great symbols, if you find a reasonable way to weave them into your story.
Imagine the tender, soft-furred Bambi chewing on a bud. Does it give you a very different feeling than the mighty, ragged-brown grizzly, with breath smelling of decaying deer?
Which one would you rather pet?
Would the stories of The Frog Prince and Little Red Riding Hood have had the same effect on you if the princess had kissed a sharp-teethed wolf and the little girl had been swallowed by a frog? You are glad it wasn’t that way around, aren’t you? For the course of the story it really wouldn’t have made any difference though. It’s all about hidden meaning.
Now, let’s take a look at plants as symbols. A sky-high, pointed fir might stand for doom, while a little daisy with soft white petals might stand for the light-hearted joys of life.
On the other hand, and in a different story, the little daisy could very well be living off the rich nutrients rendered by decaying bodies six feet below. In that case, it will not stand for cheerfulness. It will more likely be a symbol for the mindset of a serial killer with a chainsaw, a muzzle and carefully buckled skiing boots.
3. Landscapes and Weather
The outer landscape often mirrors the inner one – you can find many examples of it in famous novels. You can also make your readers feel a certain way by describing the surroundings. Whether it’s a deserted, an idyllic, a hectic environment; you describe it and its mood will transfer to the reader.
You can use weather in a similar way to set the mood of a story. Could you imagine Dr. Frankenstein bringing his monster to life under the bright, baby-blue sky of a Caribbean island? That wouldn’t be the same. Instead, the storm, the thunder and lightning allude to the doctor’s inner conditions of excitement, pleasant anticipation, uncertainty and fear.
Landscapes and weather can serve as forecasts for looming events too, just think again about horror movies and that stupid kid getting out of the car in the pouring rain on a deserted country road in the middle of the night because of a flat tire… of course, the rain also serves to set the mood.
When you use an object as a symbol, look at its most obvious feature first. What is it mainly used for? What do you see or hear when you hold it? What feeling does it give you?
Cactus? Stings, protection, can hurt, frugal.
Bicycle? Quick, flexible, manpower. Modest but swift.
Think of the objects themselves as the palpable things, the hardware, and of the subtext behind them as impalpable ideas or software. They are essentially two sides of the same coin.
I think by now you have it pretty clear: Everything carries some subtext with it. Things just can’t help but bear some meaning. That’s because they always evoke some emotion.
Now let’s look over the shoulder of one of the most famous playwrights of the 19th century, and see how he created a mesmerizing, and very touching symbol for one of his plays.
THE MASTER’S WAY TO DO IT:
Chekhov managed to find a kick-ass symbol for his Cherry Orchard. The play, as you might have guessed, is about the cherry orchard of the old Russian aristocratic family of Madame Ranevskaya. Her family has gotten into financial trouble.
Lopachin, a friend of the family and businessman, wants to help them out by selling the orchard for them, but Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev reject this idea. They can’t stand the notion of sacrificing their beloved orchard.
The orchard, in full bloom, is described as a “sea of white, shining bright in the moonlight.” The key color white is the color of innocence, of unspoiled good, and in the play it also stands for a dream-like or child-like reality. The innocent white of the blossoms later turns into the sensual deep red of the cherries. How is that for a great symbol of metamorphosis and ripening?
Ranevskaya, her daughter Anya and others are just arriving back home after a five year long trip through Europe. A lot of change, of metamorphosis, has taken place. Anya was almost a child when she left and is a young woman now (how is puberty for a heck of a metamorphosis?).
Ranevskaya had left her home because of the loss of her husband and her little son. It seems she has come to terms with fate now, which means an emotional transformation. And for sure years of travelling changed all of the other travelers too.
The returning characters indulge in the past quite a bit:
RANEVSKAYA: My dear nursery, oh, you beautiful room. . . . I used to sleep here when I was a baby. [Weeps] And here I am like a little girl again. [Kisses her brother, VARYA, then her brother again] (…)
In this house and garden, Ranevskaya and her brother Gayev grew up. The property is a relic of the past, and stands for childhood, shelter and innocence.
The sheltered reality of Russian aristocracy has also been crumbling. The cherry orchard is a symbol of an ideal life for the aristocrats in the play. The house and its orchard are their own universe far away from the hustles of the working class and the grown-ups:
VARYA: [Quietly] Anya’s asleep. [Opens window quietly] The sun has risen already; it isn’t cold. Look, little mother: what lovely trees! And the air! The starlings are singing!
GAYEV: [Opens the other window] The whole garden’s white. You haven’t forgotten, Luba? There’s that long avenue going straight, straight, like a stretched strap; it shines on moonlight nights. Do you remember? You haven’t forgotten?
RANEVSKAYA: [Looks out into the garden] Oh, my childhood, days of my innocence! In this nursery I used to sleep; I used to look out from here into the orchard. Happiness used to wake with me every morning, and then it was just as it is now; nothing has changed. [Laughs from joy] It’s all, all white! Oh, my orchard! After the dark autumns and the cold winters, you’re young again, full of happiness, the angels of heaven haven’t left you. . . . If only I could take my heavy burden off my breast and shoulders, if I could forget my past!
GAYEV: Yes, and they’ll sell this orchard to pay off debts. How strange it seems!
RANEVSKAYA: Look, there’s my dead mother going in the orchard . . . dressed in white! [Laughs from joy] That’s her.
But a different kind of metamorphosis also breaks its way through the play; it’s about a transformation of values. The characters are exchanging something of personal value (their time, their memories, their treasured belongings…) into something else that gets everybody very horny: Money!
The white orchard represents a beloved possession, a pure and treasured personal item close to their hearts. It represents their peace of mind and soul, something that doesn’t have a price tag on it. But Ranevskaya is broke and forced to sell, and it really hurts her.
On the other side of this trade we find Lopachin, the salesman, who stands for buying power calling the shots. In the end reality, a.k.a. money, prevails. Innocence gives way to cold, hard cash.
For the play, Chekov was inspired by his personal experience of loss. For one, his birth house had been torn down. Trees seem to play a particular role in his work, and we can assume he also lost one or two beloved trees in his life (which might sound silly, but isn’t to a sensitive man).
For the businessman Lopachin, the cherry orchard holds a very different kind of transformation in store. He finally purchases the orchard, and lets us understand his immense satisfaction:
This is also the struggle of the artificial, man-made (industrialization, money, order of society) against the organic and natural (trees, nature). It’s about blatant vs. subtle. Money vs. wood. It’s a question about values and what happiness really means: Is money happiness or just supposed happiness? Can a thing of the past make you happy? Do you have to keep on supporting it for your own peace of mind?
The Cherry Orchard is about values. But Chekhov never moralizes. He never tells you which ones of those values are “right.” He prefers raising questions over giving answers. Change is neither good nor bad – it just is.
Firs, one of the servants, sums it up with the last lines of the play, under the sound of the chopping axe, as he lays down, apparently to die:
FIRS: (…) [Mumbles something that cannot be understood] Life’s gone on as if I’d never lived. [Lying down] I’ll lie down. . . . You’ve no strength left in you, nothing left at all. . . Oh, you . . . bungler!
[He lies without moving. The distant sound is heard, as if from the sky, of a breaking string, dying away sadly. Silence follows it, and only the sound is heard, some way away in the orchard, of the axe falling on the trees.
This is it: It all comes down to nothing. Life is a zero-sum situation.
Transformation, inevitability, loss of innocence, disposal: The cherry orchard sums up all of these ideas beautifully. It is a great symbol, embedded seamlessly into the scenery of the play.
Please also notice how the orchard is the pivotal point for the entire play. The play doesn’t contain much plot; in fact, the action is quite static. The plot gets a bit into gear though, because the family wants to keep the orchard, but is also in desperate need of money.
The dialogue, oftentimes without much substance, largely circles around the estate with the orchard; sometimes the family discusses the estate indirectly, when they talk about money or memories. The whole arc of suspense reaches its peak at the moment when we hear that the orchard is sold and also to whom it is sold.
The cherry orchard is the pivotal element.
PLEASE DON’T DO IT THIS WAY…:
You have a lot of options to get symbols completely wrong: Take a car crashing into a concrete pillar and use it as a symbol for somebody succeeding professionally. Take a brick wrapped in barbed wire as a sign for tender love. You get the idea. It’s not difficult to go wrong.
THE EXERCISE TO FINE-TUNE YOUR WRITING INSTINCTS:
Now on to our writing prompt.
Imagine you are writing a story spun around the main theme of success. Its underlying meaning is that success always comes with a price; a huge amount of work, a loss of privacy, or whatever else it may be.
Your story is about a guy who has just spent forty years building up a business empire, only to admit to himself he would have rather become a painter, even if it was an utterly unsuccessful one without any cash in his pockets. He feels like he has wasted all of his life by missing out on his passion.
Create a key symbol for the story (whether it’s a being, object, circumstance or else), describe it, and incorporate it into the story seamlessly. It has to play a pivotal role. Additional bonus points, if you can add other minor symbols.
Don’t write the complete story; just describe your symbol, and the role it plays in your plot.
Go ahead and post your prompt in the comments!
THE GOOD-BYE PART
You can use many different symbols to give your story an underlying meaning, because we associate in a lot of different ways. Make sure the objects (persons, animals, events, etc…) you use for subtext are connected to your story in a natural way. Whatever you choose as a symbol to speak for the central message of your work – give it a pivotal role in your plotline.
Now go ahead and post your exercise below, for after all, writing something fun and getting better is what you are here for, right?
The cherry orchard is such a moving symbol, because it unites some of our biggest hopes, joys and fears in one beautiful image.
When you invent strong symbols for your story, you will remind your audience of the delights and pains of their own lives, and you are guaranteed to move their hearts. Your story will get a more resonating, richer flavor, and once you have edited that last word, you know you have just created something with deeper meaning. Now you know you can be even more proud of your piece and yourself…
Images: Happiness © Alena Koshkar; Castle © Michael Samsonov; Tree of Wishes (Detail) © Angelika-Nicolina Schob (www.aldafea.de); Chekhov © joshthecartoonguy
Note: Some of the comments below refer to the so called “f-bomb” used in this post earlier. As it seemed so important to you guys, these words were finally edited out.