Shapes and Symbolism

Endless college lectures and books have discussed the use of symbolism in fiction writing. The discussion continues because symbolism is a very effective technique for drawing attention to themes in a story that otherwise might not be clear.

Blogger C.S. Lakin has a lot of interesting bits of writing advice. In this post she discusses using shapes symbolically.

Shapes are probably the last thing on a novelist’s mind when constructing a scene or an image system for a novel. Most of us probably pay little attention to shapes. Shapes of what? Well, everything has a shape, and even if you don’t think about shapes consciously, there are universal feelings that tend to go along with certain shapes, and throughout time and across cultures, shapes hold meaning and often symbolism.

Think about a character who feels stuck in a rut, her life like a treadmill. She feels as if she is going in circles, getting nowhere. Each morning she runs three miles on her treadmill. Her life is a merry-go-round of colorful painted horses that are not real. Without stating anything specifically, circles can be used in an image system throughout the novel. She could live at the end of a cul-de-sac with a circular driveway in front of her house. Her daughter could even have a pet hamster that runs in a hamster wheel, something she looks at every day and relates to. Her job could entail her doing some kind of repetitive motion that is circular (stirs sauces as a sous chef in a kitchen).

She makes a good, if obvious, point: we infer meaning from shapes. Jagged, spikey things are dangerous. Round, curved things are friendly. Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran has a whole theory of neuroaesthetics that gets into the idea that we were wired by evolution to find patterns (which are a form of meaning) in what we experience. If we hear a strange moan, and then hear it again louder, and yet again louder—a repeating pattern of moans—it would behoove us to presume something dangerous is getting closer. Creatures who figure that out survive, those who don’t get eaten. (This might explain the menace in the JAWS theme.)

In essence, Ramachandran argues that when we “get” the meaning in an experience (be it “Wow, the monster’s getting closer,” or “Ah, her life is going in circles just like the hamster!”) we get rewarded with a good feeling—an emotional pat on the back. One could then theorize that if you insert such meta meaning in fiction (through symbolism and other techniques like metaphor) you set up opportunities for readers to “get it” and pat themselves on the back. And readers like books that make them feel clever and recommend them to their friends.

But here’s the beef I have with all this. Reality is not really filled with meaning. By this I mean, not every person going in circles has a hamster (some might have an iguana), not every evil person wears black (or has a name like “Dr. Satanus”), not every hero who hides their emotions beneath a hard exterior drives a Hummer etc. There’s some truth to these tropes and clichés, but I think programming them into fiction at a granular level makes the writing seem phony and unrealistic.

I think man seeks stability and predictability—that’s fairly obvious looking at human history. And I think we use myths, stories and even religion to explain the confusing and often meaningless world we live in. I understand the desire to create fiction that feeds those needs, but I also think that on some level fiction should be confronting people with reality, making them a bit uncomfortable.

I’m reminded of a passage from David Byrne’s book “How Music Works” (which I discussed in this blog.)

At one point Byrne quotes the views of English author John Carey who said, “Meanings are not inherent in objects. They are supplied by those who interpret them.”

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