Table of Contents
- The Art of Symbolism
- What Is Symbolism?
- What’s the Difference Between Symbolism and Motifs?
- The Craft of Subtlety
- But Why Is Symbolism So Important?
- But Where Do We Start With Symbolism?
- Types of Symbolism
- 10 Brilliant Symbolism Examples
- In Summary
The Art of Symbolism
Symbolism is a device used across literature, art and film. But arguably, film is one of the art forms where symbolism can have the most powerful effect. Films can contain symbolism examples that express complex hidden meanings and stay with the audience long after the film has finished.
This symbolism can range from being hidden to overt. However, regardless of the screenwriter‘s choice, the use of symbols works brilliantly in activating the audience’s imagination and adding depth to the story. This results in ultimately improving the audience’s overall cinematic experience.
So how do you create symbolism in screenwriting?
What Is Symbolism?
Symbolism is quite simply the representation of one thing using another. This could be done via an object, setting character or color, for example. Some notable and obvious symbolism examples might include:
- Birds used to symbolize freedom.
- Roses used to symbolize romance.
- The color green used to symbolize jealousy.
The purpose of symbolism in film is that it must aid in helping you articulate certain key ideas in your screenplay. That being said, it is important that the symbolism used remains subtle but also noticeable enough that your audience understands what you are doing. This balance is key.
Furthermore, it is important not to confuse symbolism with motifs when trying to express your screenplay’s themes and ideas…
What’s the Difference Between Symbolism and Motifs?
A motif is an idea that appears repeatedly in the work of an artist or in a piece of writing or music.The Cambridge Dictionary
- Motifs are recurring elements that appear multiple times throughout the story. They are ultimately used to help support the theme of the story.
- Symbolism is a literary device that uses symbols as stand-ins to represent something beyond literal meaning.
Symbols work to represent an idea or thing within the story-line, whereas the use of repetition in a motif is used to demonstrate the overall central theme within the narrative.
There is, of course, an overlap. Something to remember is that a symbol can sometimes be repeated if it represents something beyond literal meaning and contains a secondary meaning relevant to the overall theme and narrative. A symbolism example that is repeated throughout a story, for example, is the green light in The Great Gatsby.
The Craft of Subtlety
One of the most difficult things about including symbolism within your screenplay is that it needs to be clear whilst remaining subtle. It can be hard to find the fine line between being too obvious and too subtle.
You don’t want to hit the audience over the head with the meaning of a symbol. But you also don’t want them scratching their heads as to what the symbol means.
Ultimately, your symbols need to be born from your narrative. They need to feel seamless as a part of the story in order to present something key to the audience. Otherwise, they run the risk of sticking out.
But Why Is Symbolism So Important?
Symbols have been used throughout the history of literature. They allow writers to express complex ideas in simple ways, whilst also giving the reader a sensory experience.
Furthermore, they allow writers to subtly give the audience context without explicitly telling them. Through symbols, writers can connect themes, add in imagery and most importantly hint at the complex meaning behind scenes.
Symbols can represent themes or ideas in your screenplay that can’t be expressed in other ways and this is why their usage can be so powerful.
But Where Do We Start With Symbolism?
For starters, look at your story and character:
- What is your genre?
- Which are the key ideas and thematic areas essential to your story?
- What are your character’s goals and struggles?
By considering these questions, you will get one step closer to finding the perfect symbols for your screenplay. Your symbols shouldn’t just be common, obvious symbols, they need to be specific and add emotionality. It’s key to think about how the symbols relate to your characters. Are they things that would realistically feature in their everyday lives? What’s their relationship with these symbols?
As mentioned previously, subtlety is key for crafting your symbols. And in order to include subtlety, you need to balance both small scale and large scale symbolism.
- Small Scale Symbolism: These are symbols that add texture and help you understand the inner life of your characters. Small-scale symbolism examples could include an inanimate object.
- Large–Scale Symbolism: These are symbols that help convey the mood or make statements about broader themes. Large-scale symbolism examples can include setting, character arcs or environmental elements like the weather.
Types of Symbolism
There are many ways you can add symbolism to your screenplay. Below are a number of key examples:
You can use a character, or character arc, to represent themes and ideas within your story.
- For one, he symbolizes the fallen human. Initially, Harvey Dent provided good for the morally corrupt city of Gotham. However, after the accident, he too becomes just as corrupt as the city does.
- Moreover, Two-Face also symbolizes the duality of human nature. He represents the blurred lines between being both good and bad, hero and villain.
One of the most well-known ways to add symbolism into your story is through objects. Objects help in allowing your symbols to remain subtle, yet also help convey important narrative and character elements.
The great thing about using objects as symbols is they allow the character to express inner conflict. By creating a pattern, attaching emotion to an object, you are articulating a character’s emotion as it relates to the theme, plot or the other characters.
A character, therefore, doesn’t have to verbally express how they feel, we can infer it from their relationship to this particular object.
Symbolism in Setting
Setting can provide your story with symbolic value through providing context for the story, setting the atmosphere and illuminating themes.
For example, in The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby lives in West Egg and the Buchanans live in East Egg. While both are wealthy communities, families with inherited wealth live in East Egg, whilst new wealth lives in West Egg.
Just through this, we learn something about Gatsby’s character and about the themes lying at the heart of the story.
Through using color you can add symbolic value to your screenplay. In particular, different colors tend to hold different meanings. Red can symbolize violence, for example, whilst blue can symbolize depression.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is a great color symbolism example. Red permeates the film. The story is itself not only about violence but about where such violence comes from. In this, the film seeks to portray lives entangled in one violent incident, both before and after it occurs.
The Law of Duality and the Law of Correspondence
Moreover, a key area to acknowledge in regards to symbolism is whether you will be using the law of duality or the law of correspondence. What are these laws?
- Law of Correspondence: Symbols that align with similar symbols within the narrative. For example, roses and the color red in American Beauty.
- Law of Duality: The symbols at the beginning of the story are the opposite of the symbols at the end. For example, winter versus summer in Game of Thrones.
10 Brilliant Symbolism Examples
10. Parasite – The Stone
Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite is coated with symbolism. One of the most notable symbols, and a perfect example of the law of duality, is the stone.
- The stone is given to the Kim family by a friend as a totem of bringing one wealth and prosperity.
- Soon after receiving the stone the family achieve getting work at the Park’s home.
- At this point, the stone symbolizes the Kim family’s growing luck and good fortune.
However, as the story goes on, the stone quickly changes in its symbolism.
- While working at the Park’s house, the Kim family soon encounter numerous experiences that outline the sharp class distinction between the two families.
- In doing so, the stone then becomes symbolic of the Kim’s desire to have the same wealth and freedom that the Parks have.
- This desire for a better life is what results in their downfall. For one, they save the stone from their flooding house. This symbolizes their desperation for the prospect of a better life.
- Furthermore, the stone is eventually used by the former house keeper’s husband as a weapon of violence.
The family’s future prosperity has crumbled into something that will damn them. Overall, the stone is a key symbolism example that serves to critique class inequality and the role of luck, or a lack of it, in life.
9. Joker – Clowns
The clown imagery throughout Todd Phillips‘ Joker is layered with different symbolic meanings. In the opening scene, we see Arthur Fleck applying on his clown make-up. At this point, the clown is seen as simply being for entertainment – his day job.
However, later on in the movie, the clown imagery changes meaning. For example, after Arthur loses his job, he continues to wear clown make-up. At first, it seems that the clown imagery represents a sense of escapism from reality for him. Or even a means to hide his own identity.
As we get further into the movie we learn that the clown is symbolic of societal separation within Gotham. Arthur ultimately becomes the Joker. He has taken on a new identity that symbolizes rebellion against those who rule the city.
The clown imagery takes on increased meaning as mobs of people don clown masks and uprise within the city. The symbolism of the clown has turned dark, the traditional entertainer has become a villain and the laughter has become menacing. Clowns are a great symbol because they show a type of character typically laughed at and used for entertainment and explore what the other, darker, side of that laughter and entertainment looks like.
8. Pan’s Labyrinth – The Labyrinth
Guillermo del Toro layered Pan’s Labyrinth with symbolism and the most prominent example is the labyrinth itself.
- The labyrinth symbolizes Ofelia’s eagerness to escape the harsh reality she is facing.
- However, Ofelia learns that in order to fully get out of the labyrinth she needs to sacrifice an innocent child.
- This instantly breaks from the idealistic nature of the labyrinth. Ofelia becomes compromised and she has no clear path to escape without drawing blood from her baby brother.
- At this point, the labyrinth arguably symbolizes the blurriness and corruption within morality and human nature, particularly apparent within the context of the Spanish civil war.
The labyrinth serves as a symbol of childish innocence turned sour by dark forces. A symbol of escape becomes a symbol of being trapped. And a symbol of play becomes a symbol of terror.
7. Get Out – The Deer
The Deer in Jordan Peele’s Get Out has multiple meanings. For starters, when Rose and Chris are on their way to her parent’s house, they hit a deer. In this instance, the deer symbolizes death and helplessness. This is particularly true in the fact that it reminds Chris of his mother – who died in a hit and run.
As the film continues, the symbol of a deer continues to appear.
- For example, the Armitages discuss how deer take over everything and how they need to be killed.
- This negative imagery is further emphasised when Chris is strapped to the chair later on in the film. At this moment he sees a stuffed deer head on the wall.
- It is at this point that the deer symbolizes vulnerability and one’s dominance over another. Chris, like the deer, has become the victim. The Deer is a trophy for the Armitages, in the same way that it becomes clear Chris is.
In a film with a subtext of the powerful preying on others, the deer proves a vital symbol.
6. Moonlight – Water
In Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, water serves as an important symbol throughout the movie. Being that the film is set in Miami, water provides an inevitable backdrop. However, it’s the way that water features as a backdrop to important moments of Chiron’s self-discovery that it serves as a vital symbol.
Water is present at key moments of transformation. For example…
- Juan teaches Chiron, as a child, how to swim in the ocean. Here, Chiron is vulnerable, letting his head rest back in Juan’s arms. It’s a moment of tender masculinity, a man showing a young boy how to swim in the absence of a father figure.
- Chiron has his first sexual experience with Kevin on a beach, with the sound of the waves the only soundtrack to a tender moment.
- At key moments of transition between Chiron’s different ages, we see him splash water on his face. This can be seen as symbolic of moments of self-reflection, as he stares in the mirror willing himself to change.
Water plays a key role not just in the film’s setting but in the feel and sound of the filmmaking in Moonlight. Water ends up carrying the film and the story of a man’s self-discovery. It’s ever-present but particularly at key moments. In this, it’s the perfect symbolism example.
5. Inception – The Top
In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, one of the most memorable symbols is Cobb’s totem, the spinning top.
- The first and most obvious symbolic value associated with the top is that it is an object that helps Cobb distinguish himself from being in a dream and being in reality.
- Secondly, the top previously belonged to Mal, his late wife. Therefore, the top arguably symbolizes his ongoing guilt and regret regarding her death.
- Lastly, in the final scene, we see Cobb walk away from the top.
One way in which this can be read is that it symbolizes Cobb finally letting go of his grief regarding Mal’s death. Alternatively, it could be that it symbolizes him letting go of his dream life in order to live in reality with his children. Or vice versa.
Ultimately, the top symbolizes the thin line between dreams and reality that Cobb, and all the characters, operate on. It’s a small, temperamental object for such an important distinction to be made from and this is what makes it such a powerful symbol.
4. American Beauty – Roses
Another great example of symbolism in film is in American Beauty.
In American Beauty, the roses don’t symbolize the stereotypical meaning of love usually associated with roses. Instead, the roses are symbolic of Lester’s relationship with sex.
- For example, at the start of the movie, we see Lester and Carolyn discuss their lack of a sex life. This follows with Carolyn snipping roses in her garden. This symbolizes the lack of lust and passion between the two.
- Similarly, Carolyn is in control of the roses. They are dotted neatly around the living room, dining table and even on both Carolyn and Jane’s clothing. This perhaps symbolizes Lester’s lack of sexual freedom.
- Contrastingly, in the presence of Angela, the rose petals are free and spread out. This symbolizes the illusion of Lester’s sexual liberation that he associates with Angela.
- In the presence of Angela, the roses symbolize Lester’s desire, lust and passion for her.
The roses in American Beauty have a more complex and darker meaning than the stereotypical innocent love that is generally associated with roses. They represent a latent sexual desire and the repression at the heart of the story and its themes.
3. The Godfather – Oranges
Oranges serve as a key symbol in The Godfather, as a harbinger of danger.
- When Vito Corleone is ambushed and shot, he is on the street buying oranges from a market stall.
- At the commission meeting of the Five Families, bowls of oranges are placed on the table in front of them. By the end of the film, Michael has taken out the families.
- Furthermore, Vito Corleone’s sudden death from a heart attack occurs within an orange grove, moments after he has cut up an orange and put the peel in his mouth to scare his grandson.
Oranges feature in other more subtle ways throughout the movie and subsequent sequels, cropping up at moments of danger and foreboding death.
It is an interesting puzzle to decode as to why Francis Ford Coppola chose to use oranges as a means of symbolism. Stereotypically oranges do not typically symbolize death or danger. Instead, they are known for symbolizing richness, royalty, immortality, fertility and beauty.
- Perhaps the symbolic value of the oranges in The Godfather is as a sense of irony to the common symbolic meaning of immortality. The Corleone gang do not have an immortal presence despite their power.
- Alternatively, perhaps the oranges symbolize the richness of the American dream on offer to the family, promises of richness fulfilled by American capitalism.
Maybe it’s just a cinematic in-joke, an easter egg for the audience to notice. Regardless, the oranges within the movie are a great example of how any object can be used subtly to indicate important plot elements and more importantly, get an audience talking.
2. Jaws – The Shark
The shark in Jaws holds multiple meanings. For one, the shark is obviously the villain and antagonist force – the thing that needs to be defeated and overcome. However, there are many more layers to the shark than meets the eye.
For one, the shark symbolizes the dynamic of human versus nature. More importantly, it symbolizes humanity’s limited understanding and ability to take control of everything around it. The story is about three men who seek to battle a monstrous presence threatening their lives and in this, the shark can be seen to represent death.
Furthermore, due to the film’s context, some believe that the shark could symbolize communism and its threat to capitalism.
- For example, through the attacks, the shark causes many strains on the town and its economy. There is the fear of a threat lurking in the waters, terrorising the American way of life.
- The Mayor’s reaction to the shark can be seen as capitalism personified. He will do anything to keep the beaches open and in turn, risks lives for the sake of revenue.
- The fact that the 4th of July is a key date in the movie is another sign of how the movie seeks to represent symbols about American society. America’s relationship with capitalism is inextricable and a danger to that threatens to undermine this in a chaotic and profound way.
The shark’s many layers are what makes it such a convincing villain, a presence lurking under the surface that threatens the natural order of things as they are. It shows how a simple symbol in the right context, with the right cues around it (the Mayor, the 4th of July) can represent something much more than the sum of its parts.
1. Lord of the Rings Trilogy – The One Ring
Finally, one of the greatest examples of symbolism in both literature and film is the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
But what makes the One Ring so special? For starters, the most obvious symbolic value of the One Ring is that it represents evil. The One Ring was forged by Sauron in Mount Doom with the intention of evil, destruction and darkness.
- Furthermore, the One Ring symbolizes desire and greed. This is most clear in regards to Bilbo and Gollum’s possessive desire to have the One Ring to themselves.
- Similarly, it could also be that the One Ring symbolizes addiction. Anyone who has the One Ring struggles to let go of it.
- Likewise, the One Ring also symbolizes temptation. Each and every character, including even Gandalf and Boromir, is somewhat tempted by the One Ring. Their next action in the face of it becomes dependent on their own self-control.
- This use of temptation perhaps has religious symbolism in the fact that there are parallels between the One Ring and the apple that tempts Adam and Eve.
Individually, the One Ring has the power to manipulate those who possess it and turn them firmly to evil. The most prominent symbolic meaning of the One Ring is the corrupting influence of power. It has the ability to turn the most humble of characters into maniacal, slavish servants to accruing more power, letting nothing get in their way. In this, the One Ring has great resonance, a symbol of man’s dangerous addiction to power.
As you can see from these examples, symbolism can be key in making a great screenplay. A great symbol could be anything from setting to a character’s appearance to an object one possesses.
In adding these small symbols into your screenplay, you can add deeper meaning and hook your audience into the story.
When adding in symbolism the key things to remember are:
- Show rather than tell.
- Consider your key ideas and thematic direction.
- Prioritize emotionality.
- Use your act structures to help you implement a range of small-scale and large scale symbols.
- Find a balance between being too subtle and too obvious.
Symbolism in writing is the representation of one thing using something else, such as a setting, object or character.
The purpose of symbolism in film is that it must aid in helping you articulate certain key ideas in your screenplay. It’s important that the symbolism used remains subtle. But it must also be noticeable enough that your audience picks up on it and can piece together the messaging behind it.
The best symbolism examples in film bleed into the story’s heart and identity. They represent the theme in an easily identifiable way as well as providing striking visuals.
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This article was written by Lily Waywell and edited by IS staff.
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