BETTER WRITING TECHNIQUES: Symbols

Updated: Dec 16, 2020

WORKSHOP: Using symbols for meaning, atmosphere and mood

In Frankenstein, the creature finds himself miserable and alone and lost in a freezing rainy forest. If Mary Shelley placed him on a warm tropical beach, it wouldn’t feel quite the same.

In To Kill a Mockingbird, the children walk home alone on a strangely silent moonless Halloween night when they are attacked. If Harper Lee had made the night starry with wafts of piano music and laughter, it wouldn’t have the same impact.

So we learn from great writers that we get to choose the surrounding conditions for a scene. We get to place objects and atmosphere around our characters. And these will add to the overall atmosphere of the scene and the way we feel.

Read these examples.

  • In the corner, a lone candle flame flickered against the dying light.

  • On the kitchen floor, a thousand fragments of a once-beautiful vase lay showered across the tiles.

  • We watched a moth dance around the flames, until it scorched its wings and dropped soundlessly to the carpet.

  • On the table, the final hand of cards lay silently just as they had left it. An ace of spades, solitary black amongst a splash of hearts.

  • Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled its distress into the inky night.

  • The wind sounded like whispering in the trees. Lies, it whispered, lies.

  • I could smell eucalyptus and liniment oil, sweat and vomit. On a chair, a nurse’s cap lay squashed, a slash of red across its bent rim.

Your turn. As an exercise, get students to add 2 or 3 lines of symbolic atmosphere to each of these scenarios. Encourage them to use nature, objects, light, sounds, just like in a movie scene.


A child is home alone and scared.

An old woman is alone and lonely.

Two teenagers walk holding hands, loving each other's company.

A man realises he must make a dramatic change in his life. Everything feels different.


Share their attempts. Celebrate novelty, small details, unusual and surprising choices.

Now guide them to use these techniques in their own developing pieces.





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BETTER WRITING TECHNIQUES symbols
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