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I'm writing a speech on using symbols, and I've just made the statement that you should generally stick with one, maybe two, symbols that span the story (smaller symbols that arise and fade quickly don't apply to this limit so much).

I now have to back my statement up. I know why you don't want too many symbols in a novel, but I'm having trouble articulating the exact reason. I feel it isn't just that the reader might become confused (though that could be part of it).

When I say 'symbol,' I'm speaking of a large symbol, something that spans the majority of the novel and plays a large part. Think the One Ring in LotR. It wouldn't be quite so strong if Frodo had to also destroy a jacket and five pebbles, but I can't quite say why.

Can anyone tell me the main reason you don't want too many symbols in a novel?

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There are probably many reasons, but I feel that this is the big one:

With each additional symbol, their individual importance lessens.

If everything is based around a single symbol, then it makes the stakes much higher when everything is revolving around it.

Even if, as you say in your example of LOTR, all of the items were together, possibilities of Frodo losing The One Ring become less meaningful and would have less impact, as he would still have a handful of items about his person that are also important.

I've read stories where, for example, there are three magical stones that hold a great power. But they are never separated, never even referenced as being separate entities, and the three stones become one symbol.

I understand what you mean about the difficulty of articulating this idea, I'm struggling to come up with the words myself without throwing a bunch of examples out and hoping that their significance is understood from the context.

I suppose we can only be invested in so much within a story. If there are a massive amount of symbols being carried throughout the story, and we need to be just as concerned with each individual symbol, then we can only be focused on them so much before we have to divert our attention to another.

The story would become over-saturated with things that we need to be concerned about, and eventually the reader would realize that they don't mean all that much if there are just others cropping up all the time.

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    How about the more symbols the more diluted the power of each symbol becomes. – Thom Dec 18 '15 at 12:10
  • "the reader would realize that they don't mean all that much if there are just others cropping up all the time." Thanks. May I quote this line in my speech? – Thomas Reinstate Monica Myron Dec 18 '15 at 18:15
  • @TommyMyron Feel free! – Mike.C.Ford Dec 21 '15 at 9:03
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The more symbols you have, the more your story becomes an allegory --a conceptual or abstract argument conveyed through metaphor and narrative --and the less it functions in its own right as a piece of fiction. Having one or two symbols in an otherwise realistic story can add psychological depth and resonance, but more than that and you run the risk of ruining the reader's suspension of disbelief and ability to enjoy the narrative directly.

If your story is driven more by demands of the symbology than by the plot or characters, then you've written an allegory, not a story. That's not always a bad thing, but it's not what most writers are striving for.

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I absolutely agree with @Mike.C.Ford. The importance of each individual symbol lessens in your reader’s mind the more you throw into your story.

However, there is also a more practical aspect from the author’s perspective: it just takes a lot more work to explain why each symbol is critically important in its own right. It is also far more difficult to maintain each symbol’s importance throughout the story, so as to keep your reader from wondering what the big deal would be in losing one of them.

So I think those are the two sides of the coin that make multiple symbols a challenging proposition.

As @Mike.C.Ford underlines, a common solution lies in binding the multiple symbols together, showing how they form a single unit. Think of the Deathly Hallows in Harry Potter: each Hallow is powerful in its own right, but when they are combined, their power is magnified to provide dominion over death itself.

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The ring in LOTR is not a symbol. Because of the timing of its publication many took the ring to be a symbol for the bomb, but Tolkien denied this, and the history of composition makes it impossible. (Lewis talks about this a length in one of his essays.)

A symbol is simply an idea or image that stands for another idea. What matters in a work is that you have a certain unity of theme. Many symbols that point to the same theme will reinforce it. Many symbols pointing in different directions will muddy it. It is not the number of symbols but the way they are used that matters.

The ring, on the other hand, is a McGuffin. The is the thing everyone wants that drives the plot. Too many McGuffin's can fragment and fracture a plot.

LOTR would not be as strong if Frodo had to destroy a jacket and five pebbles because the point of the book is not the objects, but the temptation of power and the capacity of love to resist it (Sam, who acts purely out of his love for Frodo, is the only ringbearer to voluntarily give it back, and the only one able to remain in Middle Earth after carrying it.) The ring is just the object of temptation.

Additional McGuffins would do nothing to add to this theme, and would take the focus away from the central theme and place it in the mechanics of destroying magical objects. And then it would be an ordinary run of the mill fantasy and not one of the great books of the 20th century.

  • I see your point about McGuffins, but the ring is such a powerful universal symbol of continuity, power, and covenant that even if it is not detailed extensively in the work in question, it is definitely a symbol as well. A sword or a gem would have worked as well (as a McGuffin), but those choices would have had a major impact on the whole story. They would not have "married" the holder to the darkness. – Joe Dec 22 '15 at 22:45
  • Well, it is certainly true that certain objects have universal symbolic attachments, but that does not mean that that symbolism is intended or present in every work that refers to them. The rose is a universal symbol of Christ, but not every rose in every story refers to Christ. Tolkien said that the ring "was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or lesser degree, out of one's direct control.". Not the conventional symbolism of rings. – user16226 Dec 22 '15 at 23:31
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    I do agree with everything you say here. As fix to the plot you refer to as sam being the only one to remain in middle earth, this is technically true but not true. While the story and movies do end with him remaining, the book version has Frodo telling Sam that because he touched the ring, there will come a point in the future that he too will have to leave and join them. – ggiaquin16 Jul 26 '17 at 15:39
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    @ggiaquin Frodo says "your time may come" and then says he cannot stay in the shire because he has been too badly hurt. He supposes Sam must have been hurt too. But Sam returns home to his wife and his child, "there was yellow light , and fire within, and he was expected....Well, I'm back,' he said." Sam returns to normal life, and that is where the book end, not with departure, but with return. – user16226 Jul 26 '17 at 16:29
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I'd just like to add to the other good answers.

One of the major factors is complexity. If there are too many things for the reader to keep track of, it can be annoying and confusing. At some point, most readers will just start to ignore the details or abandon the whole story.

Fairy early on, I gave up completely on trying to keep everything straight in Orphan Black, but the rest was strong enough to keep me engaged.

I loved the Dune series when I read it, but I got completely lost and gave up on the SyFy movie version I saw years later when I had almost no idea who was who and how they were all related.

As @Mike.C.Ford notes, sometimes you can combine symbols or other things into one greater whole and that reduces complexity. The reader can delve into all the details or just "say", "That's just another piece of the puzzle." and skim over it.

The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are the Trinity, Harry Potter needs to find a bunch of horcruxes, but they add up to the life force/power of Voldemort. A hero's quest may have many tasks/phases, but with one goal.

The Fifth Element has a bunch of symbolism (and all sorts of other subcontexts!) in it, but it's all woven into such an organic whole that it never slows things down a bit. They're all there, but you don't "have to" analyse them for the story to work.

I don't usually read mysteries, but they need lots of details and interrelated facts, some of which may have symbolic components (like in Angels and Demons). That's one genre where the readers will actually expect or even demand complexity.

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When studying a classic author (let's say Shakespeare), it's pretty normal that the teacher/prof needs to explain a lot of the symbolism to us because we don't even understand it. So as writers, we can be prone to imitating this by adding lots of complicated, hard-to-understand symbolism, believing it will make the story "deeper".

But the reason the symbolism needs to be explained is not because Shakespeare was trying to add lots of complicated, hard-to-understand symbolism. It's because of the huge cultural and linguistic gap between his era and ours.

In my opinion, the reader should be able to readily understand the significance of a symbol without even realizing that it's... cue ominous music... symbolism. Your example of the One Ring in LOTR is perfect - it symbolizes a lot, and yet no one watching it is thinking "that's symbolism" - they simply understand its significance instinctively.

Keeping symbolism simple and apparent will maximize its effect, and this is best achieved by sticking with a few simple symbols.

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