my primary interest is video game development and I picked up writing (short stories) as a secondary skill. Because making games is a visual art that encompasses a bit of painting, cinematography and environmental design, I tend to think in terms of visual techniques when writing. However there is one specific technique I cannot manage to imitate in writing.

In all forms of visual arts, my favorite thing is adding little details that are not meant to be noticed immediately and give depth to the world or reinforce the tone. Sometimes it's easy, for example in game "Death Stranding" rain causes living organisms to age prematurely and because of that the only vegetation is short-lived grass. It's never acknowledged in the game and it's simple enough to put into writing, because the reader needs to think about it for a while before understanding why there are no trees anywhere, even if I wrote bluntly "As always, there were no trees in sight" in the story.

Second example, one I cannot imagine writing and the subject of my question, is a scene from Harry Potter movie between McGonagall and Umbridge on stairs. Characters would take a step up or down depending on who has an upper hand in conversion. Movement of the actors would give a clue to the scene - unstoppable power and authority of Umbridge and McGonagall stepping back from her objections, acknowledging her place as a subordinate. This is not something up and front, it's a subconscious thing to be noticed by more observant viewers on second or third viewing.

I try to figure out how would I write this scene in a book in a way it happened in the movie and keep coming to a roadblock. Because of the nature of written work, everything I write is in focus unless I'll drown it out with other details, something that's not possible in the middle of intense dialogue. I can't just mention characters taking steps up and down without mentioning the primal emotion it emanates because it will just feel out of place. It feels to me that because in books everything is imagined, not actually seen, things that would be very powerful in visual media, in writing needs to be explicitly tied to the emotion reader or character is supposed to feel.

The specific question here would be "how to write that scene", but more generally what I would want to learn, is how to plant emotional and contextual hints in writing without telling the reader explicitly how to feel, the same way I would do it in a game or a movie like I described above.

3 Answers 3


I'm a writer, and my wife is a professional visual artist, so I often think about how to translate concepts back and forth. I think there's absolutely an analogy to what you're talking about in the world of writing, but you need to think about it less literally. You're picturing a symbol that would be powerful in a visual medium, and trying to depict it in text, but that's not how textual symbolism typically works.

You might think that, if you're describing something, you're automatically putting it "in focus," but that's not necessarily true. For instance, "Her little backyard garden was neat, orderly, and surrounded by a wall." You're really talking about her personality here, but the reader thinks you're just giving us the visuals of the setting. "The weapon he carried didn't look dangerous, but it was lethal." Again, the readers think they're just getting functional info about an object, but it's really a symbol of this entire character. Unless they're primed to look for symbols like this, most readers will never be consciously aware of them.

It sounds like you're suspicious of directly adjusting the emotional tone of a scene. But if you don't do that, you're denying yourself the one most important tool you have in text that you don't have in a visual medium. For instance, consider "the cheerful sunlight was warm and comforting" versus "the merciless sun beat down on my face." Or "the dark forest embraced me" versus "the dark forest swallowed me." In each case, the two descriptions are of the same visual, but the mood, the emotions, and therefore the symbolism is different. Things like this typically pass right under the reader's radar, but they still powerfully shape the experience of the book.


So to start, your scene in the Harry Potter Film did in all likelyhood not play out that way in the book (To be perfectly fair, I've never watched "The Order of the Pheonix" because the book was my favorite of the series (the book came out the summer after a nightmare school year for me due in large part to a new incompetent and community meddling teacher of one of my favoirite subjects and one of my favorite subdisciplines of that subject to boot. Umbridge was so close to home for me, that it was rather fun watching a similar teacher get her comeupance. That said, the real teacher was no where near as nasty as mine... though both did hate Harry Potter) and all films up to that point failed to meet my expectations thus far, I opt to not see it to preserve my fond memories of one of my favorite books of all time.)

In the scene in question (I think, there are two scenes where the characters confront but I'm pretty sure the scene in question was not the first classroom observation) Umbridge and McGonagall were seated (the height dominance was always in McGonagall's favor as she was fairly tall woman, while Umbridge was described as being so short that there was no noticable difference in her standing height vs. seated on a chair height... the fact that Umbridge was this short is the only mention of height in the scene if mentioned at all). Rather, the tension is built through the dialog which was subtle and striking in insults traded. Umbridge here loses, because her constant corrections of political corrections of all of McGonagall's statements, while McGonagall's cuts to Umbridge are brutal both from a professional and personal standpoint. In this scene the two character's exchange that both women hate each other and while Umbridge is trying to remain diplomatic in her corrections of McGonagall's trival and forgivable flaws, McGonagall is the first to directly attack, but not out of losing her cool, but recognizing the passive aggressive nature of Umbridge and proceeding to drop the pretense and get to what they both knew was going to happen.

Perhaps the most devastating blow comes when McGonagall points out that Harry needs perfect marks in his Defense Against the Dark Arts classes (which she is teaching), which McGonagall responds that he has recieved perfect marks. When she points out his grades are slipping in her class, McGonagall snaps back that she really meant all his DoADA classes taught by a COMPETENT teacher. This line has been disected repeatedly in the fandom, but not only is McGonagall straight up saying she doesn't think Umbridge deserves to be called a Professor at Hogwarts, but that of the 5 DoADA teachers Harry has had up to this point, Umbridge is the worst in a motly assortment of one term teachers who include a man who was afraid of his own shadow and had the villain of the series stuck to the back of his head the whole time, a self-absorbed con-man who suffered magical induced amnesia after messing up the one type of magic he was acctually pretty decent at, a werewolf who was on brink of homelessness before taking the job, and a wolf in sheeps clothing madman pretender who's idea of teaching DoADA was using the Dark Arts on his own students (which would be tandem to teaching Electrical Engineering students by giving them periodic shock thearapy until they figured it out). Out of this, only one could have been truly agreed to have been competent (the Werewolf) and while it's not a dig from the reader's knowledge of the teachers personal flaws, Umbridge is a very openly bigoted person and believes Werewolves to be second class citizens, which is why the poor fellow was near homeless at that point in time. The insult hurts both professionally, as only one of the teachers would objectively qualify as competent (The werewolf) while its debateable at best with two (The timid one and the Madman Pretender) and objectively true with the Con-Artist. But of all of them, the by the books obstructive beuracrat was the only one who meets McGonagall's very low bar for incomptence in teaching.

Again, it took a long break down to explain why the insult was so effective that it decisively ended the battle... the actual line is... a single line. It's powerful for it's effective shut down of Umbridge's petty quibbles with McGonagall's politically incorrect teaching style, yet subtle in that so much is understood in the implications that isn't said. Umbridge already showed the readers she looks down on the past four occupants of her current role, so she, along with readers who are five books in, are well aware of the slate of contenders for worst teacher of this class to this point. And McGonagall is well known to be second only to Dumbledoore in skill as a teacher, thus lending weight to the blow.

But you can look to the same book to see subtle symbolic things in the background. While cleaning #12 Grimauld place in the beginning of the book, the narration goes through several cleaning chores that the group undertakes to make the place livable after a decade of abandonment and preceeded by the occupation of a very old family of mostly Dark Wizards and their collection of dark artifacts. Among the list of many ominious objects and unuaual behaviors that made them creepy, only one, which seemed broken, was given a few lines before being discarded. It wasn't until the very end of the next book that we learn it's the least notable object of the set that actually was vitally important to the entire storyline that had been building (fans were able to put it together from what was thought to be a subtle clue by Rowling, though this is less a failing on her part and more due to the fact that after 6 books of her writing, fans had come to know that Rowling will slip important details into the story well before they actually become plot relevant... They were expecting the clue to already tie to establised teritary characters and plot points in the series grand lore.).

Edit: There should also be note that in Literature, small sutle background events that become important later are called Chekov's Guns (I.E. The mysterious Locket). Symbolism are items or details that signal a character or ideological topic repeatedly used in the story (Hogwarts House Colors and Animals, A lighnting bolt scar) and in audio-visual works, a musical piece that symbolizes a character is called a lietmotiff and will play whenever the character is on screen or something important to the character occurs (The opening music score in all Harry Potter films is called "Hedwigs Theme" and plays anytime she or Harry are on screen. In Star Wars, "The Imperial March" plays whenever the Empire, or especially Darth Vader are on screen in the original trilogy and whenever a step towards the Empire's rise or Anikan's fall occurs in the prequel trilogy.). A piece of dialog that carries a greater amount of information than what is actually verbally said by the character is called subtext. A line that hints at a future event in the story is called "Forshadow" while in a prequel, a line that references an already known to the audience event is often a "Call forward" and may also be an example of Irony (In Smallville, which is about Clark Kent's teenage years before he became the man who will be Superman, a character saying "Clark Kent represents Truth, Justice, and the American Way" would be a Call Forward and a Forshadow if the audicene didn't know a lick about Superman. Another line where Clark sees an ancient greek armor set with a prominent S emblazoned on it's chest and remarks "I wouldn't be caught dead wearing that into battle" is Irony as the audience is aware that he most certainly will.).

All of these have symbolic importance but not necessarily for the same reason.

  • 2
    There's some really great info in this, but it's kind of buried by the wall of text. You might consider editing this down a bit, to highlight the most relevant sections. Jan 6, 2021 at 14:31
  • You might also consider taking out the examples from the movies or television, and focusing more on books, since the OP's question is specifically about putting symbols into text, as opposed to a visual medium like cinema or TV. Jan 6, 2021 at 14:43

Theme. Theme theme theme Theme theme theme. Theme theme theme theme theme

What is it? How many different ways are there of saying it, seeing it, doing it, feeling it?

Best example I'm aware if is John Steakley's Sci-Fi novel Armor. His theme is absolutely everywhere, not just the obvious places.

And absolutely resist the urge to point it out.

Think 'forest for the trees' when both are versions of your theme.

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