Michelle Wittle on Working Symbolism into a Novel

Michelle Wittle On, Writing Tips

My first introduction to symbolism in a novel was as a ninth grader in English class. We were reading Lord of the Flies and my teacher kept pointing out all the symbols in the novel. I thought it was so clever of the author to leave little clues like that throughout the book. To me, it seemed that symbols were just individual clues that helped the reader understand something about the character or theme of the book. Although I knew symbols were parts of the whole story, I just never saw them as things that should be woven throughout the story.

All that changed when I met David Wroblewski.

I was very lucky to be invited to Rosemont College this past Tuesday to meet and discuss writing with the writer of the novel The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. Most times when attending a writer’s book discussion, the writer will share a bit of the novel and then answer questions. After that it’s on to the signing of the books. However, at Rosemont, we all sat in a circle with Wroblewski and we just talked about his book, writing the first novel, and his views on writing in general.

Many things the group discussed I found to be very helpful. I took three pages of notes and the talk was only for an hour and a half. However, the biggest light bulb that found its clichéd way to the top of my head was the discussion on symbols and how to incorporate them into a novel.

Wroblewski looks at writing symbols as if he were creating a braid. At first the writer introduces everything to the reader. In a sense, the writer overwhelms the reader with information so it is difficult for the reader to pick out what is important at that time. No one likes solving the murder mystery on page three of a three hundred page book. That isn’t good writing and it bothers the reader. So, take lots of information and introduce it. Because the writer will be bringing it up later on in the novel, there is no need to explain why this is happening here at that point in the novel. Then, as the novel progresses, start bringing your symbols back into the fore front and also let them fall back to the background. The reader will start to pick up that this thing that keeps appearing and disappearing is important.  There will come a time when the reader finally figures out what the symbol was doing in the story and the reader will have that, “ah-ha” moment. It is like that basic writing mantra: “show, don’t tell.”

I will give you an example from Wroblewski’s book to explain this point further.

The book opens with a prologue. It is there the reader learns someone buys a bottle of poison from an alchemist in South Korea. The reader doesn’t know who the person buying the poison is or what they need it for. As the book progressed, Edgar’s uncle comes to visit and abruptly leaves. A few days later, someone dies of a brain clot. The book continues and Edgar finds a needle with some crystals in it. He falls asleep and after he wakes up, Edgar sees the needle is broken and the grass around the needle is now white. Towards the end of the novel, the bottle of poison is rediscovered and more deaths occur.

So, this bottle and poison keep weaving in and out of the story. By the third time the bottle and poison are mentioned, the reader starts really picking up the fact that this is important.

It is so sad that I have been an English teacher for many years and a writer for even longer; yet, it is now I understand the impact of writing a good symbol. I always thought they were just individual little clues. However, now I see that while they can be individual, they need to be placed time and time again in the writing to make them more powerful.

2 thoughts on “Michelle Wittle on Working Symbolism into a Novel

  1. Michelle,
    I was curious if you are a Michelle Wittle who taught my 9th grade English class. If so, you were a great teacher to me.. thankyou. If not, I’m sure you’re just as nifty!

    1. Well Kate,
      I did teach 9th grade for a few years. I taught in the school district of Philadelphia as well as in Somers Point, NJ. Does that help at all?
      If it does and you were in one of those places, then I probably was your English teacher and I thank you so much for saying thank you.

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