Symbols in Fiction

Why symbols are important in fiction, from the book Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway:

People constantly function symbolically. We must do so because we rarely know exactly what we mean, and if we do we are not willing to express it, and if we are willing we are not able, and if we are able we are not heard, and if we are heard we are not understood. Words are unwieldy and unyielding, and we leap past them with intuition, body language, tone, and symbol.

“Is the oven supposed to be on?” he asks. He is only peripherally curious about whether the oven is supposed to be on. He is really complaining: You’re scatterbrained and extravagant with the money I go out and earn.

“If I don’t preheat it, the muffins won’t crest,” she says, meaning: You didn’t catch me this time! You’re always complaining about the food, and God knows I wear myself out trying to please you.

“We used to have salade nocoise in the summertime,” he recalls, meaning: Don’t be so damn triumphant. You’re still extravagant, and you haven’t got the class you used to have when we were young.

“We used to keep a garden,” she says, meaning: You’re always away on weekends and never have time to do anything with me because you don’t love me anymore; I think you have a mistress.

“What do you expect of me!” he explodes, and neither of them is surprised that ovens, muffins, salads, and gardens have erupted. When people say “we quarreled over nothing,” this is what they mean – they quarreled over symbols.

Pg 275, Writing Fiction, 4th Edition

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