When I was in high school, we were trained to decipher symbolisms that were well hidden in works of literature. I would always be amazed how we could interpret character actions, objects within the story, and even dialogues differently, but there would always be this aha! moment wherein our teacher would reveal her thoughts as if he or she were the author.
That started it. I wanted to write the kind of stories that could be discussed in our English classes, not only because of the plot but also because of the symbolism hidden within. As a reader, knowing what the author meant felt like being able to excavate a treasure hidden for centuries; at the same time, if you are a writer with this writing style, the feeling of learning that readers have figured out what the plot device means for you is unparalleled.
Creative Ways to Represent Your Story’s Intentions
When used effectively, the following strategies will not only train you to create stories of this style but also help you think of your projects in the future. With so many objects, words, and themes to represent, you will never run out of ideas.
Note that in this article, I will use my stories as an example and explain how the strategy contributes to the overall plot. As an activity, however, you could (1) think of other titles that use the same strategy or (2) start creating your own. I have also prepared checkpoints so you could apply the techniques as a brain exercise.
Word Play in Your Title
Surely, some words or phrases can be interpreted differently, depending on the reader’s perspective. You can use this as the main theme of your story, centralizing the plot on the two different meanings of the word. For example, I used the phrase Over Again as the title of my novelette to represent its overall theme, a time loop. Note that this phrase means “repeatedly,” but if you define each word literally, this means “ended again”; however, the denotation of the latter is improbable, as an end to an event can only happen once—which is, again, the theme of the story.
You can also add or replace one or two letters and then represent these letters within the story. For example, the idea of my WLW novel Tibok, or “heartbeat” in English, came from the popular Filipino term tibo, which means “lesbian.” I used the additional letter k to name the characters Kayi and Kabi, which were from the Filipino term kabiyak, meaning “one of a pair.”
Checkpoint: This can also be a good exercise when you are having a writer’s block but you want to start a new story. Search for words or popular phrases that may have various interpretations, use this as your working title, and create a short story (1,000–8,000 words).
For those who graduated in psychology and education, you have probably heard of the Pavlovian condition. Ivan Pavlov is a psychologist known for the discovery of classical conditioning. In his experiment, he would ring a bell and then offer food to the dogs; as a result, they salivate. He continued this until the dogs were conditioned to the sound of the bell to the point that they would salivate just by the sound of the bell even though there was no food. This is the goal of elements that you repeat in a story, whether they are a line, a character, or an object.
More effective in flash fiction and short stories, repeating lines may (1) repeat the exact word or phrase throughout the story or (2) create similar statements but with varying degrees with the purpose of sectionalizing. As you will see in my examples below, these lines act as a cue whenever the potential couple is in the same scene, but this technique can also be used in other genres as well.
An example of my work with a repeating word throughout the story is 548 Heartbeats. The imitation of the sound of two heartbeats, Dugdug. Dugdug., would appear whenever the female lead and her love interest were near each other or were about to interact. This way, readers would also have an idea that the love interest was somewhere in the scene even though the female lead thought she was alone.
On the other hand, my work “Sunshower” is an example in which similarly structured statements partition the story. It started with “Umalis ako sa bahay na maaraw. Maya-maya, biglang umulan. Ang labo kasi sabay na umaaraw tapos umuulan. Buti na lang, nandoon na ako sa dapat kong puntahan (The sun was high when I left the house, but then it began to rain. It was a weird feeling—to experience both the rain and the sun at the same time. Good thing I already arrived at my destination before this happened).” But as the story progressed, although the first two lines of the abovementioned paragraph remain, the last statement would change, which was a symbolic representation of what would happen in the next scene.
These are objects that, when mentioned, inform the reader that something is about to happen. For example, the use of the sympathy flower, or funeral flower, chrysanthemum has been used in suspense stories to warn the reader that a character is about to be murdered. Another example is when an adventure sci-fi story uses doors as a pathway to another dimension as a cue that the characters will now embark on a new quest.
Checkpoint: Choose one of the prompts below to write a flash fiction (less than 1,000 words) or a short story.
1. Use the line “Could you hold this for me?” in a conversation between two girls.
2. Start a paragraph with “The new lights we bought matched perfectly with our room.” You may accompany this with two or three more lines. Create similarly structured statements to represent critical parts of the story until it reaches its conclusion.
3. Use a black butterfly as a repeating element.
Using repeating elements in your story is more effective when they represent something deeper. You wouldn’t want any random object or line to open a scene. For example, would you use a water bottle as a cue in a murder story? Probably not, unless water bottles are a part of the history of the intention of the killer. Would you use bippity boppity boo to indicate that a love interest is near the protagonist? Hopefully, you could think of other more effective statements than that.
Readers will remember your story through objects, occurrences, and names that have deeper representations because they will be able to associate these elements whenever they happen or appear in real life.
Unlike the previously discussed “repeating elements,” these objects do not have to appear in the story every time. The purpose of such is to symbolize a character or a part of a plot.
In 548 Heartbeats, I was able to introduce the six-petal Ixora coccinea (santan in Filipino), a common shrub that often has four- or five-petal flowers; a six-petal one is rare. Here, I wish to imply that the female lead, although seemingly average, still has unique characteristics. On the other hand, in my novelette A Miracle, I used a boiled rose seed that was able to grow into a full-blown rose to represent the female protagonist’s belief that miracles exist.
To intrigue readers and give them an “I think I’ve seen this” moment, you can also emphasize the object in the covers of your story.
Checkpoint: Pick an object in your surroundings. Describe its attributes, purpose, and flaws, and then write a flash fiction or a shorty story that highlights your findings.
I cannot classify phenomena—whether natural or man-made—as objects, hence the categorization. Here, think of an occurrence, whether natural or man-made, and analyze its attributes. What are its stages? Can you create a metaphor for each of its stages and use it to create a plot? What is needed for such to happen? Can you use their attributes to describe people? These were my questions before I was able to complete my short story “Solar Eclipse,” wherein I used the stages of a total solar eclipse and the symbolism of the sun and the moon to form the plot and the characters, respectively.
Checkpoint: Create a short story using the stages of a volcano eruption to symbolize a person losing its temper.
While often unnoticed, the names of your characters could be more purposeful if you intend to portray your characters based on the meanings of their names. Like words, names often have origins. For example, if you have a story about hopeful and courageous teenagers in different walks of life, it might be a good choice to name them with gods of different origins with “strength” as its meaning.
Checkpoint: Write a post-apocalyptic novelette, novella, or novel (8,000 words above) that focuses on two people with names that mean “beginning” and “end.” Create a connection between their names and their roles to your story.
I first saw this used in my favorite romance book Beginner’s Guide: Love and Other Chemical Reactions by Six De Los Reyes. There was an abstract describing how love was a mysterious phenomenon, and the story involved a woman in STEM—who was also a research assistant, by the way—designing a methodology to find her a partner for her cousin’s wedding while also analyzing her results. The author used scientific jargon, which was fitting for her chosen theme. It was instant love at first read for me.
What amazed me was the use of the term Abstract to represent its prologue, and I thought that it was a missed opportunity for the chapters to be named as Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, Analysis, Results, and Conclusion since the description of these research-paper parts exactly match what was happening in the book. Recommendation might be even a good opportunity to introduce a sequel or a companion novel. This was where I decided to try writing something of that format, in which the element that I consider secondary—the chapter names—will fit the theme of the story.
You may either begin with a plot and then a theme or vice versa, but thinking of a theme for a plot is much easier than the other way around, at least for me. For example, my novelette Crosswalk tells about an adult woman who vows to cross pedestrian lanes whether or not she is going to be late for work. She then experiences a dilemma of being infatuated with a guy who has kept his private life since she doesn’t know if he’s taken or not. I had this plot in mind and then reflected the events in the story to road signs and named the chapters of Crosswalk after them.
However, you can also do a themed story even if you do not have a plot in mind yet but would want to flesh out the creativity in you and start one:
Start by brainstorming themes, such as sports, food, flowers, planets of the solar system, and colors. There are numerous, if not infinite, themes and categories to list, but I suggest to stop enumerating at five. You do not want to be overwhelmed with ideas to the point that you begin to wonder where to start.
Next is to choose your focus from this small list. You can always go back to the items in your list if you need more writing ideas.
Then, go narrower until you are content with your subcategories. You may even use a tree diagram to be more organized.
For example, under the food category, you have meal types, food types, kinds of tastes, and more; under meal types, you have breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. Go deeper and you will have the parts of a full-course meal, namely, appetizer, main dish, and dessert. You may go further and choose examples of desserts, such as ice cream, cakes, and fruit salads. Use whatever subcategory you have chosen as your chapter names.
Now that you have your chapter names, associate these concepts with meaningful representations and relate them to what will happen in the chapter.
In the previous example, you can name different desserts and then name them as a chapter, such as Chapter 1: Fruit Salad. Then ask yourself questions such as what a fruit salad is for you and how can the process of producing it compare to real life, or what its components and their attributes are and how can you represent these to your characters and the events in the chapter.
Tibok, as I have mentioned, is a WLW story, so I focused on the representation of the colors of the rainbow (since the rainbow has become a symbol of the LGBTQ+ community). The name of each chapter is a rainbow color, starting from “Pula (Red),” and the events in the chapter are connected to the color’s representation; for example, since red not only symbolizes love and passion but also warnings and war, the first chapter described how the main lead seemed to have found love, but she knew it would be a “war” that was difficult to win.
Checkpoint: Choose one of the prompts below to write your next novelette, novella, or novel.
1. A thriller story whose chapter names are based on food
2. A story about a female astronomy enthusiast whose chapter names are based on the names of the planets in the solar system
You can use one of these strategies, combine some of them, or even apply all of them in your story. What matters most is how you use these literary techniques effectively to represent your intentions. Once you get a hang of it, you will never run out of ideas, now shifting your dilemma from having no clue what to write to having a long list of future story prompts. However, if you easily get overwhelmed and you have the habit of jumping from one idea to another (which is a different topic altogether), I can only advise based on how things work for me: Organize and sequence your ideas and be patient as you start with one. Care for your stories like you would any living being. That is, if you are completely sure that you have nurtured and cared for them, then you know that they will be able to stand on their own feet. Neglecting and forgetting them and doing so over and over say a lot about you more than anything else. After all, as I have always believed, beginning a story does not officially start your journey toward being published—ending one does.