Last month,  the lovely Anna from Elements of Writing graciously asked me to write a guest post on how I approach theme and symbolism when revising. Because I was slammed in April—and still am, which explains my reduced blogging schedule—I had to turn her down. But I thought it was a great topic, and it’s been ages since I’ve done a writing post, so I decided to take it on here. Thanks, Anna!


Theme refers to a story’s core concept. Your theme unifies, structures, and provides the axis on which your tale spins.

If you are a pantser, you may not know your story’s theme until after you type The End. That’s fine. That’s why the gods gave us revision. But burrow down to theme before you begin editing. Theme will help guide you through the process.

Nic McPhee/Flickrcc

Nic McPhee/Flickrcc

That’s not to say every scene must deal directly with theme—far from it. But pay particular attention to scenes that don’t in some way buttress your core concept. It’s a strong indication you’ve gone off on a tangent, indulged in the dreaded info dump, or both.

Your theme should be the framework on which your story hangs. So as you revise, make sure every scene supports your theme in the best way possible while still expressing the scene’s inherent conflict.

For example, the theme of my novel, A TWIST OF HATE, is loyalty. The sub-themes are friendship and family. When revising the novel, my objective was to wind these thematic threads through each scene. Again, this does not mean every scene is expressly about loyalty. Theme isn’t story. It’s the foundation of story.


In a nutshell, symbolism means to ascribe a meaning to something that differs from its literal meaning (although sometimes a cigar is just a cigar).

Gorgeous writing is more than lovely imagery and pretty words. Similes, symbols, and metaphors enhance and deepen meaning. Symbolism is of particular value to those of us without a talent for lush prose, but be careful. Never allow symbolism to trump genre or authorial voice. A life and death chase scene in a rapid-fire thriller is no place for stacked similes or cryptic metaphors.

When you revise, look for ways integrate symbolism into your work. The possibilities are endless. Take advantage of universal symbols such as weather or environment: a thunder strike to signal a dark omen, or an abandoned playground to reflect loss.

Add metaphors: A man drowning in shame is pulled under by a wave of guilt. 

Add similes: Her head felt stuffed with something soft and fuzzy, like cotton candy or that pale peach mohair sweater she misplaced last winter. 

Symbolism can be as simple as choosing a character’s clothing color to reflect mood, or describing the way he or she keeps house. A disorganized home to reflect a disorganized life. A spartan home, an empty life.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions

Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions

In my current WIP, the main character is an everything-in-its-place sort of guy, but he doesn’t clean. His house, like his life, seems perfect as long as you don’t look too close.

Given the length of this post (sorry!), I’ll save a discussion of motif—similar to symbolism, but more closely tied to theme—for another time.

Thoughts on theme and symbolism?
Are they part of your revision process?