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Thrilling Readers With Symbolism & Metaphor

Updated: Apr 30

Using symbolism and metaphor in thriller writing can help create a depth in the storyline that readers will love sinking their teeth into. Did you see what I did there?

Used appropriately and peppered throughout the story with skill, an author can create relatability, interest and thrill to an otherwise bland plot.

"The thing is, without context a lot of symbolism is missed unless you're a psychologist, historian or have the context to properly analyze the decisions made by writers. I've sat in classes that dissect literature. I get some themes, but others I completely miss. It's a fantastic puzzle from a creative standpoint," said thriller author Sierra Kay. "From a writing standpoint, there is always value in adding symbolism to enrich the story. A great story is a great story regardless. However, symbolism allows the artist to have a voice to infuse commentary on something that's important to them."

Symbolism and metaphor creates layers in a story. They create punch to emphasize and drive a point home. They bring the book to life through character, setting and plot. They invoke imagery and emotion from the reader, which helps get them invested in the story. They can educate and be the catalyst for something bigger. They deepen the mystery, thrill and suspense.

And you can start using these literary devices today.

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Symbolism is when authors use a symbol to represent something with a deeper ideal, something unreal or abstract. A few examples are images, patterns, inscriptions, designs or motifs. Such as a snowflake being the symbol of winter or the sun being the symbol of summer, a leaf for autumn and a raindrop for spring. These are universal symbols, but there are symbols that represent things unknown as well. You can even use a popular symbol and put your own spin on it, giving it meaning specific to your book and your character.

Symbolism add depth to the story. It makes complex themes more relatable.

A good example of this in Sierra Kay’s From Behind the Curtain is Dee’s mother’s shoe legacy. For one thing, the shoes parallel Dorothy’s ruby red slippers from the Wizard of Oz - an excellent example of symbolism in a fairytale retelling - but furthermore the shoes represent even more than Dorothy’s strength and way home.

Read this excerpt From Behind the Curtain:

Dee walked over to her mom’s bedside and stumbled on a pair of shoes in the middle of the floor. “Damn it,” she whispered, before she could catch the words. “Nipsey must’ve left these here.” She placed the red pumps in a clear box near the closet filled with her mother’s shoe legacy.

Every pair had a story, a memory for her mom. She often liked to see them to remember. 

Kay makes it clear to the reader that the shoes represent something more than the physical object. They symbolize and invoke memories and her mother's self-confidence.

“You know I wore these black ones when I took your aunt back to the airport,” her mom would say. “That’s how I learned beauty and pain went hand-in-hand. Girl, her plane was delayed and my dogs were barkin’, but I did get a lot of compliments.” Or, “I wore these when I left your father in Las Vegas,” she would say with a defiant gleam in her eyes. “I strutted out of there on my pink stilettos with my head held high. I got a lot of second looks that day.”

This paragraph doubles up on richness. In addition to the shoes symbolizing poise under pressure, Kay also uses the idiom of my dogs were barkin’ to refer to her feet within the shoes.

"Fairy tales are ripe with symbolism and metaphors.  Usually to understand it you have to take a history lesson during the time that the book was written. In the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the witches are either wicked or good.  The difference in the skin tone is an indication of level of goodness. In Wicked the musical, the witches are both good and evil.  Elphaba's skin tone is a symbol of societies fear of anyone that's different. In so many fairy tales, the forest is used to represent a journey to transformation," said Sierra Kay.


Authors use metaphor to compare one thing to another in their writing. It is not literally true.

Read this example from Sierra Kay's In The Midst of Fire:

Chase walked to the bedroom window, which gave a view of the gentrified building across the street. This block was merely one mile from the lake that it made it worth it for the monied to move across the street. But, this particular housing project was so deeply rooted, its foundation may have hit the earth's core, making it too difficult to move its inhabitants anywhere.

The reader knows the project isn’t rooted literally to the core of the earth, but the metaphor helps us understand the depth of the root and how difficult it would be for anyone there to leave. The exaggerated comparison gives depth, in more ways than one.

Another example from this book is:

He did stick around Chicago for a while, but finally decided his life was haunted by too many ghosts.

The character is not being haunted by literal ghosts, but by people, places and things from his past. The comparison makes us understand why he left and in what way the past affected him.

"Also in From Behind the Curtain, I've used Chicago to represent the forest and the suburbs of Atlanta to represent Oz, which gives the illusion of safety and security, but has underlying secrets of its own," Kay said.

More Than Words

Authors need not limit themselves to just using symbolism and metaphor inside the book. The covers can also be a powerful place for these literary tactics.

"With the In the Midst of Fire, you have flaming wedding rings, a symbol of marital discord." 

A Word Of Encouragement:

Kay offers a few words of encouragement and caution to new writers:

"My advice for writers is to start with the theme. You have to know what you are trying to convey. Then show don't tell. If someone is broken, authors could say they're broken or there could a symbol like a watch that's stopped working, but by the end of the story it's functioning again. 

Also use the symbol consistently, but sparingly. Once you assign a value to the symbol, don't change it. But don't beat readers over the head with it either."

So now it's your turn, writer. Here are four more ways you can strengthen your symbolism and metaphor muscles and thrill readers.

Four ways you can add symbolism and metaphor to your thriller writing:

  1. Turn on your radar.

  • As you go about your day and observe life taking its course, turn on your radar and pay attention to symbols. Look deeper and try to understand what they stand for and why. 

  • In addition listen and watch for the usage of metaphor in conversation, music, written work and media.

  • Take mental or physical notes.

  • With your radar on, you’ll be able to recognize more and more, giving you an edge when you sit down to write.

  1. Get out your shovel. 

  • Dig deep, writer! Look at the current chapter you are writing. Where are the power points? What passages do you want to emphasize? What could use some metaphorical pizzazz? Once you pinpoint a few options, put on your thinking cap and compare them to something not literal.

  1. Build a mystery.

  • Use symbolism and metaphor as a way of building the mystery. Many thriller readers enjoy the genre because they like the challenge of figuring out a mystery, and the adrenaline of the ride to the answer. As anxious as they are to know the ending, peeling off the layers of the metaphorical onion is just as enjoyable. They want to be engulfed by the mystery and know details. Symbolism and metaphor are a few ways to provide that.

  • Thriller writers want to lead their audience somewhere, and they often use breadcrumbs along the way to do so. Take advantage of those clues and enrich them with symbolism that the reader must decode in order to move forward in the story.

  1. Research.

  • Once you know just a few things about your story - maybe the character or the main setting - then start researching the details. Setting provides an enormous opportunity for using symbolism and metaphor. Every place has something special about it, maybe something esoteric, poignant or captivating. Capitalize on the symbols. Use metaphor to describe its idiosyncracies and nuance.

  • You can research online or in-person. There are authors who take road trips to really get a feel for what they are writing about. And don’t forget that the library has historical materials that may not be available online. These details are a treasure to readers. Have fun with it!

Now... to start getting your radar tuned in, skim through this post again, and see if you can find all of the metaphors and symbolism used!

Sierra Kay book backlist.

Click the hashtag for more #writingtips

Follow Sierra Kay down the modern fairy tale rabbit hole by visiting her book library here.

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