by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Good stories are like puzzles that the audience gets to put together both individually and collectively. Some pieces require a bit more searching when looking for where they fit into the whole. These pieces often offer the biggest emotional rewards for the audience as well. Taking a common object or image in a film and giving it subtext or additional layered meaning communicates to your audience on a level that pre-dates verbal language. There’s a universality to the use of symbols. In short, they make your story stronger. Here are four commonly used symbols and a look at the way they get used in film and television.
CLOCKS AND WATCHES
Clocks and watches are physical symbols of time. They can take on nuanced meaning about wasted time, lost time, remaining time, or even personal reflection, depending on the narrative elements surrounding the symbol. Stephen Strange sees his prized watch broken near the beginning of the story, symbolizing both the way his life has just changed in relation to his broken body, as well as the time he has wasted in the past in Dr. Strange. In Pulp Fiction, a wrist watch is also used, but to much different effect. The watch delivered to young Butch by Captain Koons symbolizes the endearing love passed from one generation to the next but also the courage to withstand living nightmares – something the captain had to endure to get the watch to Butch. But the watch is also a symbol of the tenacity Butch will now need for the journey he is about to embark on. The film is ripe with other symbols, not the least of which is a brief case with mysterious golden contents. Clocks and watches are used throughout Hugo to take on a variety of different meanings while a watch is used in the dramatic conclusion of Schindler’s List to symbolize the value of human lives.
In the fields of mythology and depth psychology, glass often symbolizes that which is invisible – the divine, the soul, and those things that are clearly present but unable to be seen directly. In Silence of the Lambs, the glass that separates Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lechter symbolizes the invisible issues inside Clarice that separate her from the ugly truth. In a sense, two sides of herself are having a difficult conversation throughout the film with this safety glass to separate them. It is only after Lechter is no longer behind the glass and in the world she inhabits that she is able to solve her case and find freedom from her inner demons.
Windows, in general, leverage the same sort of barrier between ourselves and the outside world. If we are standing outside already, they provide a portal that allows us a peek at the inside – all concepts rich in symbolic possibility. Mirrors are another type of glass, of course. They allow us to see ourselves as we truly are. They can also symbolize our most narcissistic side. Fairy tales often use mirrors as symbols as in Snow White and more broadly, glass in general, as with the slipper in Cinderella.
Perhaps the most ancient and common symbol, water represents cleansing, purification, movement, the unconscious, and a host of other interpretations. We see it used symbolically as rain, rivers, showers and baths, fountains, waterfalls, and even tears. In the opening image of Election, we see a water sprinkler dispersing its contents in a robotic, monotonous fashion. It is a wonderful symbol of the life our characters are now experiencing – uneventful, the same every morning, directional, and seemingly without variety. In Cast Away, the ocean symbolizes both the greatest challenge as well as the greatest opportunity our protagonist has. It is his torture as well as his salvation. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, our protagonist pours symbolic water on his father’s wound, which heals him. It also represents the healing in the relationship between the two characters.
If water is not the oldest symbol, that title would certainly go to animals. Throughout myths, fables, and folk tales, animals have represented every possible human emotion, condition, and basic characteristic. Nothing represents the human personality quite like an animal can. There is enough separation between ourselves and animals to remove the initial prejudices we hold. We can often see things portrayed between animals that we might not recognize among people.
The cat that the protagonist chases throughout Inside Llewyn Davis symbolizes his dreams and fleeting career. The moment he is able to grasp the cat, it quickly escapes and runs away. The geese above his pond are what initially send Tony Soprano to therapy in The Sopranos. The therapist helps him to recognize they symbolize the potential loss of his family and his control over his own life. There’s a symbolic deer in Stand By Me and another in The Leftovers. And who could forget the symbol of the horse’s head in The Godfather?
While these are but a few examples, symbols surround us every day. We look for them even when we don’t realize it. Looking for them as we go about our jobs and lives actually serves as a way to exercise your storytelling muscles. Symbols provide depth to our journey. They give life meaning. Their power in our lives make them equally powerful in our stories.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.