poetry and prose about place

writing a novel – objects and symbols

with 6 comments



Title: unknown

Working Title: Saving the Landing Church

Setting: a writers’ retreat, including an abandoned church

Characters: main character Sadie, a writer; her husband Tom; people from the community

Plot: the story of how Sadie tries to win over a community in order to preserve an abandoned church


If you are new to following my Blog, you may not know I have been writing a novel since last November.  If you have followed my Blog for some time, you may be wondering if I have abandoned my novel for the world of watercolor painting – not so.


abandoned church near Knowlesville, New Brunswick


I am on Draft Six.  I have taken the comments of my readers and members of my writing groups to heart, considered them carefully and made many revisions in the Fifth and Sixth Drafts.  I have also paid careful attention to three workshops I attended on writing fiction.


One of these workshops was exceptionally thought provoking, teaching me to look at elements of my book in a new way.


Our instructor at this course suggested we pay particular attention to the objects mentioned in our writing.  Mentioned once, an object, such as a table, is just a table.  Mentioned twice, it becomes a symbol, and the reader remembers the first mention of the object and draws understanding from the symbolism.    So a table may be remembered for the people siting at it and the subject of their conversation.  Perhaps it becomes a symbol for family, for example.  If, in the second mention, someone breaks the table by putting too much weight on it, this may make a comment on the idea of family in the story.  By breaking the table, the family may be damaged or broken.  The use of symbols deepens meanings and helps the plot reverberate throughout the writing.


The instructor also said that symbols operate like mini sub-plots throughout the story.  These mini-plots echo the main plot, and the objects change in a way that illuminates the main plot.  The mini-plots also tend to occur in three ‘beats’, providing a beginning, middle and end.  For example, the table is bought at an auction, broken and finally mended.


In this round of edits, I have tried to examine the use of symbols in my novel.  To do this, I built a list of the objects I have used as symbols.  Then I looked for their occurrence in the novel to see if I could identify three ‘beats’ and a mini sub-plot.  In some cases, I identified gaps – fixing these has helped me to solidify my overall plot and improve the understanding of my readers.


lych gate and rock wall, Hampton

a lych gate is one of the objects I use as a symbol in my novel


This is a short version of my list of some of the objects/symbols in my book.  When I assembled the list, the items in red were missing and I had to fill out the story accordingly.  Perhaps you can use this method to help strengthen the narrative in your own fiction.


Object Symbolism Occurrence   (Chapter Numbers) Mini-plot
long bench togetherness 11 21 23 bench moves from private to communal space; people start working together
stained glass relationship between sacred and   secular 1 9 23 stained glass window breaks and is repurposed; the sacred becomes the secular
lych gate death 1 9 20 lych gate falls into decay; fear of death is no longer the driving factor in a family
red shoes respect 1 9 21 community’s view of main character is altered
minister’s collar mentorship 1 15 21 although he leaves the church, a minister grows as mentor to a family and the community
blue plastic truck secular within the sacred 3 11 21 a plastic toy becomes an object worthy of protection; the secular becomes the sacred
Jasper the dog companionship 8 16 19 a new dog helps build a family
air fern in a swan vase ability to change (a sea-creature   poses as a fern) 3 8 23 something unwanted becomes valuable



Jasper the dog was a late addition to my novel, but he opened up so many story possibilities, I’m glad he came to be one of the characters


Each time I add something new to the narrative, I have to make other edits in consequence.  However, I find these changes are worth the effort since they contribute to building the story.


Have you considered the use of objects as symbols in your writing?


Copyright  2013  Jane Tims

Written by jane tims

August 3, 2013 at 7:13 am

6 Responses

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  1. Fascinating. I will pay more attention to the objects (symbols) in the fiction I read from now on.



    August 30, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    • Hi. I think we do pay attention, subconsciously. Symbols are a very deep component of our lives. Jane


      jane tims

      August 30, 2013 at 9:17 pm

  2. Strongest church symbolism would be the cross which is not mentioned ….all churches would have then in the door, windows and if it is old anglican which your drawing indicates it is then there would be a cross in the front behind the pulpit. That can mean so many things. Especially an old cross worn by years. Representing the hope in all Christians that God at a part of history became like us … And because the cross is empty… Means Christ is alive and gives us the hope of eternal life in Heaven. Anyway just the evangelical in me. J., as you know, restored his church. He has not put in a cross although it exists in various parts of the architecture. Many old churches had many crosses imbedded.

    My friend in England bought and old church and made it into a beautiful home. I pointed out to him all this which he had never seen before. Anyway the biggest symbol was in his front door and he had never noticed it. Funny.


    Stan Spavold

    August 3, 2013 at 11:05 am

    • Hi. Thanks for this. In my novel, the symbol of the Cross occurs many times in the architecture and the contents of the church. A theme embedded in my novel is the exchange of the sacred for the secular and of the secular for the sacred. In my novel, the main cross is removed from the church tower but other, more embedded crosses remain (the crosses in the ends of the church pews, for example). I must have a look at the crosses in the church and make sure they are written in to the theme. Thanks, Jane


      jane tims

      August 3, 2013 at 6:13 pm

  3. This is indeed a helpful exercise and a great help with writing any story or novel. Thanks so much for sharing.


    Carol Steel

    August 3, 2013 at 8:56 am

    • Hi Carol. I found the courses for the Maritime Writers Workshop this year very helpful. I seemed to absorb more than usual! Jane


      jane tims

      August 3, 2013 at 9:13 am

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