Script Symbology: Applying Symbols and Symbolism to Screenplays

Most agree films are the most symbolic art form, making extensive use of symbols and symbolism to carry messages. However, few understand symbols and symbolism and their successful application in films and (those blueprints for films) screenplays. It is seldom mentioned in screenwriting books or taught in film schools and when it is, there is more often little more than a passing mention of it. An understanding of symbols and symbolism and how they are applied to the cinematic arts can create powerful new types of screenplays and films.

Symbols As Context

The popular perspective of symbols is that they are the content of objects and brands. While this is certainly so, symbols are also contexts that contain the content of objects and brands. In screenplays, the major contexts containing objects are scenes and the major aspect of scenes are place, time and space.

symbols and symbolismFocusing on symbol objects within scenes, filmmakers often forget the power of the contexts of place, time and space containing these objects. An object has a different message in a different context. For example, a cowboy on a horse in the middle of a lonely desert presents a different message from the same cowboy on a horse in the downtown area of a crowded city.

Marshall McLuhan understood this important element of communication when he observed in Understanding Media that “Media is the message.” The statement might be changed a little and restated for our purposes here as “Context defines content” or “Context of a scene defines the content of the scene.” In this sense, a film or screenplay might be viewed both as a progression of contexts containing objects as well as just a progression of objects.

Symbolism As Duality & Correspondence

The movement and placement of symbols in a film or screenplay are governed by two key laws of symbolism: the Law of Duality and the Law of Correspondence.

The Law of Duality observes that symbols continually move in cycles composed of beginning and endings between their dualities or opposites. The story in a screenplay is a cycle composed of a beginning and an ending. The symbols at the beginning of the story cycle (Act I) are opposite the symbols at the end of the story (Act III). The Law of Duality involves a movement in linear time from the past to the future.

The Law of Correspondence observes that there are points within the cyclic movement of symbols where symbols are aligned with similar symbols. While the term “correspondence” was coined by the 18th century theologian Emanuel Swedenborg in works such as Arcana Coelestia (1749-1756) and Heaven and Hell (1758), the term relates to an ancient law of symbols that view relationships among symbols rather than movement of symbols. The basic idea expressed the concept what is above is below, what is within is without.

For example, the color red has a correspondence to fire while the color blue has a correspondence to water. A lion has a correspondence to the quality of courage while night has a correspondence to feminine and unconsciousness while day a correspondence to masculine and consciousness.

Script symbology views screenplays as the constant interfacing of these two laws. One law never works alone but rather in conjunction with the other. The Law of Duality works itself out in linear time moving from a beginning to an end. The Law of Correspondence works itself out in non-linear time representing a moment in time. Duality is movement from the past to the future. Correspondence is non-movement in moment of the present.

Visualizing Story Symbols & Symbolism

The dynamics of symbolism in a story or screenplay can be visualized by the symbol of a cross. The horizontal line of the cross represents the Law of Duality and the movement of the main duality symbols from beginning to end of the story. The vertical line of the cross represents the Law of Correspondence and the alignment of symbols at particular points (scenes) of a story. Movement of symbols is what underlies drama while alignment of symbols at particular places reinforces the power of the symbol at a particular time in its movement through the story cycle.

Context Symbols

Story Beginning

Story Ending

Place

Valley

Mountain

Space

Below

Above

Time

Night

Day

Table A

This constant interplay between horizontal and vertical symbols is represented in Table A above where contextual opposition symbols are represented horizontally in the Story Beginning and Story Ending columns while alignment (or similar symbols) represented vertically under Story Beginning or Story Ending columns.

A New Understanding Of Symbols & Symbolism

It is ironic that the art form that has the most symbolic potential has little understanding of the true nature of symbols and symbolism and little interest in making it part of its art. Some major screenwriting gurus such as John Truby do give symbols a voice in their theories (The Anatomy of Story) but others like Robert McKee fail to even mention symbols in their books (Story). And, when symbols are used in stories and films their use is often dictated by the demands of product placement rather than the needs of story.

While there is presently little understanding and use of symbols and symbolism in films and screenplays, this situation might someday change ushering in powerful ally to the cinematic arts. However, the full potential of symbols and symbolism will never be realized until their ancient knowledge is made a key part of the cinematic arts.

(For those interested in further exploring the ideas expressed in this column, see the author’s manuscript Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communicationand his book Battle of Symbols: Global Dynamics of Advertising, Entertainment and Media, 1993, Daimon Verlag, Zurich. Part of these works can be accessed on the Internet under the “Writing” button on the left side of www.symbolism.org). John is also the author of Sprit Catcher: The Life And Art of John Coltrane (1993, GreatHouse Company) which received the Best Biography Award from the Small Press Association. The book Spirit Catcher utilizes much of the symbol and symbolism techniques later developed in the above article and works. The author is now president of GreatHouse Stories in Palm Desert, California and is working on a screenplay of his book Spirit Catcher. The distance between the book and the screenplay is almost thirty-five years. This screenplay will attempt application of the author’s ideas and theories on symbols and symbolism into a template for creating this new, symbolic script structure. John can be contacted at johnfraim@mac.com.)

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2 thoughts on “Script Symbology: Applying Symbols and Symbolism to Screenplays

  1. Eric John

    Excellent article. I especially appreciate the Swedenborg reference.

    I agree completely: symbolism is underutilized in film today. The closest we get to symbolic meaning in American film is that of the ever-popular (and somewhat over-used) character archetypes. The problem with these are, (as well as tired plot points), is they reduce the 7th Art to formulaic Lego building. Symbolic visuals, when done artfully, are more subtle, and demand more from the viewer.

    Thanks for giving me much to think about, here.

  2. Bill BoyleBill Boyle

    John;
    Excellent piece. This really dovetails with the concept of the Visual Mindscape that I write about in particular Visual Metaphor and Location as Allegory. Really impressed. This stuff is not for the lazy writer, but for those that always want to push the edges.
    Congrats
    Bill Boyle

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