Script Symbology: The Art of Symbolism

“The essential problem is to know what is revealed to us not by any particular version of a symbol, but by the whole of symbolism.”

Mercea Eliade

The Rites and Symbols of Initiation

Symbolism is the art or practice of using symbols especially by investing things with a symbolic meaning or expressing the invisible or intangible by means of visible or sensuous representations. In effect, symbolism is like a grammar containing the “words” of symbols. In terms of scripts, symbolism creates rules and principles for the movement and alignment of symbols.

art of symbolismMercea Eliade well states the challenge of working in the language of symbols when he notes the real challenge is not only understanding a particular symbol but rather the whole of symbolism. As we have mentioned in a previous column, no symbol exists alone but rather within both a context and a system. The context defines how the individual symbol is perceived and in fact can be seen to form a symbol itself we have referred to as a contextual symbol. We noted some examples of contextual symbols such as place, time and space.

But apart from always being contained in particular contexts, symbols also possess movement in time and alignment in time. This movement and alignment might best be visualized by the symbol of a cross. (Figure A) In this sense, the horizontal line of the cross can be seen as representing linear movement of symbols through a script from beginning of the script (Act I on the left side of the line) to the end of the script (Act III on the right side of the line). The vertical line, on the other hand, can be seen as representing the non-linear alignment of symbols at particular points in time (or scenes) during the script.

Scene (Context)

 

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Beginning ——————————————————————————–Ending

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Scene (Content)

 

 

Figure A

Movement & Alignment

 

Symbols move in cycles between opposition symbols. The symbols at the beginning of cycles change through the course of their movement and are opposite symbols at the end of cycles. Day becomes night. Night becomes day. Summer becomes winter. Winter becomes summer. This natural movement of symbols needs to be part of scripts also for the greatest drama is created through the movement between oppositions at the beginning and ending of narratives. Besides movement in linear time between symbols oppositions, symbols demonstrate an alignment or similarity in the non-linear time of particular scenes within the narrative.

These two characteristics of symbols represent two of the great laws of symbolism: the law of duality or opposition and the law of correspondence. The law of correspondence relates to the old hermetic principle of that below equals that above or that on the inside equals that on the outside. For example, the outward symbol of night and the moon has a correspondence with the inner world of unconsciousness while the outward symbol of the day and sun with the inner world of consciousness. Carl Jung investigated this phenomenon of alignment through various experiments using tools such as the ancient Chinese iChing labeling the alignments he found as creating “meaningful coincidences” he termed Synchronicity.

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Scriptwriters today are hardly aware of one of these principles. The use of both of them operating in a cross-like system is almost non-existent. A new script symbology needs to take both of these laws into account when creating scripts and it needs to take them into account at the same time rather than design for one and then the other.

In effect, from the perspective of symbolism, a script can be viewed as a cross with the vertical line in movement across the horizontal line from left (at the beginning in Act I) to the right (at the ending in Act III). The vertical line of the cross can be viewed as representing the movement of the hero along the horizontal timeline of the script. The part of the vertical line above the horizontal line can be viewed as the contextual symbols like place, time and space while the vertical line below the horizontal line can be viewed as the content symbols of character, dialogue, action, objects and events.

As we have noted, the greatest drama involves the greatest opposition between symbols at the beginning of a script and symbols at the end of a script. The symbol of a rich man becoming richer has far less drama and opposition than the symbol of a poor man becoming rich. The symbol of a strong woman becoming stronger much less drama and opposition than a weak woman becoming strong.

And, from the perspective of symbolism, the most powerful scenes in a drama are those when the outer world is aligned or has a correspondence with the inner world. In this way, the objects and settings in scripts serve a much greater purpose than platforms for product placements. They point not outside towards things but rather inside towards emotions and feelings.

One can get a basic understanding of the system of script symbology by adding an additional vertical line to the cross shown above therefore creating 6 separate sections. (Figure B) The three upper sections can be labeled A, B and C and the three lower sections labeled D, E and F. Section A on the upper left contains the contextual symbols for Act I (Set-Up) of the script such as scene settings in place, time and space. Section D directly below Section A contains the content symbols for Act I such as characters, action, objects and events.

The upper middle Section B contains the contextual symbols for Act II (Confrontation) of the script such as scene settings in place, time and space while Section E directly below Section B contains the content symbols for Act II such as characters, action, objects and events.

Finally, Section C in the upper right contains the contextual symbols for Act III (Resolution) of the script such as scene settings in place, time and space while Section F directly below Section C contains the content symbols for Act III such as characters, action, objects and events.

 

 

A                                 |                       B                                 |                       C

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D                                 |                       E                                  |                       F

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Figure B

Basic Script Symbolism Structure

Our three horizontal divisions contains the traditional three act screenplay structure propounded by Syd Field but other structures like John Truby’s seven step structure can be substituted creating 14 sections rather than 6 sections.

In order to structure a script fully utilizing symbolism, two things must happen within the sections we have created. First of all, we much create opposite symbols in the context and content symbols of Act I (Sections A and D above) from the context and content symbols of Act III (Sections C and F above). Second, we must make sure that context symbols in the top Sections A, B and C are aligned with (similar to) the content symbols in Sections D, E and F directly below them.

(Note: The subject of the two dynamics of symbolism is explored in greater length in our book Symbolism of Place: The Hidden Context of Communication. It can be found in the Books section on our symbolism site at www.symbolism.org.)

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