The Use of Symbols and Foreshadowing in Stories

“I recently saw again To Kill a Mockingbird and I remember you liked to use the writing as an example in your classes. symbols and foreshadowingWhat purpose did the author have when she had Atticus shoot and kill a rabid dog? How did that contribute to the story line? He did what he had to do? The kids had to learn the truth about life? He was simply protecting them?  You are supposed to be nice to dogs!! Anyway, it’s been plaguing me.” The use of symbols and foreshadowing in stories allows a writer to “show not tell” a reader what is coming.

I love To Kill a Mockingbird and yes, I’ve used it as an example in workshops. I also used the award-winning novel as an example in The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master to show the transformation Scout experiences. In the case of Atticus shooting a rabid dog, I believe Lee was using this as a symbol to foreshadow what is coming. 

The Middle

The story crossed from the Beginning (1/4) into the Middle (1/2) at exactly the one quarter mark of the hard copy book I have. Boo Radley has just made physical contact with Scout in a kind and thoughtful manner. This action of his dramatically changes her impression of him and thrusts her out of her familiar world into the exotic world of the unknown. Just a few pages later, Scout learns that Atticus is defending Tom Robinson — a Negro, even knowing he isn’t going to win. This, again, sends Scout into an unfamiliar and scarier world. This moment also establishes the main dramatic action of the story and sets up Atticus’ primary goal in the story. (Lee had foreshadowed this in the Beginning of the story through the use of two symbols — snow and fire (the burning away of the old to make way for the new).)

Tone and Intensity

The tone and intensity of the story becomes much more serious at this point. By using the symbol of the rabid dog in the next chapter, Lee foreshadows the violence that is coming. First, Scout and Jem both believe that Atticus is “feeble”, “nearly blind”, and “didn’t do anything”.  Then, their uncle gives them an air-rifle — the introduction of a gun always foreshadows that the gun will play a part in the plot. This is where the title comes into play — “it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird” which foreshadows the decision about Boo that is made at the very end of the book.

Atticus shooting the dog accomplishes several things in the novel. Most notably, he proves to both his children that he has skills and abilities neither of them ever expected. Also, this scene sets up symbols that illustrate that sometimes those you believe are old and safe and “the pet of Maycomb” can suddenly turn mad and dangerous — foreshadowing Ewell and the jury.

The Use of Symbols and Foreshadowing in Stories

deep scenesExcerpted from  Writing Deep Scenes: Plotting Your Story through Action, Emotion, and Theme:

When you have a strong sense of the themes and significance of your individual story, suddenly the action in the middle, the pressure from antagonists, and all the setbacks add up to a meaning deeper than the scenes themselves. One way to reinforce and support this profundity in the middle is with the use of imagery, symbols, metaphors, and settings that tease out the thematic elements and lead to understanding. These thematic elements bring wisdom to your story and cohesion to the individual scenes, even as some elements are so deeply buried that the reader may never connect to what you’ve done on a conscious level. The details in a story, and even details purposely left out, foreshadow what’s coming and inform the reader how to feel and relate to what is happening to the character and her world. Every bit of dialogue, seemingly random thought, song, dream, person, animal, object, and even metaphor and simile sends a message to the reader. Choosing just the right words and details when revising your story impacts the way readers later think about your book.