A couple weeks ago, I saw the teaser trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. One shot captured me instantly: Rey, Finn, and Poe overlooking the shattered remains of (presumably) the second Death Star. Those few seconds made me more excited for the trilogy’s conclusion than Palpatine’s laughter and the other action-packed glimpses.
Because of the rich symbolism.
Writers tend to view symbols as literary tropes to develop a story’s theme. However, symbols not only deepen theme, they enhance the audience’s enjoyment of a story.
Symbols aren’t abstract concepts, but embodied ideas that cause readers to form an emotional attachment to a story’s themes, characters, settings, and events. The recent Star Wars films serve as an excellent case study. Although J. J. Abrams’ and Rian Johnson’s application of symbolism isn’t perfect, we can learn from the best and worst aspects of their techniques in each film.
The Force Awakens: Emotionally Resonant Symbols
J. J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, understands that symbols have the ability to set a scene’s tone and move audiences.
Darth Vader’s helmet has become iconic in pop culture since the original trilogy. When Kylo Ren speaks to its mangled shell, that conjures up memories of a broken source of evil that gives viewers chills.
On Jakku, the downed Star Destroyer lends more to the atmosphere than decoration, though I’m admittedly fascinated by ruins. Stranded in a desert, the Star Destroyer emanates deadness. Jakku is a dead planet, and the desolate scenery conveys this theoretically as well as emotionally.
When we compare these scenes to others in the film, a pattern emerges. The casino planet, the Resistance planet, and Luke’s planet overflow with life, whereas corrupt planets are devoid of it. Instead of a duel on the wintry Starkiller Base, imagine a climax where Kylo and Rey fight in a jungle—perhaps similar to the battle on Takodana earlier on. The scene would feel entirely different, because symbols generate a distinct aura that invokes emotions.
I could analyze other symbols, such as Anakin’s lightsaber or Finn’s blood-smeared helmet, but I think I’ve proved my point. If you’re using symbols merely for their thematic meanings and aren’t capitalizing on emotional triggers, your approach is wrong. Though The Force Awakens has the advantage of borrowing symbols from previous episodes, we can glean two concrete lessons from its tactics.
1. The Symbols Need to Matter to the Characters
Prioritizing emotional impact over thematic significance may seem like an odd strategy, but symbols that are infused with emotion radiate the most power. Moreover, designing symbols is often easier if you progress from emotion to theme rather than the reverse. Standard symbols like colors, directions, and celestial bodies are difficult to correlate with characters. Although not necessarily bad, these symbols are generally weaker. That’s why many of the key symbols in The Force Awakens are built on personal connections to the characters.
Examples of symbols with emotional relevance include Darth Vader’s helmet and Anakin’s lightsaber from Star Wars, Spiderman’s suit in Raimi’s Spiderman 2, the scarlet letter in The Scarlet Letter, the green light in The Great Gatsby, the rabbit farm in Of Mice & Men, and the Ring in Lord of the Rings. All of these elements carry emotional weight because the characters care about them. When choosing symbols, begin with an object or place that characters either love or hate and work from there.
2. Use Symbols to Set the Mood
Intriguing symbols are pointless if they’re absent from the story. Expert storytellers understand how symbols influence a reader’s perception of a scene and manipulate his senses accordingly.
If you’ve correctly established the protagonist’s emotional connection to the symbol, readers should mirror her reaction to it. This allows you to create atmosphere. Abrams achieves this with shattered spaceships and character relics. Once you’ve added an emotional layer, you’ll be able to incorporate symbols into the backdrop if you’re intentional about it.
The Flaws in Abrams’ Approach
Although the symbols in The Force Awakens are emotionally engaging, many are thematically shallow. Anakin’s lightsaber, for instance. The frame of the shot and the awe it arouses implies that it’s important. But what does the weapon symbolize? Your guess is as good as mine. (Johnson attributes meaning to the same symbol in The Last Jedi.)
Sometimes Abrams’ symbols serve more as embellishments than threads in the story’s theme. Part of the issue is the lack of a core theme in The Force Awakens. Nonetheless, the symbols are heavy with emotions and sparse in meaning. That weakness leads right into my next point.
The Last Jedi: Thematically Revealing Symbols
I realize that discussing The Last Jedi on the internet is liable to cause disputes, but I’m not interested in stirring anyone up. Regardless of whether you liked how the film affected the franchise, Rian Johnson displayed skill in his development of themes (I wrote about this in greater detail on my blog).
A central theme in The Last Jedi is the death of the past, and it tinges character dialogue and decisions in addition to the story’s main symbols.
Vader isn’t the only character with a symbolic mask—Kylo’s mask represents his desire to emulate Vader. Snoke tells him early in the film, “You’re not Vader; you’re just a child with a mask!” Kylo responds by destroying his own mask, which announces that he’s abandoning Vader as his idol. Instead he’ll chart his own path.
To evaluate a more controversial treatment of symbols, look at Anakin’s lightsaber. When Luke tosses it over his shoulder, he inadvertently enraged many fans (and I agree that this was an unseemly action), but it demonstrates that he’s forsaking the past. Then, when Rey and Kylo eventually break the lightsaber in Snoke’s throne chamber, the past is dead whether the characters like it or not. To win in the present, they need to stop relying on ancient weapons.
Several other symbols reiterate this fact, such as the burning of the Jedi temple tree and the twin sunset at the end. Johnson primarily utilizes symbols to convey the film’s major themes, and we can gain two additional insights from his methods.
1. Integrate Symbols into the Story’s Theme
Once you’ve selected a symbol for its emotional impact, you need to tie it to your story’s theme. Johnson does this expertly with each symbol in The Last Jedi by alluding to the past. While the symbols in The Force Awakens have been extracted from previous films, it falls short in this area because it has no overarching theme to reinforce.
The form of the thematic connection will vary, but once you’ve sewn the pieces together, you’ll only need to drop hints about the symbol in descriptions, character thoughts, or dialogue to ingrain its meaning into readers’ minds.
2. Intersperse Symbols Throughout Character Arcs
I’ve recommended creating symbols from emotional connections first, but a symbol’s capacity to illuminate theme is actually its most valuable quality. Don’t squander your story’s thematic potential like The Force Awakens. Consider how you can accentuate your story’s theme and unfold a symbol’s meaning through a character’s interaction with it.
Johnson obliterates most of the nostalgic symbols that appeared in The Force Awakens, though he preserves a few, like the Jedi books, to reveal that the death of the past isn’t the story’s message, and a ghost beats Kylo at the end. In Spiderman 2, Peter discards his suit to signal his walk away from responsibility. In The Scarlet Letter, Hester tries to glorify her scarlet letter, then attempts to get rid of it, and finally accepts it, representing her arc over the story. And in Lord of the Rings, multiple characters are forced to choose whether to succumb to the Ring’s temptation.
Symbolic usage will differ from story to story, but remember that symbols aren’t window dressings—they should be components hardwired into your story’s theme.
The Flaws in Johnson’s Approach
Although Johnson supports the film’s theme with symbolism more than Abrams did, his symbols largely fail to evoke emotions—or at least the right emotions.
Luke’s flippant rejection of the lightsaber is intentionally jolting. But, when a weighty symbol is dismissed, it deserves a big scene preceded by buildup. Without that, it feels like a joke at the audience’s expense. Luke doesn’t value the symbol, and viewers wonder if the filmmakers don’t either. This symbol subversion was handled better during Kylo and Rey’s fight later in the film.
The tree library is another example of this problem. When Luke sets it afire, the burning is clearly supposed to be symbolic. Yet, at least personally, I’m not disturbed or saddened. Why? Because the tree is a new symbol, and the scene that introduces it has a dark, mysterious vibe—which doesn’t reflect the hope Rey seeks in the Jedi order. That may be how Luke views the Jedi. But Rey and the audience don’t share his perspective yet. The tree is laden with thematic significance and empty of emotional resonance.
The Rise of Skywalker, the Future of Symbols, and You
The trailer for The Rise of Skywalker gives me hope that the prominent symbols of the new Star Wars trilogy will continue—and I’m crossing my fingers that they’ll use the shattered Death Star effectively.
Whether you’re looking ahead to The Rise of Skywalker or your own book, symbolism can increase the audience’s enthusiasm for a story. Thus, I want to stress one final rule.
Don’t Waste Opportunities
The Force Awakens neglects thematic impact and The Last Jedi neglects emotional impact. Symbols can help readers experience a story from both angles—but only when you invest time as an author. Crafting symbols that combine the emotional weight of The Force Awakens and the thematic meaning of The Last Jedi is the goal you should be aiming for.
What symbols are currently present in your story? And what symbols could you add? Don’t overlook chances to bring your story’s theme to life and leave a profound impression on readers.
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.