(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“When the language is common, the image must be telling.” Lu Chi’s Wen Fu

“No sooner do we try to put an image into conscious relation with another than we find ourselves slipping into a silent flow of words.” Edward Sapir

“Imagery. The use of descriptions in a narrative to suggest or evoke something beyond what is literally being described. Imagery may approach the quality of symbolism, but is less rigidly defined.” Madison Smartt Bell

“Imagery tends to evolve organically from the total context of all the meanings a story generates. What an image may suggest, represent or “mean” tends to be organically rooted in the world that the story creates. Symbols, by contrast, have a more fixed definition, which may be recognized outside the narratives in which they occur (while images are likely to be more wholly dependent on the stories which give birth to them).” Madison Smartt Bell

“A cross is universally recognized to represent Christianity, while a somewhat smaller set of observers is likely to know that an inverted pentangle represents Satanism—regardless of context. The meaning of this sort of symbol is as definite as the value of a coin. Fixed symbols of this kind often occur in narratives. (Beginning writers are sometimes overly attached to fixed symbols, using them too obviously and reductively).” Madison Smartt Bell

“A consciously contrived system of symbolism in a modern story usually looks too stiff, too rigid—too contrived, in short. Static symbolism is too much at odds with the realistic representation of everyday life, a task which most contemporary fiction undertakes to some extent.” Madison Smartt Bell

“He must work out major details of characterization and think out what some of his major images imply (the extent, that is, to which they function as symbols).” John Gardner

“In fleshing out characters, the writer does not ordinarily think out every implication of every image he introduces at the time he introduces it. He writes by feel, intuitively, imagining the scene vividly and copying down its most significant details, keeping the fictional dream alive, sometimes writing in a thoughtless white heat of ‘inspiration.’” John Gardner

“The artist penetrates the concrete world in order to find at its depths the image of its source, the image of ultimate reality.” Flannery O’Connor

“It is that ability to summarize and encapsulate that makes symbolism so interesting, useful, and—when used well—arresting. You could argue that it’s really just another kind of figurative language.” Stephen King