Tips, Writing

Write the Novel – Flash Symbols

We select ties, scarves, jewelry, shoes, and socks or stockings to bring clothes together into a look. We need to do the same thing with flash symbols, also called associative devices. These are micro-details that reinforce theme, plot, character, or other major story elements. They may appear as props, analogues, parallels, reversals, setting reuse, and sense of time.

Flash symbols should appear early in the story—bonus points if we get one into the first paragraph—and reappear frequently.

Don’t worry too much about flash symbols in our first, unfinished draft. The first complete rewrite is a good place to add them.


Physical objects to which the characters relate in a special way. Cliches: coffee machine used as comic relief; junker cars that break down at the crucial moment. Ditto: electrical devices that aren’t charged and unlovable animals taken home by the protagonist, with which they form a love-hate relationship.

For a list of props that can be used in new ways, see Donald Maass. The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great.


Analogues are stand-ins. In their most basic form they become cliches. Hot red sports cars stand in for sex. A chocolate malt stands in for innocence. When their meanings are woven deeper into the story, they become more effective.

In Farewell to Arms, Ernest Hemingway uses geography. Mountain are pure, clean, affirming places; plains and valleys are the struggle of being human. Whenever Frederic and Catherine are in mountains, good things happen to them. When they descend into valleys, bad things.

Parallels and Reversals

Parallels are the symbol equivalent of sub-plots, running alongside the main plot. They often involve secondary characters, and contain reversals. One couple gets engaged; another couple breaks up.

Major events at the climax should be woven in, in microcosm throughout the novel. Parallels and reversals need to be used to preview the climax. There’s a fine line between previewing the climax and telegraphing the ending.

Slapstick comedy telegraphs. As soon as the huge, cream-covered birthday cake appears, the audience knows someone is either going to fall into it, or throw it at someone.

Setting Reuse

Avoid settings there for the writer’s convenience. The most over-used settings are people sitting at a table talking and/or eating and the protagonist alone in a car, in the shower, in bed, etc. Settings like these are boring, made doubly so by the character lapsing into internal musings.

Revisit the same places throughout the book and twist the setting each time so that it means something different. This is particularly important for the place where our climax takes place. The climax isn’t just the big thing. It’s also small things that will never be the same again.

In the final scene there should be a memorable object. Plant the same object or its analog at least twice elsewhere in the novel. If twice is good, how many more times could we plant it? Give its meaning a slightly different twist each time? Allow the protagonist to see something in that final setting that others miss. He or she alone — and the reader, of course — recognize the significance.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss, doesn’t just draw the mountain, he sculpts it in mashed potatoes. At the movie’s climax, it’s essential that he knows the mountain in three dimensions.

Sense of time

Do characters in historical books have values and behave consistently with how people believed and acted in their particular time? It’s critical that they do. Time periods that a reader knows or is interested in attract them. They will know when we get it wrong and it will turn them off. Fortunately, many writers chose time settings that they lived through or know well. If that’s not the case, the solution is research, research, research.

When writing in another era, it’s far more important to know how people thought or acted than it is to know product brand names or television shows. Use primary sources whenever possible. A primary source is one written, filmed, or made by people living at a certain time. They include diaries, works published at the time, scrapbooks, postcards, photographs, films, and physical objects. Interviewing people who lived through the time is also good, but be sure to allow for memory distortion.

In the same way, once we’ve written a good character introduction, determined theme, or tuned into what props, analogs, and settings work for this book, we’ve set ourselves on a path. We know that it’s highly likely we’re going to stray from this path as the book unfolds, but at least we’ve taken the first step out of the door.

For further exploration

I’d love to write about black moments and managing micro-tension next. Learning about them moved my writing to a new level. However, all of my notes come straight from a Donald Maass workshop, and I’d rather you let him explain it to you. Once more, I recommend  The Fire in Fiction.

Hope to see you back on Thursday, September 18, for the third part of our habits’ discussion — Habits for Ending: we’ve finished a huge project. Celebrate, celebrate, dance to the music!

Strangely enough, next Tuesday, September 23, there is a companion blog We’ve Finished Draft Zero — Now what? How to tidy up and get ready for the next draft.