Julie Musil: On Crossing Lines & Adding Thematic Symbols to Fiction

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Congratulations are in order for Julie Musil whose has a new release - The Summer of Crossing Lines. Julie is here today discussing how to add thematic symbols to our stories. Without further delay, here we go …

How to Add Thematic Symbols to Our Fiction

Thematic symbols add depth and meaning to fiction. Think fire and bow and arrow with the Hunger Games series. In my latest release, The Summer of Crossing Lines, there are two thematic symbols--a giant oak dubbed “The Mary Tree” and police tape.

How should writers choose a symbol? And how can the symbol be added organically to the story? Here are my thoughts.

  Choose an object or symbol that’s had an impact on you. Is there an image from the Bible that resonates with you? Do Egyptian hieroglyphics fascinate you? Is there an item from nature--an iceburg, a cavern, bougainvillea--that you find spooky or beautiful?
For The Summer of Crossing Lines I added a large oak tree that I pass almost every day. It had been burned out in a wildfire. The remaining trunk resembles the image of Mary looking over Jesus in the manger. Locals have since turned The Mary Tree into a shrine, adding photos and flowers to makeshift shelves.

  Uncover or create meaning behind the symbol. If it’s an established symbol, like something biblical or Egyptian, research the meaning behind it. If it’s a symbol you’ve designed, you can create an intriguing backstory.

At The Mary Tree, people have set up lawn chairs in a semi-circle. On important holidays, like Christmas, families gather there. It became a place to pray, hope, and remember. The meaning had already been established, and I used this to my advantage in my story.

  Integrate the symbol into your story. What does the symbol represent? Inspiration? Bad luck? A dangerous cult? A family heirloom? When your characters encounter the symbol, either add the meaning or keep it mysterious by slowly dripping in details.

In my story, The Mary Tree became a place for reflection. The main character is searching for her missing brother, and she finds clues at the tree. This symbol served more than one purpose.

  Add the symbol to the book cover. With the thematic symbol on the cover, readers can tie-in the outer image to the one described in the book. It adds another connection.

Instead of adding The Mary Tree to the cover, I opted for police tape. “Police Line Do Not Cross” resonated with me, because my character crosses moral lines while searching for her missing brother.

I don’t set out to add thematic symbols--they happen naturally a few drafts in. How about you? Have you added thematic symbols to your fiction? If so, what? Did it happen naturally or did you plan it from the start?

Julie Musil writes from her rural home in Southern California, where she lives with her husband and three sons. She’s an obsessive reader who loves stories that grab the heart and won’t let go. Her YA novels The Summer of Crossing Lines and The Boy Who Loved Fire are available now. For more information, or to stop by and say Hi, please visit Julie on her blog, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Title: The Summer of Crossing Lines
Author: Julie Musil
Release date: August 19, 2014
Category: Young Adult (YA)
Genre: Contemporary Mystery

Short Summary

When her protective older brother disappears, sixteen-year-old Melody infiltrates a theft ring, gathers clues about his secret life, and falls for a handsome pickpocket. At what point does truth justify the crime?

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  1. I like the idea behind the Mary Tree - and where it got its name.
    I don't think I've used symbolism in my stories. Although the one I'm working on now might actually have one.
    Congratulations, Julie!

    1. Alex, it was the coolest thing. Months after the fire, I noticed flowers and candles around the tree. I didn't notice the Mary image until someone else pointed it out to me. Now I definitely see it!

  2. Subtle symbolism works well. I used it a little bit in my series, mostly to do with the characters' hair.

    1. L. Diane, good point about subtlety. I don't start out thinking about symbolism, I just try to recognize it in later drafts and roll with it.

  3. Symbolism is a hard one and it is good to see Julie explain it here. Congrats to you Julie on your new book!

    Hi Joy!


    1. Thanks, Denise! Yes, it can definitely be tricky. I think it's best not to use a heavy hand.

  4. Great post. I love symbolism and I'm getting better at incorporating it in my writing.

  5. Symbols add so much texture to stories and I think they do come naturally to us as we write.

    1. Lee, I agree...if I were to try to force it, I think readers would hate it!


Don't be shy, I'd love to hear what you think.