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Understanding and Using Symbols

Copyright © 2002, Dorian Scott Cole 

This article is dedicated to the memory of archaeological anthropologist and explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1914--2002), whose life, spirit, and books are an inspiring symbol for the rest of us.

Have you ever used a symbol that worked?

If your experience has been to put a symbol in a script or movie that you expected everyone to respond to in a certain way, and they didn't "get it," then this article is for you. The idea of "universal symbols" that we all respond to in the same way is a myth. We do learn to interpret a few symbols a certain way through our culture, or through specialized knowledge of specific groups. For example, we may be taught "art appreciation." A connoisseur of something has a depth of understanding that may be missing in others.

Mostly our responses to words, images, and other things used as symbols are individualized and depend heavily on our individual understanding and experiences, as research on words by Gendlin indicates.*1 This article is for those who want to be challenged to look more deeply into the use of symbols to understand how to consistently use them effectively.

Where am I coming from? (A few too many words are due regarding the source of this information.) I hasten to say that this article is not prepared from an academic approach, although I borrow eclectically from the academic community (here identifying academics as more oriented toward systematic research). Those who want the scholastic approach should look toward a university program, or purchase books on symbols - and I highly recommend doing these.

Realistically, however, few take these paths to study symbols. So this article is about the model which has evolved for me regarding the use of symbol mechanisms in movies (or any story) because I frequently use and study symbols and have written about them since before 1993; and I am currently emphasizing a more semiotic approach to movie analysis. (By model I don't mean a perfect replica. A model here means a theoretical construct formed from observation, experience, and scholastic inquiry that provides a consistent way of accessing something - it probably is neither entirely correct nor incorrect, but can be refined.) Undoubtedly the academic community will come up with (0r has) six better schemes that reflect improved approaches and fit into specialized disciplines.

Just as importantly, I draw on many different fields of study in which I have direct experience to add to my depth of knowledge about symbols and their mechanisms. I'm not locked into a single approach, such as linguistics. This doesn't make me an expert, but it hopefully gives me a useful understanding that I can share with others. My descriptions are based on my observation of my own use of symbols, other's use, and anecdotal observations, not on methodical testing.

A word about terms: Symbols that have a resemblance to what they represent are conventionally called "icons." Icons have limited application here, so for my purposes of discussion I am going to stick to the word "symbol." Similarly, other terms, such as "concept" and "index," also have so many different meanings in different fields that I will avoid using these words to avoid confusion.

Is everything in life simply a construct that is symbolized by something, and has no real meaning? Describing things through symbols doesn't mean that everything is a symbol - this is just a way of accessing meaning mechanisms and learning how to use symbols effectively. Our having the ability to see something as a symbol, to me means that it can actually function as a symbol, this isn't just a way of analyzing a story. Symbols can be used in various ways in a story since they can function in very different ways. This article describes the symbol mechanisms that I have identified.

Will we be naming, categorizing, and memorizing symbols? This article is not about symbol "types." I believe that trying to classify symbols by type is a misleading exercise since any symbol can be used effectively to represent anything - that is, any symbol can be used with any of these mechanisms. The "mechanism" is the element that is important, not the image or semantic formation. So this is by no means an attempt to create a classification and definition system.

In A Theory of Semiotics,*3 the grand master semiotician Umberto Eco defines "A typology of sign production," which is a similar idea to what I talk about here. To put this in perspective, why does this article differ from Eco's theory? Certainly neither to build on nor compete with any semiotician (such a battle I would lose in the opening round). What Eco defines is a standardized way of classifying sign production into four different categories, depending on five different parameters. It is a broad basis for a theory of signs. In a different approach for stories, what I am about here is talking about mechanisms. To me there is a significant difference in focus on the one hand between how signs are produced, and on the other how symbol mechanisms produce commmunication. Also to the point, I developed this independently, chosing my focus rather than limiting myself to the constraints of another theory.

For example, Eco's production category "Invention" is similar in ways to my description of "assignment." Eco reveals how signs might be invented. I prefer to look at assignments made by the writer to communicate meaning, and only explain the mechanism in sufficient detail to understand how it works. Approaching symbols from this different perspective, I describe very different mechanisms and results which I think are appropriate to story analysis, especially in a primarily visual medium, particularly since I regard symbols as having the characteristics "static" and "participatory." I highly recommend reading (studying) A Theory of Semiotics, or for those who want to get a less technical understanding of how much difference symbols and their interpretation make, and their limitations, look at Interpretation and Overinterpretation by Eco.

Although I draw on a number of fields in which symbols are studied and used, this article doesn't adhere to contemporary classification systems such as might be used in psychoanalysis, marketing, semiotics (or linguistics), or categorization theory (related to the science of the formation of thought in the mind). I do borrow from them when the parallels make sense. This is just an attempt to describe mechanisms, in the context of exploration on this Web site, of the use of symbols in a medium that is primarily visual.

How do symbols work?

Creating a symbol as you read this article will help in understanding symbol creation. To get you started, imagine that you are creating a "vehicle" for understanding symbols. Forget about vehicles that carry people and material - all things with wings and wheels - think more abstractly about something to carry your thoughts. A brain is one example, but don't use that. As you read each section, decide what characteristics you see for this vehicle for understanding symbols.

Is exploring symbols getting into the beleaguered and doubtful science of psychoanalysis? No... well, marginally the "empty box" symbol mentioned later in this article might stray into that area. I believe that there are very few symbols that operate consistently at a subconscious level from individual to individual, such as the "universal symbols" that occur frequently in dreams, as discussed by early psychoanalytic pioneer, Carl Jung. Trying to classify these symbols into common meanings is a noble cause that overlooks individual differences.

What is important about a symbol is what it means to you specifically, not to everyone else. I also see limited application in movie making for the Rorschach type of interpretive pathway into the subconscious. Those who interpret a sexual, violent, or some other meaning in every word and image don't need our assistance to get there - they will see what they want to see with or without us, and the rest of us are unlikely to see what they see.

Tapping the subconscious of the audience would be a more fragile and futile method than the mechanisms that I describe. While the meaning of symbols will vary from person to person, I think that there are some mechanisms that consistently work. What I describe here can have relatively predictable results if the writer makes sure the symbol's meaning is clearly established, gains attention on the screen, and the symbol isn't obscured by a sea of other symbols.*2 To illustrate the use of symbols, an example story script is at the end of this article.

Do words or images make better symbols? Umberto Eco described a dichotomy of verbal and non-verbal units, in A Theory of Semiotics,*4 noting the generally regarded superiority of verbal units for sheer expressive power. We flip-flop on this issue. At one moment, a picture is worth a thousand words, at another moment a few words can express much more than a picture. I choose not to get into that binary, and instead say that symbols can represent anything, and in a medium that is primarily visual, symbols can have great power.

More importantly, anything can be used as a symbol that points to something else. A symbol can even point to its opposite. For example, the word "bad" (a symbol) basically means that something is at an unacceptable standard, but it can also mean very good, as in "baddest," or bad can emphasize a teasing naughtiness that others find not only acceptable, but very good. In this article, I'll even use groups of words (phrases) to represent other things.

What are symbols? For the purpose of this article, symbols are visual images (including people and objects), words, ideas, situations, and even more complex formations, that are either established by our culture to convey certain meanings, or are established by the writer to have certain meanings, or they allow the audience to project meanings that are peculiar to each individual. Symbols allow each person to project characteristics onto the symbol that commonly represent his experience or his attitude.

Why attitude? This partly reflects where I'm "coming from," or how I understand things. Attitude and its components, I believe, are very important in the use of symbols. Attitude, as I use the term, represents several interactive components: emotion, belief, behavior, and attitude itself.5 The more experientially based these components are, the stronger they are. That is, the more experience (first hand or vicarious) the person has that supports the attitude, the stronger the component and the attitude. Emotion is the component that is most likely to impact attitude and behavior. Belief is the second.

In a movie, belief is largely restricted to the confines of the story, as the audience member suspends disbelief to ride along with the events of the story line. So the common characteristics that an audience member might project onto a symbol might be one or more experiences, an attitude, an emotion, a belief, or a wish for the character to behave in a certain way.

Symbols are often used to produce an effect, such as feelings (mood) and associations, for example as produced by a motif, setting, or music. This article is in general focused on symbol usage that is more specific than these uses, and my comments about symbol's effectiveness may or may not apply in every situation.

What characteristics do you see now on your symbol "vehicle?" Rather than think of some concrete word used in the preceding paragraphs, let your mind wander.

Symbol Mechanisms

The first symbol mechanisms discussed are what I call "static symbols." Static symbols just exist, as opposed to participatory symbol mechanisms which interact in various ways with the characters. Wherever static symbols are, whenever we see them, static symbols point beyond their basic selves to some other meaning. For example, if we see a set of dice, we think of chance and gambling. If we see a flag, we think of the country or organization that it represents.

Static symbols don't have to interact with the character in any way to have meaning - they just have to be present. The mechanisms mentioned later, the "sign mechanism" and "cultural symbol mechanism" and "assigned symbol mechanism" are primarily static symbols - they only have to be present to function as symbols. Please note that I use these terms to help clarify things. In the continuum of symbol mechanisms, there is no clear demarkation between static and participatory symbols, or between the mechanisms used by a symbol. This is just a way of understanding them.

Sign mechanisms

The first mechanism, the sign, is very straightforward. Consider a road sign. This "signifier" points to something else, such as a curve in the road, a dangerous condition, a railroad track, or an intersection. You can say that this sign provides meaning that everyone can understand. Road signs are very graphic and intuitive, meaning they are pictures that usually don't require words for us to understand.

Click to see a notational diagram of the basic symbol mechanism.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?"

Cultural symbol mechanisms

Few symbols can be found that have an inherent or intuitive meaning. Most symbols, like words, are assigned meaning by our culture. If we see a set of dice, we most likely think of "chance," since in our culture dice are used in games of chance. A maze is something people construct to use for fun, and seeing an image of a maze might make us think of a challenge to find our way out. A puzzle might make us think of something that has to be put back together, but in a challenging way. Other examples of this symbol mechanism are religious icons, words, gestures that we make, ideas, motifs, music compositions, currency, automobile types, scholastic grades, and rating systems. We may think of these things in absolute terms, but really these things are all given meaning to us by our culture.

Examples of cultural symbols that are likely to convey a similar meaning are a religious cross, flag, peace sign, set of dice, a baby, black or white hat, puzzle piece, question mark, and a dollar sign. These are items that will usually get the same message or feeling across to just about everyone, even though each person will have a slightly different set of experiences that these relate to. For example, multiple dollar signs would get across the idea that something is a bit pricey, whether one is rich or poor. Fog is a metaphor that you could even employ as part of the set to enhance the feeling of "lostness" that you are trying to convey.

So, many symbols reflect cultural meaning. But not all of these symbols are perceived by everyone in exactly the same way. Meaning varies according to the person's experience. For example, the word radio to a listener means the music and patter coming from an electronic gadget. To an announcer, the word radio means speaking before a microphone and choosing music or news. To an engineer, radio means electronic controls and transmitters, towers, electromagnetic waves, and calls out in the middle of the night. So to the individual, symbols reflect "individual" meaning, not just cultural meaning. (This idea is discuss more thoroughly in Whats In A Word, Part I.)

Click to see a notational diagram of the cultural symbols mechanism.

The symbol reflects both the meaning presented by the culture, and the meaning that is specific to the individual.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?"

Assigned symbol mechanism

Symbols are often temporarily assigned a meaning for a short interval, such as during a movie. For example, if Johnny has a key that he uses to unlock a secret route for escape, when that key later appears we know that Johnny has a potential way to escape. The key represents the escape route. We don't think of it as a symbol, but it operates as one by forming a conceptual construct. Meanings for these kinds of symbols are assigned by the writer, or whoever is creating the environment for the venue we are in.

Computer icons are another type of assigned symbol mechanism. Computer icons rarely resemble programs and their operations, which are abstract things that are nearly impossible to represent in any concrete way. The symbol has no inherent meaning - but later we associate the symbol with some program or action in a program. For example, a large "W" may stand for the Microsoft Word program (starts it when clicked), but on another word processor it may stand for "word wrap." The environment determines our recollection of what has been assigned to the "W."

People also assign meanings to things that help establish, reflect, or remind them of their identity. They may associate a certain type of car with a particular role in life. To one physician, the BMW represents people of that status. To another physician, Lexus, to another Buick... Their culture may or may not support the assignment.

Other examples of assignment:  Perhaps owning a gun makes someone feel as if he is living on the edge or protecting himself. However, the cultural interpretation may be that "he" is a dangerous person. Another example, shopping in a certain store may make a person feel wealthy. It is an individual interpretation. When I was young, only people who were poor or were doing manual labor wore blue jeans. Today, blue jeans are a worldwide cultural phenomenon, typically overpriced, and widely accepted by both wealthy and poor. To feel wealthy, one person may only purchase a certain brand in a certain store. His neighbor may have a similar idea, but favor another brand and store. Both brands may in fact be made by the same manufacturer. In real life, the meaning for symbols often gets assigned by the individual and may only have meaning to the individual. In stories, the writer can make these assignments as part of characterization.

Click to see a notational diagram of the assigned symbols mechanism.

The assigned symbol reflects either a meaning assigned by the writer or the individual.

Assigned symbols are dynamic in that they are often built by the writer in stages throughout the course of the movie. I call this "loading" the symbol (creating the conceptual construct), and discuss it in: Motifs.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?"

Participatory symbol mechanism

The previous symbols are primarily static in that they reflect meaning simply by their presence. Other symbols actually participate in our experience, even in a movie. These symbols either bring meaning to us and then provide a focus that enables us to build on them, or they allow us to express ourselves through them. (The latter I will call participatory expressive symbols.)

Metaphors are one example of symbols that bring ideas to us to help us understand a new thing, and let us build on their idea until we have created a new idea. For example, "Good dialog is like a crisp potato chip." This metaphor will make you think for the meaning, but once you have the meaning it is plain. From this metaphor we get the idea that dialog should be short and focused - that is "crisp," as in snappy, fast moving.

Metaphors are often much more complicated and we have to bring them into our lives and exercise them to understand them. Religious figures like Buddha and Christ have often spoken in metaphors and parables. "The kingdom of God is like..." We typically study these over a period of time to understand them.

Following are a couple more examples:  "Writing is like life - you complete the journey one step at a time and rarely understand the story well until you see the entire thing in perspective." - Scott Cole. Or, "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." - William Butler Yeats. Both of these metaphors compare or contrast one idea with another, but we won't fully understand these statements when we hear them - we have to keep them on our minds and "live" them to really understand them. They become anchors that we can hang information on, a focal point for collecting experience. They participate in our experience, allowing us to reorganize our thinking and experiences.

Other symbols that can operate through a participatory mechanism include ideas, objects, roles, myths, perceptions, situations, religious icons and their ideas, events, and narrative reinterpretation (reframing of meaning).

Religious image symbols can act in a similar participatory way, modifying the common meaning with individualized experience. For example the image of Christ on a cross is a recurring reminder of the person's individual, and growing, experience. Similarly, the annual Jewish Seder ceremony, and the Moslem prayer shawl and daily praying toward Mecca, are recurring reminders of the person's individual experience, and reflects more experience each day.

How about something like a book or a movie participating in our experience? Helen Keller was born both deaf and blind in an era when no system of communication had been worked out for people with either affliction, and she became the experimental first to be taught. How do you communicate with someone who can neither see you nor hear you? What she wanted to see is very revealing. She said that if she should have three days to have sight, one of the things she would like to see on the first day was the books that had been read to her, that reveal the deepest channels of human life. A book to her was a symbol of what was in it, and I'm sure it is to us. The second day she would probe into the soul of man through art. For this she would see paintings, and then see "grace in motion," in theater and movies. She mentions the figures and colors. Movement, figures, and color contain symbols of what they represent. 6

One example of the use of a participatory symbol is in the movie Nine Months. In the story, a woman leaves her fiancÚ because she believes he doesn't care about her or their coming baby, and refuses to have any contact with him. Her fiancÚ does care, and he even takes Lamaze (childbirth) classes without her. Months later, it is bedtime, they are both going to bed in different places, but they are both reading the same book about what to expect during pregnancy. We don't know what specifically they are reading, but they are both getting the same message. As a symbol, the book's message about babies taps into the experiences in their lives, participating in their lives. They are both reminded that they miss each other deeply, and want to raise this child together. Then the symbol, the book, provides a way for the camera to segway from one bedroom to the other, uniting both scenes. The next day he tries to find a way to see her.

Participatory symbols can provide a meaning construct for interpreting things in our lives. We ask, "Why did this or that event happen?" We answer, it was an act of God in our lives, or it is part of normal development, or this means we will now have to start battling our opponent if we are to survive. We interpret the meaning of the event according to some meaning construct such as a metaphor or a belief. In a movie however, the writer establishes the meaning by the way characters react rather than leaving the meaning to the audience to interpret (usually).

Click to see a notational diagram of the participatory symbols mechanism.

The participatory symbol reflects both the cultural meaning and the ongoing experience and interpretation of the individual.

In movies, participatory symbols can use perceptions that we have and leverage them for the story. For example, if we have certain expectations of mothers, firemen, and policemen, the writer can use these symbols by doing something unexpected with them. This mechanism was clearly observable in the movie, Collateral Damage.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?"

Participatory expressive symbol mechanism

Some symbols participate in our lives in a very different way. They represent something to us, and we can do things to them as if doing it to what they represent. For example, my father's lunchbox was a symbol that participated in his life. It represented a certain type of work that he disliked. He carried it every day, and every day he hated it more. Any time he saw it in the house, it reminded him of work. When he quit that type of work, he "quit carrying a lunchbox," and as another symbolic gesture he put it in the trash. By his action he was signifying that he was done with that type of work.

Graduates symbolically move their tassels to the other side of their graduation hats to indicate they have achieved the end of studies and begun a new phase of life, and then symbolically throw their hats in the air in celebration or symbolizing celebration.

People give rings to loved ones as a symbol of their feelings and commitment. The ring constantly reminds them of love that daily grows much deeper than the metallic shine, jeweled sparkle, and cost.

I have always found it difficult to select pictures for my offices. I want the picture to be acceptable in the environment, but to be a symbol of something that represents me. Usually someone takes pity on me and finally supplies a picture since I'm basically clueless and never make it a priority. I finally selected two pictures on my own that I am satisfied with.

One is a picture of a sad clown and a droopy-eyed dog sitting in the rain on a circus ring beside a sign saying "No show today." - The Emmet Kelly Jr. Collection. To me it represents the desire to be involved in something that is worthwhile to others and myself. Of course, this Web site reflects this (and much more).

The second picture is one of a man on the sheer vertical side of a mountain doing a horizontal hand stand. I can't do that, and wouldn't take the physical risk, but what it represents to me is in the words of the accompanying saying: "Don't let your fears stand in the way of your dreams." - Unattributed. These two pictures participate in my experience - they remind me of, and bolster, my attitudes. The meaning these symbols reflect in me grows as they continue to participate daily in my experience. These pictures also express my attitudes to others.

Click to see a notational diagram of the participatory expressive symbol mechanism.

The symbol participatory expressive mechanism reflects both the cultural meaning and the ongoing experience and interpretation of the individual.

In movies, participatory expressive symbols allow the characters to reveal their inner states through choices that express who they are, and through expressing themselves with physical objects and actions. A character who loves fishing might wear a fishing hat (object symbol) adorned with fish lures (object symbols). When he gets angry, he may drive his boat in a reckless manner (object and action symbols). When he is sulking or avoiding an argument, he may stay away fishing for long periods of time (action symbol). These symbols identify what he identifies with, and his inner states they express outwardly.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?"

Participatory symbol projection mechanism

What do I mean by projecting attitude or experience? The word "projecting" comes from the world of psychology. Project is a verb meaning to attribute characteristics to something else. For example, in the movie Cast Away, while Chuck Noland (Tom Hanks) is stranded alone on a deserted island, he has a football that he makes up to look kind of like a person. He talks to it - it is his friend and only companion for years. When he leaves the island on a raft, he takes the thing with him and even risks his life trying to save it. He has projected onto the object attributes that were never really there. He has done this so convincingly to himself that he would even risk his life for the object.

Everyone does this to some extent. For example, people fall in love with rock stars while as listeners they project meaning into songs that isn't actually there. The meaning they reflect projects their own needs. Songs are made for doing this - the lyrics mean what you want them to mean.

In movies, people tend to see more in the characters and their situations because they project their own feelings and experience onto them. People fall in love with, or hate, actors because they identify them with the roles that they play. In reality, the actor is typically nothing like the role, he is just an effective actor. In a similar way, acting makes actors into celebrities. They become people who are always in the public eye, and every move they make others want to know about, and people wish they could emulate their life style.

You can project an emotion resulting from a need that you have, or from an experience that you have had. Experience produces all kinds of feelings and questions, and creates attitudes. You can project any of these: experiences, emotions, beliefs, and attitudes onto another person, or an inanimate object, a job... anything can become a symbol to us. Why? Partly for identification. And partly because our minds try desperately to make sense out of our lives and latch onto anything. Our minds collect experiences into categories of similar things to try and make sense of them.

Categories are like pegs that we hang similar things on. (You might find it more useful to think of a peg as an empty box.) An attitude is a peg - it collects and reflects our experiences.

Projection can be used in movies to engage the audience. Like the lyrics of a song, it lets the audience see whatever they want to see. This is easy to see in mysteries. We have a suspicion that some character did the crime. At first who did the crime is an empty peg. As pieces of evidence begin to accumulate on the peg, we begin to project those pieces onto a suspect (character). Then we project the pieces onto another character to see if the pieces fit. At some point we become convinced that one character or another did it.

The peg collects information and symbolizes the unknown person. I believe that we create pegs whenever a question presents itself, but we have no answer. The peg collects information that seems to be related. (For more on classifying information, see: Classification.

An example of projection is what a psychologist theoretically does in psychoanalysis (or psychotherapy treatment). (Note that there are hundreds of varieties of psychotherapy, and I am describing only one current technique, not describing the techniques of them all.) A person reports to the psychologist that he has something bothering him, a non-medical problem, but in the beginning neither the psychologist nor the person knows just what that "thing" is that is disrupting the person's life. They may know some of the symptoms, but not the cause.

As the person begins to describe his experience, the psychologist ruminates on his diagnostic experience and sees a pattern that suggests a certain label. He says to the person, "Oh, your suffering from akpqrf." The person now has a symbol, a peg, on which to focus his thoughts. Now things begin to pour out of the person - every symptom he has spills out and collects on this symbol. The psychologist may or may not have been correct in his diagnosis - it really isn't important (unless it mistakenly biases or restrains the psychologist's treatment of the person).

Over the next many sessions, they talk and clarify the symptoms and the cause, clearing away symptoms and troubles that aren't associated, and identifying the difficulty. The label, "akpqrf" can fade away - it has served its temporary purpose as a collection mechanism for the individual's unique symptoms and served as a vehicle to discovering the likely cause and the treatment.

So within the person are many pegs, some of which collect information that we have a question about, and some which collect experiences, emotions, and beliefs that we develop into attitudes.

There are a number of symbols that can be used to engage the audience through projection. One is mystery. Mystery, like an empty box, collects information until the mystery is solved. Other devices are questions or topics of current interest. For example, in the Star Trek series, the character Data was an android whose presence posed the question, "Can artificial intelligence be human?" It was a recurring topic that was an audience favorite. Data as a symbol allowed the audience to project whatever feelings and experience they wanted.

Time travel is another topic that comes and goes. On TV, the Supreme Court and the CIA are currently both in series. Both are pegs, or "empty boxes," that are symbols that pose questions for which we don't have answers, but we have plenty of feelings and experiences to project. The TLC cable network is currently broadcasting The Ultimate 10 Mysteries, all of which have the element of mystery and the element of topics of current interest. Each of these mysteries (or variations) would make a great combined mystery and topical element in a story.

Characters with a little attitude let us identify by projecting our own attitudes onto them, or just identifying with them. In a way, movies in their entirety are a symbol in that they "reflect" us.

Situations in stories are good symbols because they put characters (with whom we are identifying) in situations that seem to have no answer. We follow along, fascinated, to see how they get out of things and conquer their challenges.

Click to see a notational diagram of the participatory symbol projection mechanism.

What characteristics do you see now on your "vehicle?" Take a moment to think about your vehicle and its characteristics to let it congeal before reading on.

The experience of creating a "symbol" hopefully was an experience of projection. For many it will have been an exercise simply in "imaginative assignment to a symbol," although this also probably had a projective component. What did I project? In "How do symbols work?" I saw a large building, full of complex systems. In "Sign mechanisms," I saw a large arrow, a simple mechanism that points all of this complexity toward something else. In the "Cultural symbol mechanism," I saw a magician orchestrating all of this complexity. In "Assigned symbol mechanism," I saw the writer as the magician. In the "Participatory symbol mechanism," I saw us as individual magicians. In the "Participatory expressive symbol mechanism," I saw the set as the magician. In the "Participatory symbol projection mechanism," I saw mystery as the magician. I got stuck on magicians, but this isn't a problem.

Through repeated use, one gets the opportunity to congeal and refine symbols. My refined symbol is a magician orchestrating a large complex mechanism with a pointer, that reflects some things and points to something else, as our culture, the writer, the set, and the audience each reflect meaning. Your symbol, and every other person's symbol, should be uniquely different from mine, illustrating that projection is different for each of us. The same symbol mechanism can become a symbol that communicates a similar or very different meaning that reflects the different experiences within each of us.

Example story using symbols

Examples are perhaps worth more than words or pictures since they add experiential depth. This story provides an example of the use of all of these symbols in a story, including an unknown idea, objects, and resolution that the audience projects:

Seven Symbols

A Screenplay

By Dorian Scott Cole

Copyright © 2002 by Dorian Scott Cole



We see JOHN sitting on a park bench, beside a curved walking path. He holds a bqrtg1 in his lap.

      (1. The object, bqrtg, is a projective symbol mechanism.)

MARY, walking a dog,2 comes down the path. She stops in front of John.

      (2. The dog is an assigned symbol mechanism.)

      Is that a bqrtg you are holding?

John smiles and nods affirmatively.

        I had one of those once.
        You know that will kill you?
      Can loving the wrong woman kill you?3

      (3. The question (or idea) is a participatory symbol mechanism.)

      Only time will tell.
      See you later.


Mary looks unhappy. They are at a firing booth.

        I don't want to do this.

John puts his arms around her to help her aim the gun at the target.

        This could save you.

Mary shrugs and continues to look unhappy.

        I wouldn't know what to do without you.
      (Without certainty)
        We're perfectly safe.4

      (4. The situation is a projective symbol mechanism.)

They study each other, Mary with a questioning look that seeks reassurance, John with a determined look that compels Mary to continue.

Mary aims the gun, closes her eyes,5 and fires.

      (5. Closing her eyes is an action that symbolizes what she is about to do.)

        It is so final.6

      (6. The gun symbolizes finality.)


We see John exit his car alone, and close the car door. He is carrying the bqrtg. He takes the bqrtg to a waist high stone and places it on top of the stone. He kneels on the ground for a moment as if in prayer. When he rises, he removes his jacket and rolls up his sleeves. He takes a deep breath and opens the bqrtg.

Mary's dog appears, runs up to John and licks his hands. John looks down, looking disappointed. He gives the dog a half smile, pets him, and then looks around. He spots Mary coming through the woods. She is carrying something.

      (The appearance of the dog (assigned symbol) means that Mary is near, which alerts John and stops what he is doing.)

John looks at the bqrtg and looks for a place to hide it. He doesn't find one and Mary is too near to miss seeing it. As Mary draws near, we see that she is carrying a gun. John glances nervously at the gun.

        I've always wondered if
        loving the wrong woman would kill me.

John laughs nervously.

      (The recurrence of the phrase, which is a symbol for an idea, reflects on the current situation.)

      (The gun reflects on the finality of the situation.)

        I told you the bqrtg would kill you.
        I have to do this.
        I can't let you...
        So what are we going to do?

John is off screen. Mary raises the gun and points it. She closes her eyes.

      (When Mary closes her eyes, her action is a symbol to us that she is going to fire the gun.)


Mary fires the gun.

We see the bqrtg lying in the woods. We follow Mary, accompanied by the rustling leaves of footsteps as she walks away, the dog following along beside her.

        One way or another.

      (7. The resolution is a projective symbol mechanism.)


This little story contains seven symbol mechanisms. These are:

1. An object, "bqrtg," which is used as a projective symbol mechanism and a mystery. We never know what bqrtg is, but we understand that there is potential negative impact on John and the relationship. The audience picks up cues from the conversation and character actions, and may project some meaning - some won't. The bqrtg might be drugs, candy (diabetic reaction), an untried medicine a doctor has under development... human beings do all kinds of strange things - it could be anything. But regardless of what it is, it works because it represents danger.

2. The dog is an assigned symbol mechanism. The writer assigned this symbol so that we will know that Mary is near, even though the forest is secluded. If we see the dog, we know that Mary is near.

3. Can loving the wrong woman kill you? This phrase, this idea, is a participatory symbol mechanism that sets the stage for what comes later. When we first hear the idea, it stays with us so that we anticipate what might come. Are they having an affair and the husband might kill him? Will his wife kill him? Will Mary kill him? If they are married, is there something within her that will cause her to kill him? This is the plot, but it can be seen as a symbol. As Mary approaches with the gun, and John nervously repeats the phrase, we realize that the phrase is being fulfilled.

4. The situation referred to by the phrase, "We're perfectly safe," is also a projective symbol mechanism. It isn't just what Mary says, it is how she says it and John's reaction that form the situation. It points to an uncertainty and a potential danger. This symbol allows the audience to conjecture and project such questions as: Are they really perfectly safe? Why the gun? If they are having an affair, are they worried about a husband or wife coming after them? As long as the question remains unanswered, the audience can continue to project different suspicions. In another story, the audience could carry this kind of question for some time before it got answered, creating a lot of suspense.

5. Mary's action of closing her eyes before firing the gun is a symbol assigned to an action. This action symbolizes what she is about to do, and alerts us. Perhaps it alerted John and he dove for cover.

6. When Mary carries the gun into the forest, the gun symbolizes the finality of what she is about to do. This symbol is a sign that we all understand creates final actions, but it is also assigned that meaning by Mary's statement, "It is so final." When we see Mary approaching with the gun, we suspect we have reached the climax of the story and something major, and final, is about to happen.

7. The resolution in this story is used as a projective symbol mechanism. When Mary walks away muttering, "One way or another," we don't know what it was that she did. Did she shoot John? Did she shoot the bqrtg? Did she miss everything and John threw the bqrtg into the woods, damaging it? The audience can project any action they want, and by doing so project the meaning that they want. It means, "She got rid of a man she couldn't trust," or "She ended the bqrtg problem," or "She scared the wits out of John and he is recuperating in the forest." For those who don't project a specific action, her actions simply symbolize that, "She brought the situation to finalization." All of these are projected meanings because we don't know anything for certain.

For more information on how symbols can be used as visual elements to communicate, see the other critiques on this page, and:


1. Gendlin, Eugene, Experiencing and the Creation of Meaning (1962).

2. Attention is probably diminished by multiple obscure symbols since the cognitive load is increased too much by having to process more than one symbol. The more obscure the meaning of the symbol the greater the cognitive load, so symbols that have clear meaning and appear one at a time are most likely to work. However, note that in the example scene, several symbols work effectively at one time. In drama, the compilation of several symbolic actions, symbolic set displays, and symbolic objects, revolving around symbolic situations and questions, which have been given life by the preceding drama, creates a very powerful scene.

3. Eco, Umberto, A Theory of Semiotics, (1976), p 217.

4. Ibid., pp 172-173.

5. I am now including the role of experiences in my understanding of attitude (which is something I study and use). How we interpret experience in our lives (as filtered by attitude) determines which experience, emotion, belief, and behavior get reinforced. I believe the strength of the attitude and its resilience are based on experience and reinforcement. (Resilience here means, how reinforced and how well integrated the experience, emotions, and beliefs are, and how well entrenched the emotion is, indicating how difficult it is to change. An example of integration is, after being dumped for the nth. time, and the final time is by someone who used him by spending all of his money, the dumped person has a moment of revelation, saying, "Oh, now I understand why spending all of their money makes them feel used." Experience enables an interpretation of other experience that affects emotion and gets bound together in new beliefs and attitude.) Behavior can also influence attitude. Behavior creates experience.

6. Helen Keller, Readers Digest magazine, April, 2002. Reprinted from The Atlantic Monthly, January, 1933. ( )


    The idea behind a bibliography is to enable the reader to find the book in a library, bookstore, or book order, and turn to the page cited as the reference. By choice I no longer cite the publisher of the book, since there are typically hardcover and softcover editions, and over time prints become unavailable and the same book through time is published by many different publishers, so searching by publisher would lead to futile or misleading results. Page references sometimes vary in different editions and by publisher. A book search primarily identifies books through author and title. I also cite the original copyright date, not the book publication date, since the publication date of the book distorts the book's orientation in time. The fact that I cite the work means I believe it is still relevant.

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