Symbolism Thesaurus Entry: Death

Every day we interact with objects, places and sensations that affect the way we think and feel. This can be used to the writer's advantage by planting symbols in the reader's path to reinforce a specific message, feeling or idea.

Look at the setting and the character's state of mind, and then think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a descriptive symbol or two that works naturally within the scene to help foreshadow an event or theme, or create insight into the character's emotional plight?

In nature:

A fallen tree
A dead (standing) tree
Rotten tree stump
Animal bones
A bleached skull
Broken bird eggshells
A nest fallen from a tree
A spray of feathers lying on a patch of flattened grass
A dead beetle lying on its back
A harsh, barren landscape (desert, frozen tundra)
A biting, numbing wind
Cracks in lake ice
A swamp (smell and sight)
The over-sweet odor of decay
Crows, ravens
Talons, claws, sharp teeth or beak
Vultures circling or roosting
Dead leaves
The caw of a crow/raven
A silenced animal cry
Darkness falling
The hiss of a snake
A deep throated growl in the dark
An apple with a rotten core
Red poisonous berries
The wet chill of mist
Fish floating in a pond

In Society:

Passing a roadside shrine (cross, plastic flowers, etc)
A junkyard
A burned out light
Broken glass
Black smoke
A condemned building
A derelict home
A mangled rusted bike skeleton lost in the tall grass
A barn or shed with the roof caved in
A broken down/rotten fence
Peeling paint or wallpaper
Infection or decease
Funeral home
Road kill
Street thugs
The hollowed stare of a junkie
Body bags
Pirate flag
Car accident
Dead bugs on a windshield or windowsill
A broken or mangled road barrier
The color Black
A funeral procession
A hearse driving by
Silver skull jewelry
Skull tattoos
The grim reaper
Worms caught out on the sidewalk after a rain
Dead plants in planters, flowerbeds
The smell of medicine
The bleep of a heart rate monitor
Blood (a nosebleed, drops of dried blood on a sidewalk, etc)
Swords, knives or guns & ammo (on display in a store or in use)
Horror movie posters
A darkened, empty room
The Tarot death card

These are just a few examples of things one might associate with death. Some are more powerful than others. A hearse driving by your MC as she walks home from work is a strong symbol, and likely will not require reinforcement. However, a bitter winter wind ripping at your MC's clothes and freezing her cheeks may not foreshadow death on its own. Let the story's tone decide if one strong symbol or several smaller ones work the best.
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Beverley BevenFlorez said...

I really enjoy these Thesaurus posts. Thanks for sharing!

Danyelle said...

These are awesome, Angela! I can't wait to see what you do with the new thesaurus. :)

Shannon O'Donnell said...

There are some really awesome symbols of death in those lists, Angela. Maggots...ewww. The hollowed stare of a junkie, spray of feathers. Powerful stuff.

Thanks again! You are a genius. :-)

Bish Denham said...

Oh I KNEW I was going to love this! Way to go Angela.

ERIN COLE said...

A very helpful post - I find that it is often the symbolism I remember most in a story.

Writer Hippie said...

Death's a good one to use symbolism for because it's a subject that requires subtlety.

Great list. I've also heard that a rooster crow at midnight symbolises coming death.

Stephanie Theban said...

Very cool! thanks for the list.

PJ Hoover said...

This is amazing, Angela! You are fantastic a million times over!

Rena said...

Great list. Thank you!

Christina Farley said...

These are so good. Such vivid attention to detail!

Mary Witzl said...

I like these too and look out for them when I'm reading; they make all the difference. Dead flowers and saplings are my favorite.

Heather Kelly said...

One of my favorite pasttimes as a teen was to spot the symbolism in books. It's funny that I forgot about that as an adult writer. Thanks for the wonderful reminder!

Kara said...

Love the list, thanks!

Erica said...

Wow. What a great addition to the line-up. Death - wow. Yeah, great job!

Looking forward to more ;o)

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I entered this contest and recommended your blog. You might have seen Greg Pincus's interview last week on Market My Words last week.

Angela said...

Thank you everyone for your comments and contributions to the list. I hope that this thesaurus will help us all think about creating more meaningful description by utilizing symbols, big and small, as we write.

Stina, thank you so much for the recommendation! That looks like a fantastic contest and I encourage everyone to enter. Having a pro analyze our social networking mediums and goals is pure gold!

Kate said...

This is brilliant! Thanks, Angela!

darien said...

This is so timely for me--my first book is about surviving suicide, and I think I might look at the manuscript again with some of these in mind. Will be good prompts for the MS I'm working on now. You guys are such a gift to us!


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