The short answer is: None at all. Symbols are what make us human. They give us the ability to talk and think about objects that are not in front of us. They allow us to speak, to imagine, to write. Symbols are not second nature to us, we ARE symbols. So when we read, listen or watch something, regardless of whether it is a pop detective show or a classic Shakespearean work, we as individuals will inevitably find symbols and meanings in the words and scenes set before us.
The meanings we find in the things we read (you can read a TV show as easily as you can read a book) can help us explore and think beyond what is being directly presented to us. Maybe you are reading my novel, The Lost Thorn, and it being a Cyberpunk-themed narrative tells you about the corruption of governments and warns you against the dangers of capitalism. Maybe you are watching Adventure Time and it’s playful use of words shows you the meaning of Nietzsche's “God is dead.” Or maybe you are a high school teacher and The Raven’s blue curtains tell you about grief and melancholy. But are these things really there? Did the writers think of these things as they were writing, and perhaps more importantly, should YOU as a writer think about the symbols in your work? Was your high school teacher right?
No, he wasn’t. Those symbols are there, yes, but most of the time, they are not there because the author willingly and consciously decided to put them there. They are there because narrative is like a shallow water mirror. You can see what lies below the water, what the author put there, but most of what you see is in fact a reflection of yourself, even if you insist it’s something else what you’re are looking at.
Think of that time when your mom said “Nothing’s wrong”, and yet you were sure something was wrong. You didn’t pick up on the meaning of her words, if you did you would’ve believed her. Instead, you took your own meaning and put it into her words. It didn’t matter then if you were wrong or right, all that mattered was the meaning you assigned to the symbols presented to you.
Reading is not different. When we read, we are given symbols, but rather than just taking their meaning at face value, we assign our own meanings. We see a critique to machism where there was only violence. We see irreverence where there was only a scene description. In other words: it doesn’t matter what the blue curtains meant for the author, what matters is that, for your teacher, they meant sadness, and he is right. You would be better off asking what they mean to you.
It doesn’t matter how much effort you put into avoiding (or including) symbols into your work, every reader will add their own. Rather than worrying about telling them, it’s a better idea to invite them to think, invite them to assign their own meanings.
So in the end, all you can do is hope that a few centuries down the line, someone will interpret your liberal use of the word ‘growl’ as a representation that equates human life to animal life… At least I know I do.
I’ll see you next time.
Joshua P. Aguayo