You probably recognize the work of David Lynch, the creator of Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet, Lost Highway, etc. etc. I’m a huge fan, and have learned so much from his works, but it’s kind of funny that I discovered Lynch in such a roundabout way. I’ve written before that I was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan in the mid-to-late 90s, and when the band did a song for the Lost Highway soundtrack, it drove me to check out the movie. I was enraptured with what I discovered.
While on the surface the story seemed confusing and non-sensical, essentially about a man who is accused of killing his wife but didn’t do it, yet goes to prison and becomes someone else then circles back around to being himself again at the end (a parable of the denial and insane logic that murderers often go through), I realized that there was something much deeper going on there. I realized that Lynch was using something that I’d wanted to use in my own work for some time, a sort of allegorical storytelling.
It’s tough to recall at the moment, but I have certainly written entire stories that were a meta-narrative for something that was going on below the surface. On the surface, it might seem like a simple story of a knight rescuing a princess, but in truth the story is about a man fantasizing about overcoming his failings and how in that process he is letting his wife down. That’s just one off of the top of my head.
At the time, I was a fairly young writer, late teens, early twenties, so my ability to pull this stuff off was not very good. Seeing Lynch at work, though? Wow. It was inspirational. The problem, however, is that Lynch works in a visual medium, where it is a hell of a lot easier to use symbolism. That’s not to say that you can’t write an entirely allegorical, symbolic story. Plenty of authors have done so.
The problem is that I think it becomes a lot more difficult to do when you’re working in a written or oral tradition as opposed to a visual tradition. I can confirm this in my own life because when I attempted to be a painter, it was a lot easier to carry out this sort of thing as compared to executing it in my writing. Paint two items in tandem, an odd juxtaposition, and you’ve told a small meta-narrative.
Now that’s also not to say that what Lynch is doing is easy, because the history of film is littered with people who tried to do what he does successfully.
If you check my about page on this very site, you’ll see that my goal is to try to bring some of that sensibility to the written word. I’m not quite there yet. In the original version of my book (originally called Torat, almost a different entity from what now exists), I attempted to really dig in and get my hands dirty with the symbolism. The problem is that I found I was losing readers with it. I’ve learned that in such situations, the goal isn’t to say what is wrong with these readers, it’s more to ask why am I not reaching these readers? The problem is that I was coming at it from a purely symbolic point of view and seeing that while these symbols may have been cool and heavy with meaning, it was only personal meaning. The problem is that that symbolism wasn’t resonating with others and it was also important to build a good story structure to engage the reader and make that symbolism emotionally charged.
You can be as symbolic as you want, but if your story is flat, no one is going to give a damn.
This makes me realize that I could probably start building some symbolism into things once I’ve already written the story. Perhaps build in some allegory once the story itself is ready. Maybe, like theme, it’s something to be captured in later drafts, say the second or third draft.
As I write that, I realize that the story I’m writing does have symbolism built into it, and it’s still pretty successful, I think. I’m drawing on some steampunk imagery and some images that I’ve had in my head for years and years, pouring them out onto the page. They do have some significant meaning for me, but they may also translate to others. The steampunk…well, maybe not so much, but some of the imagery used in the Corridors of the Dead certainly resonate. They go back to my initial inspirations reading horror, my experiences with Clive Barker and Stephen King, as well as some of the stuff that Lynch has shown me over the years.
Now, using symbolism and allegory in a story is certainly not for everyone. There are some great, straightforward, mainstream writers who would absolutely suffer for its usage. It’s just not in their wheelhouse.
But those artists who get it right? They get my seal of approval. Maybe one day I can be one of them. But for now, I think I’ll just learn what I have to learn.