One of the best ways to think of symbols is as shortcuts, kind of like emoticons, that help writers to express an idea really quickly instead of taking the long way around. Instead of spending ages trying to explain in detail a feeling or idea a writer can use a symbol to sum up that idea more quickly and often much more effectively.
The world in which we live is full of symbols: the movies that we see, the books we read, the songs we listen to Ö all of them contain symbols and we are so used to them that most of the time we donít even notice when they are being used. For example: roses and hearts suggest love, doves suggest peace, lions suggest pride and power, etc Ö
It is only because we know these symbols so well that writers can take advantage of them in their texts. If we had to spend ages figuring out what a symbol meant then it would lose its effect. This is what makes symbols such powerful tools and such great shortcuts for writers and film-makers. For instance simply dressing a character in black and perhaps placing a swastika emblem on their clothes automatically singles them out as a villain without any further work having to be done.
A more technical definition would be that a symbol is Ďa word, picture or image which represents or sums up another much bigger idea, feeling or quality.
This is very similar to the difference between the connotation and denotation of a word. The denotation, the basic meaning of a rose is just the red flower but the connotations symbolise the ideas of love and romance.
When analysing a text keep your eyes peeled for symbols or objects that could have a symbolic meaning and donít forget that one object can have more than one symbolic meaning. A rose does not necessarily suggest love; it might also suggest beauty or the idea of hidden danger because of the thorns.