THE POWER OF SYMBOLS IN TELLING A TALE.

Symbols in Squid Game

This really happened. When I was in primary school, I dreaded making a visit to the clinic run by the scariest dude a child could ever meet. Candyman could take a few notes from this guy. I never knew his name. To me, he was just The Dentist. Chilled formaldehyde must have flowed through his optic nerves because he had cold dead eyes. Only time I thought his eyes seemed to light up was when he was injecting sharp needles into my gums. His only words of comfort were “Stop moving!”. A sign with a green cross hung over the door to his clinic. Over time, I grew to fear that green cross. It was a sign of pain and agony. A symbol of terror to this child. If this was a story I was writing, this symbol would be a tool I’d use to convey discomfort and make the audience squirm. It’s another useful storytelling device, which was put to great effect in the Korean series Squid Game.

SYMBOLS IN SQUID GAME

No Words Are Necessary

Squid Game is a series that examines the lengths to which a group of desperate individuals will sacrifice their humanity to win a big sum of money. Like the aunties and uncles queuing up every Sunday outside the 4D lottery shop. The individuals stay in a dormitory filled with hundreds of beds. As the game progresses, and more people die for having lost a game, the beds would diminish in number as well. Watching over this group of people and making sure that rules were followed, were the guards, and the supervisors who watched over the guards. And then there was the head supervisor who watched over the supervisors who watched over the guards who watched over the players. And the simplest way to make sure the audience knew who was whom? The use of symbols. In Squid Game, it was the triangle, square, and the circle, that were drawn on the face visors that each henchman wore. These symbols allowed the audience to differentiate between the groups. Supervisors, the ones with the square etched over their face visor, were the ones who spoke and ordered the guards who wore the triangle over their face visors. Those with the triangle were the ones who executed people. You definitely do not want to get on the wrong side of the Triangles. Those with the circle on the face visor belonged to the lowest tier and were just there to hold a weapon, stand guard and just look menacing. All this information was never explicitly stated. There was no need. Eventually the audience came to understand the differences in rank that the symbols implied. A few questions though. Why should a square be superior in status to a triangle or a circle? Why should a circle be ascribed to the lowest tier? Figuring out these questions keeps your brain humming along in the background while it absorbs the main narrative. Your mind is engaged at all levels. Always a good thing when you’re telling stories.

Is this a new technique? Definitely not.

SYMBOLS FROM HIT JAPANESE ROM COM SERIES

A Popular Japanese Romantic Drama Series

Back in the early 2000’s, before the Korean wave consumed our airwaves, it was the Japanese who ruled with their ten-episode J-drama series. One very popular romantic drama series starred a Japanese pop idol and heartthrob, Takuya Kimura, and was called Love Generation. I remember following the episodes avidly and always wondered what the heck the image of a big crystal apple meant in the opening titles. As far as I can recall, the apple was never used as a plot or a character moment in the series, which was a pity.

SYMBOLS IN SUPERHERO FILMS

We Identify The Symbol With A Superhero

Symbols abound in the superhero films. The jagged lightning of Flash. The S of Superman. And of course, the iconic Bat symbol of Batman. In The Dark Knight, there was even a quote on what a symbol meant. “I can be ignored. I can be destroyed. But as a symbol — as a symbol, I can be incorruptible. I can be everlasting.”

Like the sign of the middle finger, understood world-wide, as a symbol of defiance to well, basically anything.

SYMBOLS IN MY STORY AND YOURS

The Symbolic Red Color in A Dardenne Brothers Film

A waist pouch. A particular color of a piece of wardrobe. A soft toy. These are just examples of what you, the storyteller, can use as symbols. The repeated image of a prop, associated with a character, or a relationship, can be invested with meaning. Over time, they acquire significance in the mind of the audience. Once a symbol is planted in the mind of an audience, it clings to the walls of your brain like a burr. When something happens to that symbol, the audience will feel a push at their emotional buttons. Fighting Spiders, a well-loved television show I helped to create, was a coming-of-age series about three friends set in sixties Singapore. The singlets that the kids wore, pretty soon identified them. The fighting spiders, as well, came to symbolize adventure, and freedom for these children.

The next time you sit down to rewrite your story, consider adding props, or color, that symbolizes your lead character, or a relationship. Come up with a symbol. Invest it with meaning.

Let it help you convey story and emotion.

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Andrew Ngin

Andrew Ngin

Man In The Arena . Once a lecturer. Written television, films, short stories. Older. Singaporean. Still writing. Always with love