September 4 – 10: “Best symbolism employed in thrillers in recent years?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5 This week join ITW Members Lisa Towles, J. H. Bográn and D. J. Adamson as they describe some of the best symbolism employed in thrillers in recent years. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow this thrilling and symbolic discussion!


Lisa Towles is a lifelong writer and musician living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Born and raised in New England, she has lived in Connecticut, New Mexico, and southwest England. Lisa’s four previous fiction publications were written under her previous name of Lisa Polisar. She got married in 2009 and changed her name to Towles. She is an award-winning journalist, where she wrote for numerous commercial magazines and literary journals, writing features and covering the Santa Fe art scene in New Mexico. Her previous books include Knee Deep, Blackwater Tango, The Ghost of Mary Prairie, Escape: Dark Mystery Tales, as well as a non-fiction book on jazz improvisation called Straight Ahead. Lisa’s newest release, Choke, will release on June 22, 2017 in trade paperback, Kindle, and numerous other digital formats.


J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist. He ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José’s genre of choice is thrillers, but he likes to throw in a twist of romance into the mix. His works include novels and short stories in both English and Spanish. His debut novel TREASURE HUNT, which The Celebrity Café hails as an intriguing novel that provides interesting insight of architecture and the life of a fictional thief, has also been selected as the Top Ten in Preditors & Editor’s Reader Poll. FIREFALL, his second novel, was released in 2013 by Rebel ePublishers. Coffee Time Romance calls it “a taut, compelling mystery with a complex, well-drawn main character.” He’s a member of the Short Fiction Writers Guild, Crime Writer’s Association, and the International Thriller Writers. He lives in Honduras with his family and one “Lucky” dog.


D. J. Adamson is the author of the Lillian Dove Mystery series and the Deviation science fiction-suspense trilogy. Suppose, the second in the Lillian series has just been released. She also teaches writing and literature at Los Angeles colleges. And to keep busy when she is not writing or teaching, she is the Membership Director of the Los Angeles Sisters in Crime, Vice President of Central Coast Sisters in Crime and an active member of the Southern California Mystery Writers. Her books can be found and purchased in bookstores and on Amazon. Make friends with her on Facebook or Goodreads and LinkedIn.


  1. I love this topic because symbols are about secrets, and in mystery and thriller novels secrets are a sort of currency we use to protect or conceal our unbearable truths. Robert Langdon, Dan Brown’s main character, is a Harvard University symbologist, who uses his scholarship as a historian to solve the world’s most complex mysteries – all under an ever-ticking clock. In The Da Vinci Code, a chalice symbolizes the feminine as a hidden clue to a female seated at Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, the pentagram represents power and the divine, and my favorite – Langdon’s Mickey Mouse watch as a symbol of childhood, innocence, and magic.

    Stephen King is masterful at weaving magic and symbols into his stories, using things like the woods (The Tommyknockers) to represent darkness, intrigue, and the supernatural. And William’s Diehl’s Primal Fear used an alphanumeric symbol on a victim’s body to signify a specific passage in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, which revealed the ultimate truth about the unlikely killer. But if you don’t mind going back a few years, one of the best examples is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. The tapestry is SO rich with historical detail and elements of intrigue: the setting of a 14th century Benedictine monastery in Northern Italy, a hidden culture of silence, abuse, and corruption, and the symbolism of books, a secret library, and their connection to knowledge, truth, and freedom.

    Would love to hear your thoughts or comments on these books, or other books that use symbolism to inspire your imagination!

    1. I confess to be a late bloomer when it comes to reading King. In fact, the first book I read for him as “On Writing.” Since then I read The Gunslinger and found plenty of symbolism there, too.

  2. I think good thrillers draw upon symbolism quite a bit. I’m not necessarily talking about like Hemingway and Old Man in the Sea metaphors (but maybe I am). But I think all good thrillers and especially supernatural ones rely on a kind of Jungian collective unconscious type shared source in exploiting our scariest dream symbols and just innate symbols and cultural symbols that evoke fear. To start with the more primitive, we all have innate fears of being chased and those commonly come out in our nightmares as does falling. And those figure prominently in thrillers, not as cliches I think but as building blocks within our shared inner spaces. And there are other less visceral shared fears that I think are nonetheless innate in some way or certainly shared. For example the idea of people not being what they seem – especially ostensibly trusted type roles such as parent, spouse, police person, clergy, best friend. When those thought to be benevolent people turn out to be not as they seem, it’s scary and symbolic of one’s being vulnerable even in a safe space – a pretty basic human fear. A lot of thriller symbols play upon human paranoia; the secret, all-seeing organization is after an innocent whistle blower or someone who unwittingly got in the way. That is symbolic of basic fear of the unknown and unseen forces. And greed and other human weakness are exploited along the way. Most noir type stories can be summed up as: there’s some tempting cheese on a rattrap and the poor rat sniffs around but always takes the bait in the end and gets snapped up. It could be one of Aesop’s fables, really. I think all these visceral, shared fear symbols play a much bigger part in the thriller than say irony. That makes it no less an art for though.

  3. Good points, Doug. Those Black Riders at the beginning of Lord Of the Rings are terrifying. To me they symbolise the great fear of an unstoppable, relentless, faceless horror which won’t stop hunting the victim. The personification of the monster under the bed of childhood. There’s no escape! Which is why I don’t read/watch horror stories. 🙂

    1. Yes those ring wraiths (black riders) from LOTR terrified me too! And not just because of their appearance but, as you say, their singular unstoppable goal. But I think what scares me more than anything else is what Doug described above: discovering that someone isnt who you thought and that evil has been quietly waiting behind a thin veneer of good.

      1. What came to my mind with comment, Lisa, was the show Dexter. What is scary about his character is that he is a symbol of our complex thinking and set of values. Many times in the series, I grimaced not only at what he did, but that I was almost agreeing with him doing it!

  4. @Elisabeth, yes agree totally. Interesting that the Grim Reaper is also depicted faceless and in black. I think there are some writers who write from place involving some kind of expertise (Michael Crichton, James Clavell) where they are sort of teaching the reader some new concepts and then going from there. and I guess it totally depends on the subject matter right? I mean they say “write what you know” and that’s true. It’s tough to write pirate stories without learning the domain well (lingo, history, mythology). But another approach (and maybe they’re not exclusive) is to write what the reader knows, even if subconsciously. A lot of assumptions we have can’t be consciously accessed necessarily without some kind of exercise in deconstructionism. But writers can still find resonance with the reader by building on them, as in your example of the 3 riders (which also conjures religious images with the riders of the apocalypse). If I write about some character visiting a truck stop roadside diner I barely have to describe anything at all but the reader will already have rich images: the counter with stools, chrome napkin holders, big plastic menus in menu stands on Formica top booth tables. In fact you have your image and I have mine and they may clash here and there but we totally know about truck-stop cafe diners. Surely it’s the same with thriller symbolism. You rely on what the reader already knows or feels at some level.

  5. Please excuse my lateness to the game. I could say I wanted to read what the other participants had to say before adding my grain of salt, but you’d see right through my cellophane excuses. 🙂

    Like Daug I do think symbolism in novels extends far beyond the mere use of one thing to signify more that it does at first glance.

    For example, I loved the political satire in The Hunger Games trilogy, and although I felt the last book ended on a depressive note, I enjoyed the ride.

    I’m a big fan of the talented Steven Saville and his novel Silver is filled with symbolism that go deeper than the Vatican-deepest-secrets and other such tales. His most recent book, Sunfail touches base with the Mayans to the point that the bad guys take names after Mayan deities. Although I haven’t had the chance to question him, I believe the idea must have been conceived around the 2012-end-of-the-world craze.

    For one of my recent assignments for The Big Thrill, I had the opportunity to interview Erin Kelly and read her marvelous novel He Said, She Said. The novel draws a line across the path of an eclipse, and I was grateful to have read it prior to the recent one in August because I learned eclipse-related words like “totality.”

    Even my own novel comes stocked with symbolism. In Poisoned Tears my serial killer uses poisonous animals to make the kills while make them look like accidents. Each of the animal is there for a reason, and that should become clear to the reader as he/she reaches the end.

  6. My apologies for being late. The holiday and restart of classes as put all my important priorities and fun off.

    Suspense and thrillers use a great deal of symbolism to directly or implicitly represent elements of good and evil. I warn my students…be careful of the woods. As soon as a protagonist enters, mayhem is going to happen. Think of poor Red Riding Hood. I use this symbolism prominently in my Science Fiction Thriller, Outré, where three boys go looking in the woods for answers to abductions.

    I enjoy using subtle symbolism: windows, birds, storms…taking a bath. In my Lillian Dove Mystery series, storms offer symbolism to Lillian’s plight of being tossed about in life when she would so much more prefer a calm sky. As a recovering alcoholic, throughout the series, she struggles, not to stop drinking, but to take on life sober. Water is always a good symbol for cleansing.

    I use windows as a symbol for looking out to life when pondering what life is in all its frames, perspectives, choices. In the novel I am working on now, At The Edge of No Return, the story of a serial killer and a behavioral psychologist playing a dangerous game of cat and mouse, a white egret, symbolizing the thrusts of the universe (angel or God, if you prefer) watch both the events of good and evil, appearing to both the good and bad. The word “edge” in the title presents the symbol of how we all walk the edge of good and bad, sanity and insanity, here or never returning.

    The fun of writing is using these literary forms in order to produce a deep texture to a story.

    I enjoy discovering how other authors decide what symbols to use and how they implement them into their text. That’s the real fun of writing. Not just telling the story, but putting all the pieces together to make one.

    1. Your new book sounds intriguing DJ, can’t wait to read it! I also love the symbolism of the white egret and its representation of good or of balance, that’s genius.

      I think the juiciest part of using symbolism in thrillers is their potential to create more meaning for the reader. Our ultimate job is to make them care about what’s happening to our characters and the journey they’re taking through the course of a story. And if symbolic elements can deepen our characters as well as deepening our readers’ connection to them, that will make our stories all the more memorable.

      Great topic and great discussion, I am honored to be a part of it 🙂

  7. First, what is symbolism? Symbolism is a literary device to offer ideas, or indirectly suggest a state-of-mind, emotion, or mystical ideal. I tell my students that to use a symbol well, they have to know the audience they are writing to so clearly, they can see that audience sitting directly before them. Such as: Martin Luther King in his, I Have A Dream uses the symbol of a check marked “insufficient funds” to get his audience ready for the idea that the “banks of justice are not bankrupt.” I love the ironic symbol he gives, “Let us not drink from the cup of bitterness and hatred.” He knows his audience so well that he is unafraid they will recognize the cup he is speaking about.

    Knowing your audience is paramount in creating a symbol. Yes, a fiction writer needs to know the audience they are writing to. The writer should also be able to see the symbol they wish to bring about so clearly they can touch it. “A woman sitting each morning sedately staring out a window,” can tell readers she looks out more than she is willing to become a part of the world.

    I love trying to create symbolism that will not only powerfully represent a theme I am weaving throughout a story, but also hook a reader to question why it is there. In the literary suspense novel I am finishing the last touches on, The Edge of No Return, my protagonist is threatened by a minister whose childhood wrecked such damage on him, he moves from good to bad. The protagonist, a criminal behaviorist, who consulted for the Los Angeles FBI unit on the case of the serial killer, Elvis Colt, is also threatened by a murderer with no childhood trauma and who lacks the conscious ability see beyond his own desire for recognition and power. One of the symbols I have used, to weave the theme of Darwinism vs. Organized Religion throughout the novel is a Giant Egret. The Egret shows itself and leads evil to good and good to evil. The theme is not a justified argument, and the Egret continually causes, if I do my job right, my readers to ask “why it shows itself to both.

    I would love to find out how other authors plan their symbolism. Beforehand by outlining?

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