Symbolism and Motif Entry: Suffering

Every day we interact with objects, places and sensations that affect the way we think and feel. This can be used to the writer’s advantage by planting symbols in the reader’s path to reinforce a specific message, feeling or idea.

Look at the setting and the character’s state of mind, and then think about what you want the reader to see. Is there a descriptive symbol or two that works naturally within the scene to help foreshadow an event or theme, or create insight into the character’s emotional plight?

In Nature:

Animals cries
Injured birds trying and failing to fly
Broken wings/bones
Limping animals, torn ears, blinded
Nests/eggs knocked from trees
Extreme weather that churns up water, rips trees out of the ground, scatters debris…

In Society:

Mental wards
Group homes/halfway houses
Women’s shelters…

**For BODILY CUES OF SUFFERING, try the Emotion Thesaurus Addendum Entry: PAIN

These are just a few examples of things one might associate with Suffering. Some are more powerful than others. A homeless man lying prone on the ground with no shoes in winter is a strong symbol, and likely will not require reinforcement. However, a desert view may not foreshadow Suffering on its own. Let the story’s tone decide if one strong symbol or several smaller ones work the best.

Symbolism is a universal language that can add great depth and meaning to your story.

So you can reap the full benefit of this powerful tool, we’ve expanded the entire collection by 70% and integrated it into our online library at One Stop For Writers. Each entry comes with a long list of ideas for symbols and motifs, and we’ve included popular symbolism examples from literature and movies, as well. These entries have also been cross-referenced for easy searchability across all our other thesauri. To see a free sample of the updated Symbolism and Motif Thesaurus along with our other collections, pop on over and register at One Stop.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
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17 Responses to Symbolism and Motif Entry: Suffering

  1. Sheila Deeth says:

    Wow. Lots of useful ideas. Thanks.

  2. Julie Musil says:

    Amazing that I’m reading this now. I’m watching the funeral for the Los Angeles firefighter who died, and yes, these guys are suffering. My husband is a firefighter and he’s sitting in the church right now.

    Thanks for your always-useful symbolism. Amazing stuff.

  3. Austin James says:

    Great train of thought here… really great ideas.

    – Austin James

  4. Sonia says:

    Fascinating. Sometimes it’s hard to find just the right image for a story.

  5. I saw a tree grow into a chain link fence. The bark grew through the holes, wrapping itself around the wire. The effect looked cool, like the tree gumming the wires, but, at the same time, I knew that obsorbing the metal would eventually kill the tree, weakening it from the inside.

  6. He he, according to this I’ve done a pretty good job indicating suffering in my current WIP! I’m so hard on my characters…

  7. Such a horrific thought but oh, so necessary in fiction if we are to paint a character as whole.

  8. Lynda Young says:

    Your lists are truly amazing and helpful 🙂

  9. Jen Chandler says:

    Brilliant, brilliant list! Thank you 😀

  10. Great job, Angela. As usual 🙂

  11. This. Is. Brilliant.

    As always! 🙂

  12. Rafael says:

    Pain and suffering are part of our lives and therefore a key in many of our narratives but real and literary. A perfectly happy story is a perfectly boring story.

    Good job as always!


  13. Thanks Porky–you made me realize I had forgotten to link our entry on PAIN, which will help get across suffering in a bodily manner as you suggested. It’s added now. 🙂

    Hi Lenny, so glad you are finding these useful!

    Hi Bish, yes this was a hard one to do. I especially didn’t like having to find pictures to go with the entry–I saw way too much animal cruelty in an attenpt to find something not too graphic, yet suitable. It’s terrible what some people do to animals.

  14. Bish Denham says:

    Not pleasant to read, must not have been pleasant to compile. Good job!

  15. Lenny Lee* says:

    hi miss angela! wow this is such really good stuff for making a story lots better. i save out these neat posts for in my writing file so i could read them again. thanks!
    …hugs from lenny

  16. Porky says:

    A frown, pained expression or visible strain are strong symbols too, or rather symbols of these symbols, as is a hand clasped to forehead, even untidy hair.

    Interesting list, if not exactly a fun read for the subject matter.

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