Friday, April 22, 2011

Semiotics: What are they?

Semiotics , also called semiotic studies or semiology,  is the study of cultural sign processes (semiosis), analogy, metaphor, signification and communication, signs and symbols.
Back when I though I was on my way to a Phd, I did a bunch of research on media and communication. Before you get all worried that I'm going to go all technical on you, hang in there, I'm going to bring it all back to writing.

The basic idea is that we interpret messages in terms of their signs or patterns of symbolism. A sign can be a word, a sound or a visual image. What the semioticians are interested in is the relationship between the "signifier", the actual sound, word or image and its relationship to its "signified", the meaning or what it represents. Meanings are abitrary and individual, usually related to the history or culture of the "decoder". With the advent of the internet many of these signs and symbols are becoming universal.  If this interests you, I would suggest you take a look at the work of  Charles Sanders Peircein,Claude Lévi-Strauss  Ferdinand Saussure and Umberto Eco  to name a few.

Pediatric Pain Scale
Our world is dominated by visual images on the internet, television and movies. When we write we need to visualize what picture our words are creating and what details are really important for the reader to see or feel. 

 When you look at this picture to the left the signifier is a small girl with large eyes looking at the camera. The signified meaning of this picture is what the artist is drawing our attention to, what he wants us to see. When we see the blurred children in front we place her in a classroom. Her hair and shabby clothing, even the fact that the picture is black and white tells us we are looking at a "girl who is living an impoverished life with a thirst of knowledge, in hope of having a better life through receiving proper education. Her “big eyes” are asking for help from other people, her “big eyes” are themselves symbols of hope." (Metepedia) Wow! That is tons of information from this one picture. 

In our fiction we want to draw the attention to what is most important to the scene and move the story along. Many fiction writers are turning to screenwriting to learn quicker and more direct ways to create visual images for their readers. See Save the Cat by Blake Snyder.

Advertising is another place we see signs and symbols at work to convey visual meaning. For example. Take a diamond necklace, a piece of red velvet and the word Cartier and you have a visual image of luxury, wealth and affluence. I imagine you can think of many commercials and advertisements that use signs and symbols to create an entire story around the product. 

Here are some basic tools we use in fiction.
1. Metaphor
2. Analogy
3. Symbolism
4. Simile
Are there other tools we can use?

How have you stepped up imagery in your writing? Have you found screenwriting tools helpful?

More interesting resources:
More here and here.
List of more sites here.


  1. Great post! We are more visual than ever, but I think we also are forgetting the power of symbols. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. This was an interesting post to read.

    I think there is another aspect to this. What does the CHARACTER want the reader to see? Each character will have a different world view, and that will have an effect on the symbolism used.

  3. @Jenny Check out that dictionary of symbols it was a lot of fun to browse.

    @Misha Great point! It wouldn't be as effective if the symbolism didn't reflect how the characters see the world. Just another way for readers to connect with your characters.

  4. Very exciting and intgeresting to read,

    Thanks also for the wonderful comment you made on my post.

  5. Awesome post. A lot for me to consider!

    Ellie Garratt


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