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Script Symbology: Symbol Systems

We have observed that individual symbols exist in contexts and move within systems of symbolism. Symbols are also part of symbol systems that might be defined as categories of symbols. These symbol systems consist of familiar as well as esoteric categories of phenomena and things such as colors, numbers, genres, drama modes, the basic elements, astrology, divination, shapes and freemasonry.

It is impossible to adequately explore symbol systems here as entire libraries of books have been written about them. However, for purposes of script symbology, it is important that the script symbologist has a basic familiarity with them and their application within the symbolism of a script.


For example, numbers (or numerology) represent a symbol system that gives great symbolic significance (as well as correspondence) to numbers and especially the first ten numbers. The number one symbolizes such things as primordial unity, the sun or light and the origin of life. The number two symbolizes the duality born from the primordial unity, the light created from the original darkness, the Yin Yang symbol of masculine and feminine. The number three is often associated with the symbol of a triangle or the unity of the religious Trinity. It also symbolizes the three major stages of human existence in birth, life and death. (Interestingly enough, these stages of life have a symbolic correspondence to the major sections of traditional scripts in Act I, Act II and Act III).

The symbol system of color has a vast range of meaning and generalizations that specific colors have inherent and fixed meanings is difficult to sustain. However, the colors black and white are clearly related to duality and antithesis. In many traditions, black is the symbol of death and unconsciousness while white is the symbol of life and consciousness. Red, the color of blood, usually symbolizes the life principle and is linked to passion, the basic element of fire, activity and fertility. Blue has an association with the sky and water and often symbolizes the spiritual life in opposition to the red passion of the material life. Green is associated with the vibrant life of earth being the color of trees, plants, pastureland, grass and the countryside. The color gold has been linked almost universally to the sun while the color silver to the moon.

Esoteric symbol systems such as astrology, freemasonry and alchemy also have their particular symbol elements. Astrology contains symbol systems such as Zodiac Signs as well as Planetary Rulers. Alchemy consists of symbols associated with water, mercury, the moon, fire, sulphur and the sun. Freemasonry consists of the symbols associated with the level, the square, the plumb rule and the Seal of Solomon.

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Interestingly enough, the various four major modes of drama as well as genres of films constitute symbol systems. Perhaps the one most responsible for placing the four key drama modes of romance, tragedy, comedy and satire into a system of archetypes was the literary critic Northrup Frye with his important Anatomy of Criticism (1957). It suggested that when an author writes in one of the four particular modes of drama, he or she writes within a system of archetypes, and therefore, a particular language of symbolism. The four modes of drama have their own particular symbols and authors who understand these symbols can communicate with their audience better than those authors who do not understand these basic four archetype symbols in the modes of drama.

(Of course, under Jung’s idea of the archetype, perhaps the major aspect of Jung’s ideas and theories on symbolism that has made a slight dent into the script symbology business. As little this business is in the overall script creation market out there. The various gurus. The various theories. Your own ideas as perhaps a type of synthesis. Or perhaps something now striving for a new type of synthesis?)

It seems interesting that Jung’s ideas came into script creation via that first link of Northrup Frye who brought Jung’s ideas on archetypes into the world of stories. His overall ideas on symbols and symbolism (as we continue to argue in our Script Symbology column) have for the most part been completely blocked out in creation modern films via modern scripts based more on symbology than other elements currently stressed in the creation of films and scripts.

Starting with one of the grand symbols – operating under a system of contextual and contentual symbols moving from left to right across the horizontal line of the cross we discussed in our column titled Symbolism – the script hero moves across the pages from beginning to ending of the script. A group of symbols representing people and objects and actions and events of the story. Content symbols. And also a group of symbols representing settings and contexts and such as place, time and space.

A script based on a particular symbolism of place or context much more than one based solely around haphazard content and objects symbolizing products and things as most scripts are today. Symbols pointing outward into a material, cultural world rather than inside as they used to point for ancient mankind. Perhaps a symbolism of place context based around one of the four archetypes? This is not something foreign to the author but one of the four major emotions he has been experiencing all of his ife. He knows the genres well. They are the author. The script symbologist. The artist creator. In the end, one of the four types of personalities and emotions are within each of us. It is up to us to know the particular emotion within the four dramatic modes that inspires the script. The basic emotion it fulfills.

So, before following that rabbit into LA and falling into that strange world of the Hollywood symbol system called genres, one needs to choose operation under one of the four grand symbols of historic drama. Pull yourself back into time if you're a true script symbologist rather than into the present of the world or future of the world. Put one into the past to remember and understand as ancient symbols of drama in Romance, Tragedy, Comedy or Satire. This is the psychic territory of the symbolic world open to the modern script symbologist.

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After one is encamped in LA (my hometown) and decides to work in that general area of script creation, one comes face-to-face with that grand system of Hollywood symbols known as story genres. Depending on who you ask, this genre system can contain anywhere from ten to thirty or so different symbolic languages created from the elements of story images, icons, settings, characters, themes.

The genre system of Hollywood carries aspects of the horror genre within it. For many, it is a strange, unmanageable and controlling force making scriptwriters work in foreign languages. It has the effect of jamming navigation systems pulling scriptwriters off course like mythological Sirens pulled ancient sailors off course. Or pulling many into perpetual orbits around various Hollywood story genres. Like the number of cable channels and smartphone Apps, the themes and subjects of these genres become smaller and smaller as their numbers increase. Rephrasing what Bruce Springsteen once observed about television channels, in Hollywood are “500 genres and nothing on.”

Once, when Hollywood was young and worked with larger symbols and fewer genres, film symbol systems had a much greater relationship to the four great archetype modes (Romance, Tragedy, Comedy and Satire) discussed by Northrup Frye in Anatomy of Criticism. And today, there still remains a close relationship between certain genres and the four historic dramatic modes. Film genres like the western genre seem to continually grow by a natural type of evolution rather than a cultural form of segmentation. The horror genre is continually updated and revised by young scriptwriters entering the field. And the fantasy and science fiction genres find new ways to explore magical things of the present or the technology of the future.

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There is always the hope and dream that everything can be solved by the right story. Or rather, the right genre of story. The right symbol system. After all, Los Angeles itself has always invented itself again and again through various genres of stories. And within LA, the belief by so many that they have a story to tell.

So what does one do if they want to create a western today using the tools of that symbol system known throughout the years as the western genre? Of course one of the first things to do is follow the advice we have been giving in our Script Symbology column in Script magazine. But in addition, understand which great dramatic mode one labors under. Scriptwriters don’t really chose these genres as much as these grand modes and genres chose them. The challenge becomes not finding the right genre to work in but rather in realizing what genre one has always been working in. Perhaps unknowingly.

Tonight, I write this on another warm evening in the desert after another day with mid-ninety degree heat. Very early for this time of year even in the desert. In front of me I have that grand collection of genre symbols contained in American westerns in that famous genre book of Hollywood called Sixguns & Society: A Structural Study of the Western by Bill Wright (University of California Press, 1975). Before scriptwriters set off creating scripts, they are well rewarded by spending time to understand the history and structure of the original genres a little better.

Apart from books focusing on particular genres like Sixguns & Society, there are studies of the overall genre system in Hollywood. One of the best studies of the original Hollywood genres is Hollywood Genres: Formulas, Filmmaking, and The Studio System by Thomas Schatz. The book is out of print now and difficult to obtain but one can find parts of it on the Internet and learn that genres were once effective symbol systems that provided successful formulas for creation of films in the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s.

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As we mentioned at the beginning of this column, the topic of symbol systems is vast and a worthy topic for years of study. It is enough for now that the Script Symbologist is simply aware of these symbol systems and the rule that any symbol has a context of other symbols and a system of symbols attached to it. No symbol ever exists alone. As part of a context and system of symbols, script symbols are in constant movement, changing throughout the narrative of the script.

Possessing an awareness of symbol systems is an important milestone on the road to becoming a Script Symbologist. It can be frustrating to learn that one needs to acknowledge and even work within traditional systems of symbols. Yet it can also be exhilarating that the path has been trodden by others who went before and discovered some useful symbols common to certain types of stories. The challenge is to see the broad outlines of the particular path without getting distracted away by smaller and smaller side paths leading to dead ends. The paths of smaller and smaller genre systems grow and take on the appearance of the Hydra Head of mythology. All of this creates a nightmare scene from a film in the horror genre that would make even Carl Jung cringe a little these days if he were a Hollywood scriptwriter.

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