EVERY great story is both particular and universal. Being rooted in a local context paradoxically allows it to reach beyond its social and cultural boundaries. In his book, Story, Robert Mckee refers to the process by which a story becomes universal as symbolic ascension.
Like the images in our dreams, symbols permeate our unconscious mind. They deepen our experience of a story in ways that are not at once apparent.
Done in a crude way, we immediately recognise these images as mechanical devices, destroying their effect. Slipped in gradually, skillfully and surreptitiously, however, they move us profoundly.
Making Stories Universal through Symbolism
Symbolic ascension works in this way: At first the settings, incidents and specific actions of characters in a story represent only themselves – they are denotative or literal in meaning. But as the story progresses they acquire greater significance. They acquire connotative or figurative meaning. By the end of the story these very same settings, incidents and actions come to stand for universal ideas.
In The Deer Hunter, the protagonist, Michael (Robert De Niro) progresses from a beer-drinking factory worker to a worrier – the hunter of the film’s title. A man who kills.
But the film shows that if you keep killing you eventually will turn the gun on yourself – as does Nick (Christopher Walken).
The death of Nick precipitates a crisis in Michael. Armed, and in camouflage, he ascends to a mountain top where he spots a magnificent elk emerging from the surrounding mist. The setting resonates with significance harking back to Moses receiving the transformative knowledge of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
The action (the ascension), and the setting (the mountain), are symbolically significant. But they are also literal events. It is this effortless duality that gives the story its enduring power.
In my own novel, The Land Below, life in a converted underground mine (the sanctuary of the only humans to have survived a cataclysm), becomes increasingly claustrophobic for its young protagonist, Paulie.
He dreams of the open resplendent spaces filled with grass and waterfalls that he has only seen in books. His decision to climb to the surface, against the warnings of his elders, is a symbolic rejection of fear and ignorance. It represents his desire for knowledge. His actual physical journey to reach the surface has therefore acquired symbolic meaning.
Symbolic ascension is the process by which seemingly ordinary and specific settings, actions and events acquire universal meaning.