Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The image of strings breaking inside a person becomes a dominant metaphor that several characters use throughout Paper Towns. It begins when Margo and Quentin find the Robert Joyner’s corpse in the park and Margo speculates that all of the strings inside him must have broken. On their adventure around Central Florida, Margo describes herself as a paper girl, and says that her friends are the only strings still holding her to Florida. Over the course of the night, Margo cuts the strings that tie her to her friends and past, one by one.
Detective Warren also uses the image of strings when he describes Margo to Quentin. He likens Margo to a balloon that has cut its strings and is drifting away. The detective uses the metaphor to encourage Quentin not to spend all his time searching for Margo, because if Margo wants to leave and float away, no one on ground will be able to stop her. For Margo, strings are shackles that she must cut away in order to be free. However, for Quentin, strings and connections they imply are what ground him and give him strength.
Strings also represent Margo’s clues. Margo has cut the strings that tie her to Orlando, but these strings still exist in the form of her Woody Guthrie poster and highlighted Walt Whitman poem, among other clues. Ultimately, Quentin is able to “string” the clues together to find his way through the labyrinth of hints she has left.
Throughout Paper Towns, maps and mapping represent an effort to take control in a world that seems chaotic. Margo feels helpless and trapped in a world that she deems fake and that doesn’t understand her, so she obsessively plots her escape using maps. Maps symbolize possibility and potential for Margo. On a map, one can dream to go anywhere. Likewise, Quentin maps out his life very precisely in order to maintain control over his routines. He always notes the exact time of occurrences in his life; for instance, he notes a time of 6:32 rather than rounding to 6:30. In taking note of precise times, Quentin is, in some manner, mapping his life in the same way Margo maps geographic coordinates.
Physical maps become a crucial part of Quentin’s search process as he tries to figure out where Margo might have gone. When he discovers that the pattern of pinholes on the wall of Margo’s minimall office must have been made by pinning tacks to a map, he realizes that he can figure out where Margo could be by finding the map that matches the pinhole pattern and trying to trace her route.
Omnictionary, the Wikipedia stand-in of the novel, also acts as a kind of map. Radar spends nearly all his waking hours on Omnictionary, which is a comprehensive map of human knowledge. Halfway through the novel, Radar codes a program that maps out the most relevant information to an individual search on Omnictionary. He is also able to track users’ locations through the site. The crowd-sourced encyclopedia is both a resource and a red herring. The site is the symbolic map that leads them to Margo, but it also provides false positives and unnecessary information. Indeed, the reader learns that maps are not always trustworthy.