The objective correlative is a fantastic technique that you can use to create emotion in your writing. It empowers writers to move away from abstraction (i.e. using direct words like angry, sad, or afraid, which are abstract to the reader) and color a character’s emotion with imagery, metaphor, and meaning.
Originally coined as a literary term by T.S. Eliot in his essay on Hamlet, Eliot explains that the objective correlative as:
“…a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that Particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked” (qtd. in J. A. Cuddon’s Dictionary of Literary Terms, page 647).
I know, that sounds like literary psychobabble, let’s break it down…
Say, your character has experienced a loss and you want to evoke sadness and longing in the reader. Objective correlative is a technique where the character never tells the reader what she is feeling. Instead she evokes that feeling through sensory experiences and description of her environment.
Take a look at this example from Jacqueline Woodson’s novel Beneath a Meth Moon:
“I sat up front with Daddy, stared at the flat land as we drove. Big sky that I couldn’t look up into without thinking about M’lady and Mama. Green land moving fast toward us, then passing us by. Farms and fields. Whole stretches with nothing at all” (44).
What does this passage make you feel? What do you know about the narrator and her emotional state?
For me, the description of the flat land and the big sky gives a sense of being small. The fact that the narrator (Laurel) can’t look up into the sky adds an additional layer of feeling. She’s overwhelmed by something large. Additionally, that large object is invisible and everywhere. Laurel then links this image with M’lady and Mama. Do we know what happened to these two people in this passage? Not necessarily, but we can make a guess from the description of the landscape.
In the remaining sentences of the passage, the imagery focuses on green land moving past Laurel. A green field is initially a positive image, relating to good health and growth. But it moves fast and Laurel is unable to hold onto the good things, even if she wanted to. The paragraph ends with the final image of flat land stretching out forever with nothing to offer. Can you feel the desperation, sadness, and a loss of hope in this build-up of images? Nowhere does the narrator mention how she feels. Instead she describes her environment, and the unique way she sees these images, evokes her inner state for the reader. This is the objective correlative at work! It’s also a lot more interesting to read than if the author said: Laurel felt depressed.
I think it’s also important to note that characters are seldom self-aware. As humans, we don’t often think to ourselves: “Man, I feel sad!” We simply experience our emotions and live our lives. We don’t reflect on what those emotions are or why we feel them. We act! We observe. We react. Let objective correlative help you to keep your characters authentic, alive, and in the moment.
Try out the objective correlative for yourself, with this great exercise:
Write a scene in which a man describes a body of water (i.e. ocean, river, pond, etc.) after having just murdered someone. However, the man can never mention the murder or any of the details related to the murder. Have fun!
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