How do you write emotions without showing?
It’s hard not to just write:
Her heart sped up.
She felt scared.
Her stomach clenched.
Because that’s a pretty easy and simple way to do it, right? And you are a writer, trying to hold an entire world together, why not occasionally let yourself be simple?
Well, because you want to be the best writer you can be. That’s why.
One of the tools authors like us can use is the magical Objective Correlative, which is a super fancy name, honestly. So just using it at a writer’s conference is going to give you pretentious writer points. Score!
But what actually is it?
It’s “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.”
That’s according to Washington Allston, who along with T.S. Eliot gets most of the credit for the term. If you can somehow splice that into your conversation, you’ll get even more pretentious points, I kid you not.
So, the object or the event shows the characters’ feelings to the reader. Instead of the character herself announcing loudly to the world, “I feel like poop.”
There are four main ways that you can use the objective correlative.
1. It’s an actual object.
You’re watching the Glass Menagerie and you’re like – “Oh. That represents something to the main character and her psychological state.”
In To The Lighthouse, it’s the lighthouse.
Here’s an example I just made up:
I perch on the edge of the picnic table by the camper, staring at the dirt splashed up against the cooler from the last rain storm, marring the blue plastic with a big, brown splatter. I can’t stare at it without remembering Tala. Somebody’s big black diesel truck rumbles by on the gravel campground road, not faster than 5 mph because those are the rules. It takes so long for anyone to get anywhere at all.
2. It’s a metaphor.
Martine Leavitt used the forest in Keturah and Lord Death to show Keturah’s feelings and psychological state.
3. It’s a description of the world that shows your character’s mood.
That’s pretty self explanatory, right? Here’s an example from a story that I haven’t published yet.
The birds tap at the kitchen window with tiny beaks. They hover there above the azalea bush and the still-to-bloom tiger lilies, wings wide open, eyes staring inside at where my mom and I bustle around the kitchen. They smack and caw and coo. There are seagulls, pigeons, crows, a couple of hummingbirds, a few owls, robins, blue jays, finches, doves and a random eagle tonight. All of them coexisting in some sort of peaceful bird truce. All of them watching us.
4. It’s a whole chain of events that set the feelings of the characters without actually saying the feelings of the character.
This one is a bit harder to explain. Here’s an example from one of my unpublished stories (yet).
The ocean is a little choppy, the dark blue of it capped by white waves that rush to shore like trains determined to get to a destination no matter what is in their way. The clouds sparkle above the water, puffy promises of happy things, but under the surface?
I lean forward, staring at those white caps, and for a second it almost seems as if I can see bodies just beneath the surface, hands reaching up and out of the water for help. There’s a man. There’s…It looks like me.
So, I don’t say how she’s feeling during this sequence of events and observations, but by the end of it, it’s pretty obvious that she’s a bit freaked out.
I’m in Montreal this week and then, Freeport, Maine Sept. 28 and then Houston and Virginia Beach pretty soon to promote my picture book biography of Moe Berg. It’s called The Spy Who Played Baseball.
The last TIME STOPPERS BOOKis out and I love it. You should buy it.
How to Get Signed Copies:
If you would like to purchase signed copies of my books, you can do so through the awesome Sherman’s Book Store in Bar Harbor, Maine or the amazing Briar Patch. The books are also available online at places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
For signed copies – email email@example.com for Sherman’s or email firstname.lastname@example.org let them know the titles in which you are interested. There’s sometimes a waiting list, but they are the best option. Plus, you’re supporting an adorable local bookstore run by some really wonderful humans. But here’s the Amazon link, too!
You can buy prints of my art here. Thank you so much for supporting my books and me. I hope you have an amazing day.