Writing with Emotion: the Objective Correlative

In a recent Writer’s Unboxed post, agent and writing pro Donald Maass talks about the importance of writing emotion—and the frequency with which authors get it wrong. Three weeks ago, I attended a workshop by Martine Leavitt, who argued that relying on descriptions of a character’s internal emotions only serves to bore, or worse, distance the readers. (She said she never wanted to read about a character’s stomach or heart again.)

As I listened to her speak, I felt convicted—and made a note to go back through my MS looking for just those words. But beyond feeling guilty, I was frustrated: if emotion was so powerful, but I’m not supposed to tell readers what characters are feeling and I’m not supposed to show it through physical symptoms, what am I supposed to do?
Well, one option, as Maass suggests, is to focus on “third level emotions”—to describe the character’s reflections on their own emotions and bring readers into the moment.
Another option, what Leavitt advocates, is the objective correlative.
If, like me a three weeks ago, you’ve never heard of the concept, let me explain.
I’m not an expert on the topic, but I find it a provocative one; I’ve been trying to study up on it and thought my research might help someone besides just me. And because I tend to do best with concrete examples, I’ve tried to include lots of examples to illustrate the concept.
The term “objective correlative” comes from T. S. Eliot who borrowed it from nineteenth-century artist Washington Allston: the “objective correlative” refers to “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.” In other words, rather than showing us the physical symptoms of emotion or telling us what the character feels, an author gives us an
object–a physical thing, a landscape, etc.—and endows that with meaning so that we’re able to recognize what the character feels, and, more importantly, feel it ourselves.
Eliot argues that Shakespeare uses this masterfully: we discover Lady Macbeth’s state of mind through the images that her night waking accumulates; Hamlet’s own inability to process his emotions stems from the fact that he lacks a metaphor or objective outlet that can encompass all that he’s feeling.
Below, I outline four ways to use the objective correlative:
  1. Through objects
  2. Through metaphors
  3. Through point-of-view description
  4. Through a situation or chain of events.

1. Sometimes the objective correlative uses objects endowed with meaning to underscore a character’s emotional arc.

A classic example of the use of objects comes from Tennessee Williams’ Glass Menagerie. One of the main characters, a young girl named Laura who limps from a childhood bout with polio, has a collection of glass animals that she treasures. Their fragility is a symbol of her own fragility, and the plays treatment of the animals reflects her emotional state: when she feels well, she spends time polishing and arranging the creatures. But at the height of the drama, one of the animals is broken. Because we already know to associate the animals with Laura, the crushed animal underscores her crushed hopes in a devastating way.
Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl also uses a meaningful object to underscore a character’s emotional arc. When Princess Ani is sent away to marry the prince of another kingdom, her mother gives her a handkerchief:
It was made from a thin ivory cloth with green, rust, and yellow lace edging.
“The stitching was done by my grandmother.” Her voice was soft, as though to convince Ani that the words were for her alone and not a performance for the crowd. She unfastened a horse-head brooch from her breast. “My mother used to carry it, and then she gave it to me before she died. I have always felt it held a part of her. When I wear it, I feel her eyes on me, approving, guiding, protecting. So I send with you my own protection.”
The queen winced first, then stabbed her third finger with the brooch pin. She squeezed three drops of blood onto the handkerchief. Her hands were shaking. . . .
She put the stained handkerchief in Ani’s hand and held it a moment, sincerity straining her brow. “We are of one blood. I will protect you.”
All through the fraught journey to the capitol, readers see Ani draw courage and comfort from the handkerchief. But when her servants turn on her, the handkerchief highlights her despair without Hale having to describe it:
Her cold fingers fumbled at the wet fabric at her breast where the handkerchief had been. Where it should be. Ani felt for it, patted her dress, looked at the ground around her feet. It was gone. She realized that she must have lost it in the stream. It would be far away by now. Who would protect her?
Because readers have been prepped to know how important the handkerchief was, we understand how devastating its loss is–and how vulnerable she is now.

2. Sometimes the objective correlative takes the form of a metaphors that reveal a deeper truth about the character’s emotional state.

 In Chris Crowe’s Death Coming up a Hill, he uses the metaphor of a bridge to tell us how the main character feels pulled between his two parents:

. . . I looped

one arm around Dad’s neck and

reached my other armaround Mom’s. Feeling

their love for me, I tugged to

pull them closer, to

knit us into a

tight group hug, but Dad leaned right

and Mom leaned left, and

I spanned the distance

between them like a bombed-out


A more powerful form of this metaphor might be recurring throughout a book. Martine Leavitt mentioned that in Keturah and Lord Death, she used the forest as a metaphor to reflect Keturah’s state of mind:
How thin the air felt at the forest’s edge, how ghostly the trees that guarded their realm…. The whole world seemed as delicate as a dandelion seed, and as fleeting…. How sad to know that the figment village of my imagination would not vanish when I ended, to understand that it was not I who had invented the moon the first time I realized how lovely it was. To admit that it was not my breath that made the winds blow…. [M]y heart, my heart knew that when I closed my eyes I invented the night sky and the stars too. Wasn’t the whole dome of the sky the same shape as the inside of my skull? Didn’t I create the sun and the day when I raised my eyelids every morning?

This evocative passage lets readers feel Keturah’s despair at both the transience of her existence and her immateriality: the forest, like herself, is thin and fleeting. The world spins on without her.


3. Sometimes the objective correlative comes from the mood created by descriptions filtered through a particular point of view.

Maggie Stiefvater is a master at this.  Here she is, reflecting on her own process of creating emotion:

Man, I was working hard in this little section. In reality, the hallway of the
house is lush and content and established. But inside our two protagonists,
trouble brews — you can see it in the mirror. The side table, on the outside of
the glass, is docile. But the mirror-image of the tidy hallway is crazed
and twisted and rakish. Again, I could’ve just told you: on
the outside, the boys look foxy and orderly in suits, but on the inside, they
are hot messes. But I don’t want you to know. I want you to feel. And our old
friends, those countless literary devices of simile, metaphor, allusion,
figurative language … that’s the way in. It’s not about fancy literary prizes.
It’s not about seeming impenetrable or smart or high fallutin. I’m not trying
to impress anyone. I am trying to make you feel a story, that’s all. I guess
what I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe in the literary/ commercial
divide. And I don’t believe that literary is good or bad. I believe that good
novel makes readers feel, and the more readers I can make feel, the more
successful I will consider that book.   

For another great breakdown of a scene from Scorpio Races, see here.

In the opening chapter of Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, the aunt who raised Princess Ani prepares to leave, and we see both the aunt’s dissatisfaction and Ani’s impending loneliness through the description:

That year, when the trees burned the fire of late summer into their leaves and the ground mist was a ghost of the river, long and wet and cold, the aunt looked from her window to the walls around her and imagined another winter inside them. She began to see the world as a bird sees bars, and she scratched her arms beneath her sleeves.

The aunt took Ani to the shore of the swan pond where the lazy-armed trees dipped themselves into their own reflections and the aspens’ hard little leaves shook in the wind with a noise like snapping fingers. The aunt pointed north, where few people lived and trees grew thick and prickly green all year, and where the girl could not follow.

“I’m going home,” she said. She kissed Ani’s forehead, but her eyes did not leave the purple horizon.

The carefully chosen descriptions do the emotional work in this passage: the haunting “ghost,” the confining sense of both “bars” and the aunt’s scratching. Even the unfriendly description of the wood–“hard little leaves,” “snapping fingers,” “prickly green”–cue readers into Ani’s emotional state. The final image, of the aunt already focused on a more promising horizon, underscores Ani’s isolation.

4. Sometimes the objective correlative takes the form of a “situation, or chain of events” that allow the reader to experience a particular emotion.

Consider this scene from Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. He opens by describing a campsite on July 5, 1983 in mundane terms: three adults, a group of kids cook dinner, properly secure their food in a tree, and set up camp for the night.
About midnight, a black bear came prowling around the margins of the camp, spied the bag, and brought it down by climbing one of the trees and breaking a branch. He plundered the food and departed, but an hour later he was back, this time entering the camp itself, drawn by the lingering smell of cooked meat in the campers’ clothes and hair, in their sleeping bags and tent fabric. It was to be a long night for the Canimia party. Three times between midnight and 3:30 a.m. the bear came to camp.
Imagine, if you will, lying in the dark alone in a little tent, nothing but a few microns of trembling nylon between you and the chill night air, listening to a 400-pound bear moving around your campsite. Imagine its quiet grunts and mysterious snufflings, the clatter of upended cookware and sounds of moist gnawings, the pad of its feet and the heaviness of its breath, the singing brush of its haunch along your tent side. Imagine the hot flood of adrenaline, that unwelcome tingling in the back of your arms, at the sudden rough bump of its snout against the foot of your tent, the alarming wild wobble of your frail shell as it roots through the backpack that you left casually propped by the entrance–with, you suddenly recall, a Snickers in the pouch. Bears adore Snickers, you’ve heard.
And then the dull thought–oh, God–that perhaps you brought the Snickers in here with you, that it’s somewhere in here, down by your feet or underneath you or–oh, shit, here it is. Another bump of grunting head against the tent, this time near hour shoulders. More crazy wobble. Then silence, a very long silence, and–wait, shhh . . . yes!–the unutterable relief of realizing the bear has withdrawn to the other side of the camp or shambled back into the woods. I tell you right now, I couldn’t stand it.
So imagine then what it must have been like for poor little David Anderson, aged twelve, when at 3:30 a.m., on the third foray, his tent was abruptly rent with a swipe of claw and the bear, driven to distraction by the rich, unfixable, everywhere aroma of hamburger, bit hard into a flinching limb and dragged him shouting and flailing through the camp and into the woods.
 File:Young black bear (6492409733).jpg
From his description of the situation and the events as they unfold, we experience a very real terror, without him ever having to name it. And though he does refer to some physical sensations, the bulk of the emotion comes from the details he chooses: the events (“mysterious shufflings,” “moist gnawings”) and the objects (“trembling nylon”). Bryson also uses an assortment of rhetorical devices: a string of parallel sentences in the first paragraph building towards a climax; semi-onomatopoeic words to round out the sensory images (“grunt” “snufflings” “clatter”); and the use of dashes to interrupt his interior monologue, reflecting his increasingly fractured thinking as the terror mounts.


What are your favorite ways for using emotion? What other examples of the objective correlative can you think of?

Rosalyn Eves
is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, THE BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is forthcoming Fall 2016 from Knopf. She’s represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary.


6 thoughts on “Writing with Emotion: the Objective Correlative

  1. I didn't even realize there were four ways to use object correlative. Your prowess at hunting down the information from the ends of the literary earth, cooking it into something consumable and serving it on a nice little platter for me to consume is astounding. Thank you for inviting me to the feast.


  2. Leah said it perfectly! Thank you for this invaluable lesson. And the examples helped solidify it! Like Elaine I will be coming back to this often!


  3. Well done with this post. I got about a third of te way through and thought ‘Hey, I’m understanding this,’ which doesn’t happen all that much with this topic. Excellent examples as well — which also are lacking in just about every attempt on this topic.

    Thanks for taking the time to post this.


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