Salt in the Soup
If you’ve ever taken a writing class or read any articles on writing, you have most likely come across the ol’ “show don’t tell” rule. It’s usually at the top of the list of things to focus on when making your writing better. It certainly was at the top of the self-edits my publisher had me complete. Essentially, when writing a story, you need to show the reader what is happening; Assume that your reader is more intelligent than the average bear and let them glean information from context clues.
For example: “Susan was sad.” vs “The tears streamed down Susan’s face.”
Technically, the second sentence could be misconstrued, because tears can be happy. But generally, there would be other sentences with context clues around them. The first sentence tells the reader what Susan is feeling while the second shows the reader. The first is an insult to the reader’s intelligence and the second is far more interesting and engaging.
Simple. Go back into your old drafts, change it to story-showing instead of story-telling, and boom! Your draft is significantly better. Take a step back, give yourself a pat on the back, and celebrate!
Except it’s not that simple. Sometimes you glare at a sentence so hard it should change to “show not tell” on its own, yet somehow it’s still there when you come back to it.
(I might get banished for this)
I think that labeling “show don’t tell” as the main fix in a draft is misleading. There are plenty of times when you need to tell the reader something.
Don’t believe me?
Dialogue tags. He said, she said, John said, etc.. Unless it’s a movie where you can physically move the camera to show who is speaking, it’s the author telling the reader. You can try to spice it up with adverbs or different ways of saying it, but in reality, it slows the reader down and makes editors pull out the red pen.
Sometimes telling is necessary. In fact, that’s what a lot of exposition is. “Once upon a time” sets up the setting, characters, and plot. It’s the foundation for the narrative, and it is necessary. If your book was a soup, this would be the broth. It’s essential, but too much and there is no substance to your writing.
That’s when you bring in showing instead of telling. You show the reader who the character is through their dialogue and what they do. This brings substance to your writing, your carrots, potatoes, and noodles.
But even when you execute “showing” to the best of your ability, your writing can still be missing something. There’s another way of writing that is more superior to the age-old “show don’t tell.” People rarely talk about it, but it is often used in literature, film, and theater. Imagine that instead of telling the reader how the character is feeling, or showing the reader how the character is feeling, you help them to feel the emotion as well.
This is called the “Objective Correlative.” If you look it up, you won’t find much on the topic. The Wikipedia page is strangely bare. Poetry Foundation has about a paragraph about it. And unlike most writing topics, there are scant blog posts on this subject. It’s almost like those who know of the Objective Correlative are in some sort of super-secret club. Congrats, you’re about to be a member.
I learned about it at the “Life the Universe and Everything” conference in 2019. It was my first writing conference and I had no idea what I was doing (of course who truly knows what they’re doing?). I wasn’t sure what class to go to at the end of the day, and so I ducked into this classroom on a whim. I’m glad that I did.
A character’s emotional state can be one of the hardest things to describe, as it can get rather tedious to constantly read about the character thinking about emotions. Not only that, but I also don’t know many people in real life who think about their emotions as coherently as some fictional characters. There’s a reason why they are called feelings and not thoughtings. But this just makes writing emotion that much harder. The objective correlative focuses on using external forces to describe a person’s interior state. There are 5 main methods to use the objective correlative:
Chain of Events
I’ll be using some examples from film, theater, and literature, so just in case: SPOILER WARNING for any Marvel movie containing Thor (save Thor: Love and Thunder), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Hamilton. Also, some of these methods are often used together for greater effect.
Now let’s break it down.
This can be one of the simplest to implement, although it does take a bit of planning up front. In this case, give the character an object of great sentimental value. Give it history, show over the course of the story why it is important/significant/relevant. Or give the object meaning over the course of the story.
Now, when something happens to that object, the character pulls the object out in an emotional moment, or the character leaves the object behind, it becomes emotionally significant to the reader.
My favorite example of using objects to convey emotion is Thor’s hammer. We are first introduced to it in Thor. We see him using it in battle to great effect, but it’s just a weapon. Then Odin imbues it with the worthiness factor and exiles Thor to Earth. This event makes it more than just a weapon. It is now a plot device. Hurrah! Thor spends the rest of the movie trying to be worthy of his powers again, and when he wields the hammer, we get a sense of the joy he feels in regaining it.