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.
You’d think that was it, but it gets better. For the next few movies, the hammer goes back to being a tool, but we still have the context of the first movie. With each encounter with the hammer, we add to our knowledge of it, and the relationship between it and Thor builds. When the Avengers try to lift the hammer in Avengers: Age of Ultron and (other than Captain America’s nudge) fail to do so, it builds up an expectation that only Thor can wield the hammer. So when Vision casually picks it up, we feel the shock that the Avengers do.
After so many movies and interactions with the hammer, when it gets destroyed by Hela in Thor: Ragnarok, you can feel Thor’s devastation and shock. This was timed perfectly with Odin’s death, as it just added to the grief that the audience feels through Thor. It also shows how big of a threat Hela is. No wonder Loki panicked.
When Thor, after losing his mother, father, hammer, brother, Heimdall, and half the universe, gets to his lowest point, he lets himself go physically and emotionally. In Avengers: Endgame, he gets to travel back to before he lost everything. He feels like a failure who has lost everyone and everything. He couldn’t even fully avenge those who died. Thor has an emotional conversation with his mother about his failures. And then, just before he leaves, he raises his hand to call his hammer. He knows from his experiences in the first movie that it is possible to lose your worthiness. But the hammer comes; even when he is at his lowest he is still worthy. The audience can feel that emotion.
Of course, you might not have half a dozen movies to develop an object, but just know that it is possible to convey emotions with objects.
A well-placed metaphor can be much more interesting than the generic emotion words, although these can also become overused and cliche. For instance, “I felt butterflies in my stomach” is entirely cliche. But “I felt like a ravenous harpy was gnawing at my intestines,” conveys anxiety without being cliche. Using too many metaphors can become tedious quickly, so be careful.
Rain can mean sadness. The sun coming through the clouds can mean the storm is over. What a character focuses on in their surroundings can convey a lot of emotion.
“Emily sat on the bench in the aquarium, watching the other kids milling about. She watched as Susan took her father’s hand. He was chaperoning the field trip. A surge of jealousy rushed through Emily as she looked up at the ceiling to keep the tears in her eyes. Why was it that everyone else in the class had two parents, or even one, and yet Emily had no one?” This right here is a lovely blend of using showing and telling to convey emotion. But let’s use the objective correlative to make it better.
“The jellyfish floated behind the shield of glass, glowing in the bluish-black abyss of its “home.” Emily placed her hand up to touch where it fluttered, the coolness of the tank chilling her fingertips. The ocean was several thousand miles away; the jellyfish an imposter from the sea. And yet it seemed to be glowing, ethereal. How could it still hold so much hope?”
There is not a single mention of Emily’s feelings in this passage, yet the reader can glean several emotions from the text. We are focusing on what Emily is focusing on at the time. Write the atmosphere and how the character responds to it, and the emotional state will be etched into the scene. Remember that the scene isn’t in a vacuum. If I was writing the above scene into a story I’d make sure that the readers knew a bit more about Emily before or after the scene so that they have context.
If we look at the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the filmmakers use this expertly. Cameron stands in front of the painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” There are cuts between him and the painting, zooming in on a child holding their mother’s hand. As it zooms, it gets to be harder to see and eventually is just dots. It also cuts to Ferris and Sloan kissing in another room. This helps to convey the loneliness that Cameron feels, his insecurities, and how he feels like he isn’t seen. Never underestimate the power of your character’s focus.
Chain of Events
This can be a form of foreshadowing, but it essentially is setting up the narrative for dramatic irony later. It’s definitely more nuanced than other methods.
Let’s look at Hamilton. Throughout the show, there is an emphasis on how much Alexander Hamilton loves words. The lyrics pay particular attention to how he is writing “like he’s running out of time.” He uses them to convey his thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Words are his weapon, his defense, and his legacy. Hamilton loves words.
And what is his wife’s reaction to his affair? She sings about his words, his letters, and when she thought he loved her. And she burns the letters and erases herself from the narrative. You can feel her emotion when she sings, but the lyrics are essential to understanding exactly how devastated she wants Hamilton to feel. She gets back at him by removing herself from his life in the best way she can. She burns his words.
You can set up the emotional state of your character at the climax from the very beginning if you carefully emphasize important details throughout your narrative.
There have been psychological studies on how the way a person moves can convey emotion. And this is often used in story-showing. Do they sit on the couch or flop onto it? A simple change in word-choice and you get a different picture. But to truly help the reader feel the emotion, you need to build up the movements to the main emotion. You can better see how the character gets to their emotional high or low point by gradually introducing gestures. This is especially useful in dialogue as emotion is building. Slip small gestures in between lines of dialogue that gradually build as the emotion builds.
The Objective Correlative can be tricky to achieve, but well worth it. Just keep in mind that you don’t want to overuse these tactics. If your book is a pot of soup, the Objective Correlative is the salt and seasonings. The right amount makes it taste significantly better, but too much and it’s overpowering your taste buds. Consider your placement of these carefully and use them for the most important moments.
“The bigger the issue, the smaller you write. Remember that. You don’t write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid’s burnt socks lying on the road. You pick the smallest manageable part of the big thing, and you work off the resonance.” - Richard Price