The Objective Correlative

In writing, as with many other aspects of life, you don’t know how much you don’t know until someone wiser teaches you. I started out over ten years ago knowing nothing other than I loved reading stories and wanted to learn to write them.

My learning journey began by attending writing conferences to learn the basics. That is a great place to start. I learned key things like the difference between the content and length of the various levels of children’s literature. Show, don’t tell. Plot structures such as The Hero’s Journey and The Three Act Structure. Writing mechanics that can flag you as a newbie writer, such as adjectives, adverbs, and naming emotions. All important topics that made me feel I’d figured writing out and was ready to publish a story.

Not true.

I obtained my first agent and learned how much more there was to learn about character development, emotional arc, and the heart of the story. I hadn’t realized stories need both an external (plot) quest and an internal (emotional) quest that both need to have progress and impediment throughout the character’s journey, and in some way are connected to each other. This type of topic was better learned in writing intensives or writing workshops. I attended many. Now I certainly felt ready to publish a story.

Still not true.

This is the point where many writers hit the wall. They know everything a conference or writing workshop can teach, their manuscripts are getting partial requests, but they never quite make a sale. Something is missing from their writing and they don’t know what. But the only way to find out what is missing is by learning from someone who is a published author.

I am not suggesting anyone stalk a published author to glean information. Don’t do that. Not even at a conference. Seriously.

The answer for me has been the MFA. All the writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts are award wining, published authors who know exactly what it takes to bump your manuscript from good to great. They lecture on these topics at residency and comment on the specific items a student needs to work on during the semester.

The first big tidbit of information I gleaned from my MFA: Objective Correlative.

In ten years of writing conferences and workshops, I never once heard this term mentioned. It must have been stated fifty times at my first MFA residency, both in seriousness and as some inside joke we first semester students have not quite figured out yet. I’m certain it’s buried in one of the archived faculty lectures. Upperclassmen, please tell us which one so we’re in on the joke, too!

The first thing I did when I got back from residency was look up the definition of the objective correlative. I’ve since watched five lectures related to the topic and read eight student critical thesis that listed it as a keyword. I’m still beginning to figure out how to incorporate this new tool in my writing, but let me share the basics I’ve uncovered.

T.S. Elliot is credited as first defining the objective correlative as “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of [a] particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

That’s a mouthful. It required further research for me to understand. I’ve found four ways (so far) this objective correlative can be used. Let’s say the object I select is a horse.


1)   Single Use Object

In this case, I am not actually writing a story about horses. If I am writing about a school-aged kid who is being bullied on the playground and the teacher never sees it happen. The class goes on a field trip to a farm (where there is a one time exposure to a horse), and the bullying continues. This kid has been told not to react to the bullying because that’s what the bully wants. How can the writer show what the kid is feeling on the inside (without telling) while he pretends not to care on the outside? A rearing horse in the scene could be an objective correlative for the kid’s true feelings. He may even go so far as to think how much he wishes he were a horse who could rear up and kick away bullies.

2)   Object’s Relationship to Character Shows Character’s Relationship to Plot

In this case I am writing a story about a character who owns a horse he is supposed to take care of. But he doesn’t. Just like his parent doesn’t take care of him. The boy’s feelings of abandonment and depression are internal feelings that can be difficult to show. The horse would have physical signs of not being cared for, such as losing weight or growing a shaggy coat, that could be an objective correlative for how the boy is feeling inside. Then when the parent does begin to take care of the boy again, and thus the boy takes care of his horse again, both boy and horse flourish. The horse’s external plot arc is a smaller, mirror image of the boy’s internal plot arc.

3)   Object is a Symbol of the Changes in the Novel’s Situation

In this case the horse does not necessarily have its own plot arc. It is a symbol of changes going on in the story. If I am writing a story about a boy whose sibling is kidnapped, a horse he loves at his riding stable could be an objective correlative for the turning points of his sister’s kidnapping. At first the boy is riding the horse as his sister watches. All is well. The sister is kidnapped. The boy feels powerless. The police won’t let a kid help search. But when his favorite horse gets out of its pen at the riding stable, he can take part in the search. He distracts himself from the missing sister by searching for the horse. Both the sister and the horse are found in the story climax (not necessarily together). The boy’s internal worries about his missing sister are mirrored by his external search for the missing horse.

4)   Object Builds and Releases Story Tension (Endowed Object)

In the theatre world, an “object must be shown great honor and respect before it can be endowed with the ability to hold and project meaning and heart.” In this case the horse is not just a horse. The main character assigns great meaning to the horse early on. Perhaps the boy tells all his deepest secrets to his horse, endowing it with a special position in his life. If the boy then loses a leg in an accident and can only “walk” using his horse, there is an emotional reaction in the reader. If that same horse is then injured or dies, an even stronger emotional reaction occurs in both the boy and the reader.

No, I don’t write stories about horses. But I am trying out the many uses of the objective correlative in my own stories before I move on to studying another new topic: Mood.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a children's author aspiring to be published. All fingers and toes are crossed in hopes that one of her young adult novels will earn her that privilege one day soon.
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