Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Descriptive Writing 101: Describing Emotion Through Objective Correlatives

Let me preface this post by saying that I'm a little bit intimidated by addressing this particular topic, only because my brilliant friend (and former Pitch Wars mentor!) Rosalyn Eves has done it so well and thoroughly in her own wonderful post on objective correlatives. Check it out here! Rosalyn explains and breaks down the objective correlative in a terrific and easy-to-follow way, and you'll understand my take much better if you've read hers first.

That said, I couldn't in good conscience do a blog series on the things that are crucial to me in descriptive writing without addressing objective correlatives—a tricky, cerebral concept that can be hard to grasp but adds so much power into a narrative when used well. The use of objective correlatives is a way to communicate emotion (and induce emotion in the reader) without ever actually naming that emotion, or describing it in more traditional ways like physical reactions. As such, objective correlatives may at first glance seem to have not that much to do with descriptive writing—but as far as I'm concerned, they've got everything to do with each other. The goal of immersive descriptive writing, in my opinion, is to emotionally invest your reader in your narrative to such a point that they feel like they are there, living it, breathing your POV character's breath; objective correlatives can be a great way to do this. And, depending on what sort of objective correlative you use, it can also reinforce your setting, strengthening it until it's a character in its own right.

I was first introduced to the topic of objective correlatives at the 2015 LDStorymakers conference, in a presentation by author Martine Leavitt (the same presentation Rosalyn mentions in her post). An objective correlative is, essentially, kind of a grand-scale metaphor: rather than being a sentence-level structure where you implicitly inform the reader that one thing is standing in for another (for example, "he was a rock, the kind of man who would move for nothing"), an objective correlative is something that is usually woven into the text in such a way that the relationship is implied rather than stated—though, as with any rule, there are exceptions, as (confusingly enough) regular metaphors can be a type of objective correlative in certain situations. (Rosalyn goes into more detail about this in her post above!)

Often, though not always, an objective correlative is carried throughout all or part of a story, like a sort of extended metaphor. In the Harry Potter series, for instance, Harry's phoenix-feather wand functions as an objective correlative, symbolizing his sense of belonging to the wizarding world, the first place he's ever felt at home. In the final book, when his wand breaks during a confrontation with one of Voldemort's creatures, we feel Harry's shock and grief—not only because the wand itself was so beloved to him, but because it carried a deeper meaning in the narrative, and its shattering represents the breakdown both of Harry's innocence and of his beloved and safe wizarding world. And at the end, when Harry has vanquished Voldemort and gained the most powerful wand in the world—a wand that could earn him glory for the rest of his life—instead of choosing to keep it, he uses the Elder Wand only to repair his old phoenix-feather wand before breaking the Elder Wand and tossing it off a cliff, showing that the sense of belonging he's found in wizarding culture is far more important to him than fame or glory.

Think of all the things that little objective correlative, which is a relatively tiny plot in the overarching Harry Potter series, has described to us: We've learned about wizarding culture and its quirks ("the wand chooses the wizard!"); we've learned about Harry's deepest motivations and desires (belonging, acceptance, a safe place to call home), we've viscerally felt Harry's emotion at the peak of his distress in HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS. Without ever telling us "Harry was sad because of what the breakage of his wand represented to him," Rowling has pulled us deeper into her story, her character, and her setting through this objective correlative.

Last year at the Storymakers conference, I was really intrigued by Martine's brief explanation of objective correlatives, and since I was at that very moment outlining a new WIP, I decided that I was going to pick an objective correlative to use throughout my novel as a way to show my protagonist's sense of overwhelm with the situation that she was in. That book takes place on a farm, and an important subplot revolves around the fact that the area is in an unprecedented drought that's placing great stress on its rural inhabitants. As such, the weather—the heat and crush of an unusually rainless North Carolina summer—seemed like the perfect thing to use as an extended metaphor. As I drafted the book, whenever I found myself wanting to describe my main character's emotions, I would describe the weather instead, specifically choosing descriptors that evoked the sense of heavy oppression that fit not only the actual temperature but also Della's sense of hopelessness at trying to care for her mentally ill mother. Here's one of the more obvious examples:

“It’s all right, it’s all right,” I said over and over again, but Mama didn’t act like she’d heard me at all. She just kept on crying, not making any noise, her eyes puffing up and turning as red as her hands. I clumsily unscrewed the spray bottle and dumped everything inside it down the sink, my own eyes watering—it smelled like straight-up bleach, not thinned out with anything at all. 
“You gotta wash your hands, Mama,” I said, remembering what Mrs. Gregory had said last year in science lab about touching bleach, but Mama didn’t answer. I reached into the sink and grabbed a washcloth off the faucet, running it under water till it was as cold as the sink could get it, and then crouched down and wiped Mama’s hands off one at a time. It might not be enough to stop her hurting, but it was all I could do while still holding crying Mylie on my hip. 
The heat of the kitchen pressed down hard on me, warming up that washcloth till holding it felt just like being wrapped up in the humid air. Mylie rubbed her face into my shoulder, her arms holding tight onto my neck like she was afraid of what might happen if she let go, and whimpered. 
“Stowy?” she whispered. 
“Not now, Mylie.” I wasn’t sure I’d ever be ready to tell another Bee Story again. Instead I just held Mylie and looked out the window over the sink and wished, more than ever, that the sky would just open up and cry all the tears I couldn’t.
That book—called WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW—ended up being the book that earned ten agent offers, and without fail, to this day every single person who has read it has commented on how vivid the heat was, how they felt hot reading it, and how the extended metaphor of the drought helped to pull them deeply into the story and really feel what Della felt as they read. My hope (which, based on that reaction, seems to have succeeded!) was to ground a reader both in Della's emotional overwhelm and immerse them in the setting in such a way that they seemed to be right there, experiencing all that heat and frustration along with Della.

An objective correlative can also be used on a smaller scale, though, in just one (or just a few) scenes, to illustrate a certain concept or emotion. In my last WIP, one of my favorite objective correlatives was one that was mostly confined to a single scene:

“You know, Annie Lee,” said Mama, and I jumped a little. Her voice was strange and floaty. “I knew a girl once, back when I was in high school, who got herself stung by a Portuguese Man’o’war while she was swimming out in Wilmington.”
A Man’o’war was a jellyfish, a horrible kind with lacy tentacles that could be thirty feet or longer, and if it caught you it would wrap those tentacles around your arms and legs, tangling you up in it and stinging over and over again. I stuck my hand into my pocket, the warm familiar smoothness of George Washington’s faces calm and comforting.
“They had to cut it off her, there on the sand,” Mama went on, “and she spent the next five years getting plastic surgery over and over again to get rid of all those hard red scars. But you know the thing that’s never made sense to me?” 
I waited, but she didn’t go on. “What?”
“She kept swimming after that day.” Mama shook her head. “Her family went to the beach a few weeks every summer, and she said she still kept swimming.” She paused. “I don’t think I could’ve done that.” 
I turned the quarter over in my fingers. Daddy had been able to make it pass over and under every finger of his hand before disappearing it, poof, into the air.
“Losing your daddy,” Mama said, her face tired and grey-blue in the light of the computer screen, “it was like being wrapped up in those tentacles, Annie Lee.” She looked back at the screen, at whatever she’d seen there.
“Sometimes, it still is.” 
If you're feeling a) confused and or b) overwhelmed by this whole concept at this point, don't despair. It's a tricky idea, and one that can seem hard to wrap your brain around! If you'd like a practice exercise today, I'm totally stealing from Rosalyn's (fantastic) class on objective correlatives at LDStorymakers 2016. The assignment is simple: Pick an emotion and then pick an object or image (anything will do!). Write a paragraph, or more, using that image or object to try to make your reader feel that emotion. The above jellyfish excerpt was actually based on what came out of that class exercise for me—if I remember right, my image was a picture of a jellyfish and my emotion was sadness. Now it's one of my favorite passages in that book!

Did you miss the earlier posts in the Descriptive Writing 101 Series? Check them out here!

Part 1: Relationship-Based Description
Part 2: Building Strong Metaphors

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