How can we make our readers feel something? Readers expect a good story to excite them or move them or make them laugh, but conveying emotion is the hardest task a writer faces. Human emotions are caused by neurochemical reactions, and to make a chemical reaction occur in someone’s brain just by showing them marks on a page is tantamount to magic. The secret to working that magic lies in finding an effective ‘objective correlative.’
Video transcript follows below:
I’ve got a joke for you. My mate, right, the other day he was walking up the road and something really funny happened. I mean, honestly, it was hilarious – absolutely hysterical. I’m talking tremendously, intoxicatingly laugh out loud, wee yourself funny. It was soooo funny… It was as funny as a mountain is high, as funny as the sea is deep…
Now, I could go on like this for a very long time but you’re not going to laugh. If I want to make you laugh then I have to create a sequence of concrete details arranged in a way that is funny.
Arranged in a particular way, even the most serious concrete details can be funny. I used to live in Belfast and there was a popular joke about a guy walking late at night along the peace line – the border that separates unionist and nationalist Belfast. And he comes to an intersection and a guy in a balaclava jumps out and points a gun at his knees. He says, ‘What feckin religion are ye?’ Now the poor fellow’s terrified and he’s no idea which side of the conflict this masked man’s from. He figures that whether he says he’s Catholic or Protestant, he’s a fifty per cent chance of being knee capped. Then he has a flash of inspiration. ‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I’m Jewish.’ At which point a big smile breaks out behind the gunman’s balaclava. ‘Feck me,’ he says. ‘I must be the luckiest Palestinian in Belfast.’
Now none of these concrete details are in any way funny on their own. A balaclava is not funny. The Peace Line is not funny. The Israel-Palestine conflict is certainly not funny. And yet, arranged in a particular way, they combine to evoke, in those of a certain dark mindset, the emotion of amusement.
We all understand this with regards to humour. We also understand that if we want to make someone laugh, we have to tell them a chain of details they haven’t heard before.
You won’t laugh if I tell you why the chicken crossed the road, because you’ve heard that one before.
But sometimes when we write about other emotions, we seem to think that if we describe the emotion with sufficient power, or convey it with some familiar symbols, the reader will connect with it.
When we want to convey fear we’re tempted to write: He felt a terrible fear and inched into the darkness, trembling with every step. The fear grew and grew into pure terror, blind terror, such that he was shaking and a cold sweat licked his back. He felt a noise behind him and turned, startled, as white as a ghost.
When we want to convey sadness we’re tempted to write: She walked behind the coffin and felt tears welling up. She was absolutely grief-stricken and felt that her very heart might break. Her sadness weighed on her like some immense pain and she could barely walk to the front of the church.
That won’t work. You can’t make someone laugh by telling them that something funny happened; you have to describe a funny situation that your audience has never heard before.
Similarly, you can’t make someone feel sad by telling them a situation is sad; you have to describe a sad situation they’ve never heard before.
And there’s a fancy name for this: The Objective correlative
The modernist poet T.S. Eliot defined an objective correlative as, ‘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 invoked.’
Here are two examples from another poet, Archibald Macleish.
For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea
Final thought: in the early 20th century the film director Lev Kuleshov filmed an actor looking in turn at a bowl of soup, a coffin, and an attractive woman. Audiences raved about the actor’s ability to express different emotions, but what they didn’t know was that Kuleshov used the same footage of the actor each time – all that changed was the objects to which he cut.
It seems William Carlos Williams was right when he wrote, ‘No ideas but in things.’
Thanks for watching and good luck with your writing.
The chicken photograph is by Bob Jagendorf and is covered by a Creative Commons License. You can find more of Bob’s work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bobjagendorf/