Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Objective Correlatives and a White Belt

Last fall I wrote several blog posts about the Plot & Structure class I took with the Center for Writing Excellence. You may remember the concept of objective correlatives which enables authors to "show, not tell."

I have fallen in love with the idea. 

In her lesson about objective correlatives, my instructor Bethany Nuckolls, wrote: 

"This is an object in the scene, which correlates with the narrative subtext, thus displacing the need for a narrator's explanation. Sometimes referred to as 'reading between the lines,' subtext is everything that is not being said or shown, but is nonetheless present such as a husband and wife sitting down to a silent dinner. Neither one says, 'I am angry at you,' but that anger can be felt nonetheless….Just as actors need props to hold on stage, scenes need objective correlatives for characters to channel their thoughts and emotions through."

Now as I read, I'm on the lookout for phrases and objects that might be objective correlatives; words which provide the reader with subtext about the scene. As Nuckolls concludes in this section, "Rarely does the author need to spell things out for the reader via explanation."

For your instruction (and mine!) here are some examples.

From Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman:

Blankman first describes Gretchen's brother as "a column of darkness." (p.8) This image foreshadows his character and the troubles he will bring in to Gretchen's life. 

Later, the reader sees Gretchen as she leaves her school, "As she walked down the narrow hallway, she wished life could be simple and straightforward. She wanted to be so many different puzzle pieces--Uncle Dolf's sunshine, the martyr's daughter, the serious student, the future physician." (p. 30)  Blankman shows how Gretchen is trying to figure out where and how she fits in by using the objective correlative of a puzzle piece. 

Here's an example from Madman's Daughter by Megan Shepherd. 
The protagonist, Juliet, is on board a ship traveling to a Pacific island hoping to determine if her father is a monster or a misunderstood genius. Shepherd writes, "I wasn't sure I was ready to learn what types of boundaries my father might have crossed out there in the dark, silent sea." (p. 61)  The play on the word "boundaries" hints at what Juliet is truly thinking. The "dark, silent sea" symbolizes the unknown. 

In Lisa Williams Kline's book, Summer of the Wolves, stepsisters Stephanie and Diana are having a hard time getting used to their new family. In a dramatic moment, they must climb a steep path in order to free the penned-up wolves. Although she is reluctant to help her ill-prepared sister, Diana succeeds in pulling her sister up the rock face. This is a turning point in their relationship; the scene echoes the struggles they have had to gain equal footing.  

Here is an example from my WIP, Half-Truths. After I wrote it I realized I'd successfully used several objective correlatives. In this scene Kate, who has just moved from  Cheraw, SC, is getting reacquainted with her Myers Park friends. 

"A funny look twisted Shirley’s face. She laughed nervously. 'Well, you have to admit, Kate, a Cheraw hoedown is a far cry from a Myers Park cotillion.'

Kate almost choked on her sandwich. She loved square dancing with her 4-H buddies, but she still dreamt of pink tulle dresses and open toe high heels. Did Shirley think she was just a yokel?"

So what do all these objective correlatives have to do with a white belt?

Here's how. A month ago I impulsively decided to enroll in a Tae Kwon Do class. It is fun, great exercise, and challenging to both body and mind. 

I found myself possessively proud of the white belt I received. As I thought about it, I realized that the belt is not only a symbol of my beginner's status. 

The subtext goes deeper. 

I turned 60 last December. I'd been dreading that birthday; fearing the approach of "older" age.  But tying that belt around my waist has proven to me that life is not over. I can and will do new things.

I have a book that I hope to finish this year.

I have travels and adventures I plan to take. 

And, now I have a white belt too. 

Watch out. You never know what objective correlative is just around the bend. 

My 2014 Objective Correlative

How about you? Found any interesting objective correlatives in a book you are reading? Written one you want to share? Or have one of your own you want to boast about?

Bring them on!


Joyce Moyer Hostetter said...

Tae Kwon Do and age 60 - Bring 'em on!

That's a great objective correlative and the next color will be too.

I love that passage from Half Truths.

In the finale of my WIP dinner on the grounds (and specific foods) serve as an objective correlative, bringing "enemies" together.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Joyce. For every bit of encouragement you have given me in the last 5 years. You deserve a belt of your own!! And as always, can' wait to read this draft of your book!

Anonymous said...

Dear Carol,
I enjoyed reading the examples of objective corelatives you give in this article.

It's definitely food to think about for our stories and our lives.

I'm glad the white belt helped free you of a few of your fears about getting older.

Celebrate you and your willingness to share what you learn with others.

Never Give Up

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Joan! Yes, now I'm seeing objective correlatives everywhere! In some ways this is similar to your recent post about our characters' favorite items. Lots to include when we're writing!

Linda Phillips said...

Thanks, Carol, for yet another good teaching moment. I loved all your examples. I think you acknowledged this one once way back when you critiqued my book, Crazy.
“Oh, I could never get back to that,”
she says, slamming a window
against the rising storm.

More than one storm going on and windows can't stop them anyway.

Carol Baldwin said...

Goes to show that I've been loving objective correlatives for a long time. Just didn't have a name for them. YES! I love that part of your book. ANd YES! windows only help certain types of storms.

Linda A. said...

I love how you tied this writing lesson to your personal growth.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Linda. It brought the concept home for me!

Kathleen said...

Thank you for info on objective correlatives. It makes more sense to me now. Also, Congrats on the white belt!Definitely an inspiring example!

Carol Baldwin said...

glad you enjoyed the blog, Kathy!

LIGHT COMES TO SHADOW MOUNTAIN A Guest Blogger Review by Mara Scudder

  I've been on the "other side of the pond" for the last two weeks and just returned home. I look forward to sharing a few of ...