Show, Don’t Tell: Applying T. S. Eliot’s Objective Correlative to Fiction and Poetry
Many writers and poets have heard the time-honored phrase, “Show, don’t tell.” Professors, teachers, and writing instructors have exhorted us to make our writing as “noun-driven” as possible. Where did these ideas come from? We mainly have poet, playwright, and literary critic T. S. Eliot to “blame”:
“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, 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 evoked.” –T. S. Eliot (1919)
What is the objective correlative?
Somewhat similar to Edgar Allan Poe’s “singular effect,” a technique Poe used skillfully in writing “The Fall of the House of Usher,” Eliot’s objective correlative is a set of objects, a situation, or a chain of events that the writer uses to set off a specific emotion in the reader. Known by some modern critics as “emotional algebra,” the objective correlative is not one word, phrase, or object, but a combination of words, phrases, and objects that create emotion. Juxtaposition, the placement of objects close to each other, is often the key to making the objective correlative work. When a writer uses juxtaposition, the sum of the parts of the work becomes greater than the individual parts, and the writer is better able to manipulate the reader into a specific emotion.
We attach emotions and abstract ideas to objects all the time. That old blanket is safety and security. That rocking chair in the parlor is Grandma Jones. This toy is Christmas, 1979. That circled date on the calendar is the first day of the rest of my life. That picture on the wall is family. The ring I wear is my marriage. As writers, poets, artists, filmmakers, playwrights, and screenwriters, we have to tap into these objects to make whatever we create more vivid and universal for our audience.
Look at a rudimentary example:
Heavy rain falls on a cemetery. A crowd wears mourning clothes and holds black umbrellas among old, gray headstones. The widow adjusts her tear-soaked veil. She takes off a shiny gold ring and places it on the casket. As she and her two young children walk away, a shaft of light breaks through the clouds, illuminating a yellow wildflower.
I arranged the objects (rain, umbrellas, headstones, a veil, a ring, a casket, a wildflower) to create a combination of feelings: sadness, despair, and even hope. The adjectives (heavy, mourning, black, old, gray, young, tear-soaked, shiny, gold, young, yellow) amplify these feelings. I know I haven’t fully established the specific emotion I want the reader to feel, but it’s a start.
If a writer juxtaposes too many objects, however, the scene can become heavy-handed, over-the-top, forced, strained, artificial, obvious, or unnatural. Though I describe a familiar scene above, you might think it is a little too contrived. Too many symbols beat the emotion into the reader. Too few symbols render the scene vague, confused, hazy, ambiguous, elusive, and indefinite. Disconnected symbols leave the reader searching for emotion. Thus, a writer must balance these objects—neither too many nor too few—to create an intended emotional response in the reader.
Look at this series of “notes” I made describing a woman in a country kitchen:
- Unfinished cabinetry rings a large kitchen with linoleum floor, oak slab table, and hand-finished chairs.
- On the table sit scratched China plates, steel cutlery, spotless tall glasses filled with lemonade, white linen napkins, a single red rose jutting from a crystal vase, and a lit votive candle.
- An old woman hums “Someone to Watch Over Me” while stirring a pot of soup on a skinny two-burner stove.
- The air smells of fresh-baked bread, Pine-Sol, and chicken soup, a breeze making the candle flicker and the woman shiver.
- The phone rings, and the woman says, “No, it’s okay, dear … I understand … No, I won’t wait up.”
- The woman blows out the candle, snaps off the stove, and trudges up the stairs.
I have shown these notes to high school and college students over the years and then asked them, “What did you feel?” They said they felt poverty, romance, futility, sadness, love, devotion, frustration, boredom, and even nostalgia. I was only going for frustration!
These notes provide a wealth of different effects—maybe too many different effects. How I incorporate these notes into a scene or a poem becomes most important. What if I were to change the last bullet to read, “the woman smiles, sighs, slowly turns off the stove, and slips quietly up the stairs”? Would the effects of futility, sadness, frustration, and boredom leave the scene? Or would those emotions still be there under the surface? I haven’t changed the objects in the scene, but I have changed how the character moves through those objects. I have to construct this scene and any other I write carefully to include only those objects that help me sustain the emotion I want my readers to feel.
“Poetry of the mind”
I have often read what I call “the poetry of the mind,” that type of poetry that contains few or no concrete nouns. These writers type out their thoughts, and often these thoughts are vague precisely because they haven’t attached anything tangible to them. After reading such poetry, I often have no sense of what has happened in the poem because I have nothing solid to see, taste, smell, hear, or touch. I might feel the emotion the poet is trying to convey, but without familiar objects I can identify with, I cannot internalize or transfer these emotions to my real life. Without nouns, I can’t truly see or feel what the poet is saying.
Many of the Confessional Poets of the 1950s and 1960s, and to an extent the poets of the Romantic Movement, told me how they felt. They didn’t show—they told. They vomited their lives on paper brutally and honestly, telling me more than showing me their worlds. Writers who let me think, react, and feel by showing me more than telling me are the writers whose words stick with me long after I’ve finished reading them.
Anne Sexton: a concrete Confessional Poet
Look at these selected lines from Anne Sexton’s poem, “Courage.” Though Sexton was a Confessional Poet, she filled her poems with symbolic, familiar, and universal objects:
It is in the small things we see it.
The child’s first step,
as awesome as an earthquake.
The first time you rode a bike,
wallowing up the sidewalk.
The first spanking when your heart
went on a journey all alone.
When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien
you drank their acid
and concealed it …
if you have endured a great despair,
then you did it alone,
getting a transfusion from the fire,
picking the scabs off your heart,
then wringing it out like a sock.
Look at the concrete nouns Sexton uses in this excerpt: step, earthquake, bike, sidewalk, spanking, heart, journey, crybaby, fatty, alien, acid, despair, transfusion, fire, scabs, and sock. While I could feel alienated, ostracized, and despairing by the end of the poem, I don’t. Sexton has shown me courage using ordinary objects, and this poem, especially the last five lines, has become a part of my psyche since I first read it. It is in the small things that we see courage. It is in the things we supply for our readers to see that makes our writing rich and unforgettable.
If we utilize objects, according to Eliot, our writing “must terminate in sensory experience.” Our readers, then, will not only be able see what we’re saying, but they’ll be able to feel what we’re saying as well. And while our actual words may fade from our readers’ minds, readers won’t be able to wring out like a sock the feeling we’ve evoked with our noun-driven, concrete writing.