Posted by: Kathy Temean | March 27, 2019

Katia Raina – Objective Correlative – MFA For Breakfast Series

March is waving goodbye. Spring is here. Hope this illustration by Susan Miller inspires you to get outside and be creative. Susan was featured on Illustrator Saturday on August 25th 2018.

Objective Correlative by Katia Raina

Here is a very fine MFA term we throw around in the program: objective correlative.

Sound fancy? Well, it is. It is an advanced-level literary technique that helps deepen the emotion of your story and tie its elements together.

Well, okay, what is it, then? How does it work?

Objective correlative is the technique of using objects, characters and elements of setting to create an emotional impact on the reader. Think of t as a more sophisticated version of “show, do ‘t tell.” Showing not telling of course means that instead of hammering the reader over the head with information — for example, Leyla was a moody, troubled, irritable child — you show the reader what’s what by simply having Leyla pout and roll her eyes all over the page.

Objective correlative though takes the business of “showing” to a whole another level. This technique uses all sorts of details around the character to create a complete emotional picture. For example, say Leyla is feeling frustrated. So maybe the author shows how out of balance her world feels by having her stuck in a passenger seat on the bus, where the backs of all the other chairs are reclined, but hers is stuck so rigidly upright, it’s almost perpendicular. And maybe, to make things even worse, her tooth is loose and she keeps touching it with the tip of her tongue, and all the while she is seething at the mismatched shoelaces of the passenger sitting next to her.

Every single one of the above-mentioned details help set a picture of frustration in the reader’s mind. Everything seems out of alignment. Anyone would be antsy and upset. Before you know it, the reader will be seething right along with Leyla!

Honestly, no discussion of objective correlative can really work without the definition by T.S. Elliot who did not coin the term but did make it famous. He described the technique as ““a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion.”

Let’s look at some more examples.

In my debut novel Castle of Concrete, a novel set in the last year of Communist Russia, where Sonya, a shy daughter of a fierce Jewish dissident reunites with her mother in Moscow to start a New Life and falls in love with a boy who may be anti-Semitic. Little seems out of order in her world, when she takes a first walk with him and tells him stories. In the below scene, through very specific setting details, I worked to create a sense of fluidity, movement, possibility and connection. I also showed how Sonya feels her past having led her to this moment.

Time circles with us—past, present and future—as we pass along an asphalt path around a wrinkly pond, in and out of iron gates framed by diamond-shaped ornaments, through a yard with a rusty merry-go-round. Oaks, maples, poplars, skinny Russian birches—we weave in between their trunks, swimming in the sea of green. I tell him how Mama floated from one town to the next, trying to get this job, or get into that university.

Later in the story, Sonya is excited to show this incredible boy her new life and brings him over to her apartment, only to find her parents fighting. The details in the scene below add up to a “formula” for disillusionment and disappointment. New Life isn’t as perfect as Sonya desperately wants it to be, and in this scene there is no escaping that reality.

I turn the giant key in our apartment’s door. An acid smell of burnt potatoes bursts into my nostrils. My parents’ muffled voices reach us from the closed door of the living room.

“Mama! Andrei—I mean, Papa!”

Ruslan puts my backpack down in the hall, keeping his own on. I clutch his arm and lead him swiftly through the hallway, maneuvering around cardboard boxes filled with Mama’s papers, hoping he doesn’t notice the tangle of wires hanging by the door, green paint peeling off the radiator, of that little corner just near the armoire, where the super-fashionable relief wallpaper is peeling a bit. The sight of a closed living room door brings us to a halt.

 “Mama. Papa? I—” “Sh-sh-sh.” Ruslan pulls on my arm, suddenly.

The disillusionment continues a few chapters later, as Sonya fights with her beloved dream of a mother for the first time.

The walls in our kitchen are deep red. When I first got here I couldn’t get over the hipness of it. Timid, ordinary people wrap their kitchens in soft-color wallpaper, or paint it some kind of beige. Not here, I thought, not in the home of free spirits. But tonight—or is it already morning?—I think of this red as the color of blood, the color of communism, the most hateful color. Sitting here in the surreal hour of night, I resent the clown masks staring at me from the kitchen wall. With a fork, I push around the now-cold pelmeni on a plate before me. I would savor their soft dough, their neat roundness, their meaty middle, especially after twenty-five hours of Yom Kippur fasting. If I didn’t have to sit there and watch a brave woman I have idolized my whole life turn mundane and weary.

As Sonya’s journey often mirrors the journey of her country, this works on an additional level of reflecting Russia’s own disappointment about Communism, represented here by the color red.

Now, go try it with your own work in progress. Think of an overarching emotion you want to portray in your next scene. Now look around. What are some details that you can use to make this emotion come alive for your reader?

What is your “formula” going to be?


Katia, thank you for sharing your time and expertise with this article about “Objective Correlative.” I look forward to reading next months article from you.

Talk soon,


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