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Writing Emotion with Author Rosalyn N. Eves

Good morning, writers! Welcome back to our author interview series. We are thrilled to have author Rosalyn Eves here to talk about “Writing Emotion: Using the Objective Correlative to Evoke Feeling.” Rosalyn is a presenter here at the Author Capital Conference, and we can’t wait to hear more about her concept!

Author Capital: Rosalyn, thank you so much for joining us today! Do you want to tell us a little about yourself and what you do in the publishing world?

Rosalyn N. Eves: I’d be happy to. I am primarily a writer with four young adult novels out and another one coming out next year. Some of them are historical fantasy, some straight-up historical—I really enjoy the research element. I also teach freshman and sophomore-level composition classes at a university, so I come at this both from a writer's and a teacher’s perspective.

AC: A bonus that comes across delightfully well in your presentation at Author Capital. Thank you so much for sharing your talents and expertise. Could you tell us more about what you’re teaching at the Conference and how you discovered and fell in love with this topic?

RE: I am teaching a class called “Writing Emotion: Using the Objective Correlative to Evoke Feeling.” I think my discovery of this topic came from a couple of things. One is that, as a writer, layering in emotion is something I have to do consciously because it doesn’t come naturally. Second, I was in a conference in a class by Martine Leavitt (a fantastic teacher and writer) and she had this throw-away line where she said, “I’m so tired of hearts beating and stomachs clenching. We need to find better ways to describe emotion. Go look up the objective correlative. That’ll teach you how to do this.” Then she moved on. I was stuck there going, “Wait. The what?”

After the conference, I went and looked up the objective correlative and I honestly couldn’t find a lot of information. That sent me on a deep dive to pull together the concept and identify how the principle works. I wrote up a blog post and did a couple of presentations on it. Of all the things I present, this is the topic that still, years later, people say, “That was so helpful.”

AC: So, what exactly is the objective correlative?

RE: The objective correlative term comes from T. S. Eliot. Most people know him from his poetry, but he was also a literary critic and in one of his theses, I think it was on Hamlet, he explained how emotion works in drama and stories. He said that when an object, situation, or chain of events is explored to its fullest extent, it culminates in a feeling for the reader. He was interested in this idea of moving beyond show don’t tell, because it’s setting up or describing a scene in a way that makes the reader feel along with the character. So we’re not just telling or showing them what the character’s feeling. We’re helping you feel with the character. The objective correlative is a series of techniques that allow you to do that.

AC: I really appreciate that you're making this concept more accessible for other writers to use. There are no "secrets" in the writing community, but there are a lot of things that aren't explored. I hadn’t heard of this concept before you pitched this class to the conference, but I immediately thought, “I want to learn about this!”

So, let’s dig into the concept! What do you feel are the biggest struggles or mistakes that authors make when they dive into this world of expressing emotion on the page?

RE: I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is not trusting readers to pick up on the different clues they put into the story. During big emotional moments, we sometimes want to ensure the readers don’t miss out, so we end up hitting them over the head with explicit details. Most readers are smarter than we give them credit for. When I write emotion, I go back through my scenes and think, “How can I show this? How can I set the stage? How can I use description and mood to evoke that emotion rather than just hit readers over the head with what the characters are supposed to be feeling?”

AC: With that piece of advice in mind, what do you think is a great tool or tactic that can help authors get writing emotion right without bashing readers over the head with it?

RE: For me, the most helpful thing has been twofold. One is looking at books I love and studying the emotional moments. “How did they do this?” Usually, it’s a buildup throughout the whole book to get to that scene. Kelly Lloyd Gilbert is fantastic at this, and pretty much every presentation I’ve done includes some of her books. Another way is tapping into my own experience. When I’m feeling afraid, what do I do? When friends of mine are feeling afraid, what do they do? Even just looking at people close to me—I have one kid who, when he’s scared or nervous, gets very angry. I have another kid who, when they’re scared or nervous, dissolves into tears and hides. So, I think looking at how the people around you respond to things and thinking about how you can show that in your work is a great place to start.

AC: I love how, in your class, you give us some tactics. You point out the principle behind it, then show us examples so we can become better readers ourselves. Because we might read emotional masterpieces and think, “I love this. Why does this work? I have no clue.” You’re giving us that marriage of understanding so we can read like a writer.

Now, I know people might be asking “How do I change the way I talk about emotion or the way I present it to my readers?” So, how can learning about the objective correlative help readers and writers navigate this differently or change the way they present emotion?

RE: That's a great question. When I think about topics like the objective correlative, I like to think of them as tools in a tool kit. You’re not going to use every tool every time you write, but the more tools you have at your disposal, the richer your work can be. But, like any other tool, it can be overused. This isn’t something you want to use every single moment in your book. Use this tool to enhance the big, emotional moments you want to come through for the reader. If you’re not super confident about using this, try it in a small scene where it’s not going to make or break the story. Try until you become confident in it, then you can apply it to bigger moments.

Also, not every tool is going to work for every author. Something that I would love to explore is how things like neurodivergence affect this. Because I've seen some writers say that the advice of “show, don’t tell” doesn’t always work because some people need it to be explicit.

AC: It's true. Not all writers write the same and not all readers read the same. It's more about knowing your options and developing all of these different skills so you can be a stronger creative. So, in that vein, you're teaching this fantastic course at Author Capital’s online conference. Can you give us a short breakdown of what you're covering?

RE: I mentioned earlier that the objective correlative is a series of techniques that allow you to help readers feel with your character. So, one of the things I talk about is using an object in the story—something that has symbolic or personal value to the character in the story. A classic example is Tennessee Williams’ play, “The Glass Menagerie.” In it, there’s a young woman who’s a bit emotionally naïve and collects glass animals. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say, but at the crisis of the story, where something really pivotal happens to this character, something also happens to these glass animals that she values so strongly. We have this visceral reaction to it because, throughout the play, you see how these animals matter to the character. If you think about Lord of the Rings, the one ring has the same function. When Frodo is finally able to get rid of the ring, we feel relief because we know what the weight was.

Another way to evoke emotion is through using description and setting to create a mood where readers feel with the characters. Movement and gestures also say a lot about what a character is feeling without coming right out and saying “this character was angry.” Then the last thing I talk about is using sensory details. There’s a lot about sight, sound, smell, or touch that can evoke emotion in readers.

AC: This all makes me excited to think of emotion beyond the character. We’re no longer contained within the character’s experience, we’re spilling out into the world and environment and everything they interact with. I’m excited to come to your course and really apply this.

Ok, my last question is—as you’ve been learning this skill for yourself, how has the objective correlative changed you and your writing?

RE: I think it has made me more conscious of emotion. My first drafts tend to be very plot-focused, so character growth and emotion are often something I have to layer in later. My critique partners often say, “This big thing happened to your character, and they didn’t react at all. They just went on with the plot.” It’s made me more conscious about slowing down and building toward those moments. It also lets me play with elements in some interesting ways. My most recent book, “Beyond the Mapped Stars” is a coming-of-age story about a young woman around the time of the 1878 eclipse. This is a young woman who is struggling between her individual ambitions and what her family and community expect of her. Likewise, her religious belief and her interest in science create tension.

I used the objective correlative in the form of the weather because she’s always looking at the sky. Her relationship with science is encapsulated by her daytime descriptions. So, when she’s feeling really connected and sure of herself, it’s usually a clear day and the sun is shining. When she’s not as sure, it’s often cloudy and windy. But the same thing is true at night because that represents her religious faith. When the beautiful night sky is clear, she feels connected with the whole universe. When she’s not as sure, the night is cloudy and she can’t see anything. This ended up being really cool because the key point of the story is this eclipse that she gets to witness. And what happens during an eclipse? You have the sun and the moon, the night and the daytime sky merged in the same place. It let her tension come to a head and help her find her epiphany. It built to a nice emotional moment with that character.

AC: That gave me goosebumps just hearing about it! I know you’ve pulled it off well because, while I’ve yet to read this story, I’ve read your other books and know this title recently won two Whitney Awards, so congratulations. I am so thrilled for you because you obviously deserve it.

RE: I was really thrilled, too.

AC: Rosalyn, thank you so much for coming to this interview. We are thrilled to be at your feet, learning from you.

RE: I want to stress that I am still learning these things, too. So this is more like we are learning together rather than me pouring forth knowledge.

AC: Well, thank you for paving the way for us.

If you would like to dive deeper into the objective correlative and how to improve your writing with this new tool, check out more about Rosalyn’s course here at the Author Capital Conference!

See you at the conference!

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