In your story you will use objects. Characters will employ them as they go about their daily lives. Utensils, tools, decorations. Eat with a spoon, dig with a spade, balance a tiara and whatnot. Sometimes these items will also add personality to your character. What kind of object they’re using, what they’re using it for, how well they use it, will all add something to how that character is perceived.
Beyond that, objects have a number of roles they can play. And some they will play whether you want them to or not.
Unlike real life, a work of fiction is very much controlled by an external being: You. It’s like being given a guided tour, and everything the tour guide points out is assumed to have some significance. Even if it doesn’t. And the more unusual or remarkable the object, the greater the assumed significance.
If Jack, a writer, searches through his desk draw for a pencil sharpener, and moves aside receipts, paperclips and a gun before finding the sharpener, the gun is going to stick in the reader’s mind, and they’re going to expect it to be used later on. You may only be using the gun to show what kind of writer Jack is (in the Hemingway, Hunter S. mould) but the object carries such a weight of expectation that unless you handle it carefully the reader will jump to the obvious conclusion. A gun is the extreme example, but my point is showing an object is like an item in a glass case on your guided tour — it’s been put on display for a reason. If it turns out not to have any particular relevance it’s going to feel very weird.
The other thing that will elevate the significance of an object is how much time you spend on it. If Rachael is brushing her hair and you describe her hairbrush in great detail, the reader is going to assume the hairbrush is important. You may just be a fan of antique hairbrushes and fired up by your recent trip to the Hairbrush Museum, but the amount of time you spend on an object will emphasise the importance of that object, whether you want it to or not.
Knowing the power of making the reader aware of an object, and being able to use language to add weight to that object, not only enables you to control reader response, it also means you can start to manipulate it.
If, for example, Jack comes home and finds his family manacled to the radiator in the study and a team of burglar’s ransacking the house, he might rush to his desk and open the drawer. We know what he is reaching for without having to be told because of the pencil sharpener scene earlier. If one the burglars holds up the gun and says, ‘Looking for this?’ you can subvert the expectations of the reader. If Jack is then handcuffed too, but has grabbed some paperclips from the drawer and escapes, that too has been planted.
This is a silly example (can you really open handcuffs with a paperclip?) but my point is even though the gun was mentioned very casually when Jack was searching for a pencil sharpener it was obviously going to be noted by the reader. But it also acted as a decoy for the paperclips.
There are only so many things you can mention in a story before people get overwhelmed or just stop caring. Once an object is mentioned it is in play and assuming the reader will view it in the way you intend is not a given. Using object efficiently, so they have the most impact in the least obvious way, is a skill all writer’s need to learn. Understanding the inherent value of an object in the reader’s mind, adding to that value, burying the object so it isn’t obvious, providing plausible alternative uses as a misdirect, using other objects as a mask, manipulating the reader’s expectations — these all take considered planning to be truly effective.
However, it should also be noted that most writers also do a lot of this instinctively. And that means very often when you’re stuck, especially near the end of the story, you will find that if you go back to the first act when you were setting things up, there, somewhere, the character will have used or mentioned an object that will provide you with a way out much further down the line. I’m not sure how this happens as often as it does, but it’s definitely worth looking at if you’ve painted yourself into a corner.