According to T.S. Eliot (and he’s no slouch) the only way to convey emotion through words is to use an objective correlative, in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which creates a formula for that particular emotion.
That means in order to get across sadness it is not enough to simply state that Jack was feeling sad. We understand what that means, but we don’t feel it. You can say Jack was sad because his mother had died, and we understand why he’s sad, but still it doesn’t really register. But if you write a scene with Jack stood at a graveside with rain falling and mourners sniffling and Jack’s tiny hand gripping a woman’s lace handkerchief etc., then it starts to transfer some of that emotion.
The problem is that although it is true that emotions are triggered within us by symbols we all recognise and react to, because those symbols get used a lot (like rain at a funeral) it becomes obvious what the writer is doing. That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the power of those symbols—anyone who’s teared up when watching an advertisement on TV knows it doesn’t matter how corny you make it, schmaltz sells—what it does mean though is that if you want to garner respect for your writing all the seats at the front have already been taken.
Of course, Mr Eliot had the advantage of writing at a time when the world was a simpler place. The idea that each emotion can be triggered by an external object, and that emotional reaction will be the same in every reader is easier to accept when your books are only read by half a dozen people who all went to the same school as you. And in fact one of the examples Mr E gave of a work that had failed to correctly apply the principle of objective correlativism was Hamlet, so it’s not exactly an uncontentious concept.
However, like most tools it is only as useful as it’s wielder’s abilities allow it to be. The point is, emotion is easier to create when you show the cause of the emotion, rather than just the effect of it. But it isn’t just a matter of show rather than tell. If for example a person is afraid of something that hasn’t happened yet, how can you show that? Or if the cause is a secret to be revealed later in the story? Or what if the emotion is suppressed and doesn’t directly correlate to the event (for example, if my fear of my father has warped into a murderous rage whenever I see a department store Santa), how does one convey that?
And then there are some states of mind that don’t work very well when using this method (confusion, boredom, insanity), they just end up reading as tedious.
The trouble with simplifying an idea into its core concept is that people end up thinking that’s all it’s good for. But like any tool, the basics are just the basics. Nobody can show you how to carve a beautiful statue out of a block of stone using a chisel, they can only show you how to chip a bit off and the rest is up to you.
Knowing that there is a way to trigger emotion in the reader using a symbol created by grouping words together is the starting place. You need to know what emotion you want to create, you need to know what is causing that emotion for the character, and then you need an objective correlative.
Got your objective correlatives all sorted out?
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