Entry # 72 – “The Emotional Power of Objects for Readers & Writers”

By Jan Bowman

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In our recent workshop, we talked about the power of objects in effective fiction to convey tension and emotion. And this week in reviewing my writing workshop notes, I’ve thought again about the amazing power of objects to convey emotion. As a writer, I need to keep that idea close to me as I revise my work.

The Famous Rock at Hollins University – June 2012
Objects in fiction, and in particular, objects repeated within the limited confines of a short story are there for a reason. To paraphrase the often-used (and perhaps abused) Chekhov quote, if a gun appears in the opening scene, it needs to go off by the closing scene, or the reader needs to know why it did not go off.
Objects convey information, and raise expectations and tension. When used effectively in limited patterns, relevant objects provide links to emotions and lend credibility. I am reminded of Tim O’ Brien’s (1990) collection of linked stories about Vietnam, The Things They Carried, which provides a masterful use of objects to build tension and emotional connections. For example, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross and his men carry objects for love and for war.  They carry love letters, malaria tablets, Bibles and dope. They carry guns and mine detectors, binoculars and maps. Jimmy Cross carries a compass and a 45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded.  Everything they carry is a necessity both for survival and for war; everything carried is real, and provides emotional weight and ‘real’ weight that is factored into each story as it builds tension, establishes reality and connects deeply with the reader’s emotions.  
Writers Leave ‘The Rock’ to GO OUT & WRITE
Francine Prose has said that she used to tell writers the first thing that came to her mind when asked for important writing advice.  “The most important things were observation and consciousness.  Keep your eyes open, see clearly, think about what you see and then ask yourself what it means.”

A Phone Booth in SCOTLAND – Jan Bowman – May 2012

She later said that she had cause to rethink that advice.   

But I suppose some parts of this advice are appropriate, for readers as they look to connect to the emotional heart of story narrative; for writers who appreciate the power of objects to convey emotions that help readers connect to the rich possibilities for meaning. 

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at:

This entry was posted by Jan Bowman on Friday, June 29, 2012.
Filed under: On Writing, Reflections, Writing Workshops
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