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IN REAL LIFE we simultaneously process dozens of thoughts, memories, ideas and emotions. The stories that seem real and alive are stories that contain multiple layers.

The beginning writer, however, usually tends to focus on one thing at a time.

Here are two techniques that will add depth and layering to your travel narrative.

1. Object Correlative

One of the simplest but most powerful techniques to layer descriptions, narration, and characters’ emotions, is called the object correlative.

The idea is that instead of simply stating how a character feels or thinks, the writer suggests it, using a correlation between an object and the way a character observes or acts upon it.

  • Example 1 (Basic) “I felt lonely.”
  • Example 2 (Object Correlative) “I’d go out to the harbor around dusk and look at the ships tied to their moorings.”

The first example-”I felt lonely”-only works on one level, telling how the character feels. The second example-if placed within the proper context-works on at least two levels, suggesting how the character feels while seamlessly continuing the narration of the story.

One of the most noted examples of all time is the “bacon fat” scene in Hemingway’s story “Soldier’s Home.”

Harold Krebs, a young soldier back in Kansas after being wounded in WWI, is unable to return to work, to his mother’s ideal of “a normal life.” Now he must endure her questioning at the breakfast table:

“I’ve worried about you too much, Harold,” his mother went on. “I know the temptations you must have been exposed to. I know how weak men are. I know what your own dear grandfather, my own father, told us about the Civil War and I have prayed for you. I pray for you all day long, Harold.”

Krebs looked at the bacon fat hardening on his plate.

In your reading, begin noting whenever a writer uses an objective correlative to express a character’s feelings. When applying it to travel writing, a good starting point is to remember a scene and note what comes to mind first.

Keep in mind that the most effective objects are universal, things that everyone can picture and relate to immediately.

Was it a certain music that was playing? A feature of the landscape? Keep in mind that the most effective objects are universal, things that everyone can picture and relate to immediately.

Experiment with whatever thing you want to use, trying different ways to correlate the object to your central character’s thoughts and emotions. As with any new technique it will probably come out stilted and forced at first, but will flow naturally with practice.

2. The Minor Character As Mirror

Similar to the object correlative, the way a main character interacts with a minor character can also be utilized like a mirror – reflecting emotions while driving the narrative forward.

Here is an example from Arthur Miller’s memoir Timebends. Arthur has just met an old acquaintance while getting a haircut. Note how, like an object correlative, the actions of the barber (the minor character) are used to suggest the multiple emotions that the main character feels:

“I’ll come by again,” I said, with the foreboding that I would not because nothing was left of any life between us, or that if I did she would not be here. She nodded and seemed to know this too, and walked to the door and into the dark street at the end of another day. The barber, finishing up, slipped off my semi-shroud and shook the hair off into the floor, saying nothing. He had caught her coolness, the disturbance I had brought her.

As before, look for places where writers use a minor character to help illustrate a main character’s emotions. Then experiment with the technique in your own writing.

Using a minor character as a mirror can be especially useful in travel writing, which is so often rich with minor characters-people on the streets, fishermen, merchants, fellow travelers, etc.

When the writer fails to incorporate these people into the emotional context of the story, they often become like scenery, or cardboard cutouts-and thus the story loses its verisimilitude.

Photos by Ryan Libre and Nick Cowley

*Get access to paid freelance travel writing opportunities and an active community of travel journalists by enrolling in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.

Travel Writing Tips


About The Author

David Miller

David Miller is Senior Editor of Matador (winner of 2010 and 2011 Lowell Thomas awards for travel journalism) and Director of Curricula at MatadorU. Follow him @dahveed_miller.

  • Kim

    Thanks, enjoyed that!

  • Rainfield

    thanks for your suggestions..
    ive been writing about travel for a while, actually just started this spring, i can say that your suggestions will be good for me to improve

  • Brian

    Great article, thanks for your suggestions. The object correlative paints a more vivid picture in the reader’s mind than simply declaring “I felt lonely.” I’ll sure to keep this in mind in my own writings. Thanks again.

  • Tim Patterson

    I’m glad people found David’s advice helpful. He’s the best editor I’ve ever worked with, that’s for sure.

  • Traca

    Outstanding advice….thank you!

  • Dorothy

    Thanks for your useful advice especially the part which deals with the writer failing to incorporate the people into the emotional text of the story. I would hate my characters to be seen as ‘wooden’.


  • Mikey Leung

    Really great advice too, I think.. will have to look up his other articles.

  • EliseO

    Excellent suggestion and I hope to learn how to incorporate it quickly.

  • Kristyn

    How often is a story focused on the narrator? The main reason the story has a life to begin with is usually due to the interaction with the other characters we meet along the way. Excellent point! Thank you for always sharing and helping me add tools to my own writing…

  • Adam Ehad

    Nice usage of the word “verisimilitude”!

  • Adam Ehad

    Hey David,
    Just revisited this piece after being reminded of it by something. I think what you say about the “objective collerative” is true, but does not take acount of “silence” as a factor. I’ve written more about this piece here: if you are interested.

  • Rosie

    I enjoyed this piece immensely. I also found it very helpful. Must go – need to go practice…….

  • GBSNP Varma

    Hi David,

    Great advice for creating nuance.

    I find Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles an excellent example of ‘Objective Correlative’.
    Nature responds to Tess’ emotions, and Hardy gets ecstatic in there describing nature in such a way as to be compatible with different moods of Tess, and sometimes a foreboding horror, and tragedy lurking down the road. Nature also acts as a mirror. She is “a sheaf of sensations”.

    This sentence from Tess defines Objective Correlative and acts as an example:

    “They followed the road with a sensation that they were soaring along in a supporting medium, possessed of original and profound thoughts, themselves and surrounding nature forming an organism of which all the parts harmoniously and joyously interpenetrated each other.”

    I would like to know more about ladder of abstraction, moving up and down, creating the flow of narrative. How does it work in writing and in travel writing?


  • GBSNP Varma

    Hi David,

    please write on the ladder of abstraction.

    kindly mention the authors who do this exceptionally well.


  • http://www.landcruising Karin-Marijke

    Okay, so there is a lapse of three years between the time this article was written and me reading it – lots of catching up to do, I guess.
    Nevertheless the article couldn’t have come on my screen at a better time now that I’m working hard to finish my book about our overland journey from Europe to Asia. Time for another rewrite session with these tips in mind. Thanks David!

    happy travelling,

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