I am currently writing a short story about a broken coffee cup. Of course, the story itself is not just about the coffee cup, but the cup holds enormous significance for the main character. It is a symbol, an omen, a message sent through the ether that she is trying to interpret. It also acts as a call to examine the role of physical objects in stories, as she, in a shamelessly meta manner, focuses on the cup in her own writing.
As readers, we cannot take for granted the significance that physical objects play in stories. Action is exhilarating and relationships add complexity, but objects are grounding. They are wonderfully concrete, specific, and real, helping a story to be relatable and realistic to the reader. Even in the most magical and otherworldly of books, objects give us something to hold onto and see. Their tangibility gives them their own narrative arc, as they change both physically – through wear, use, and growth – as well as in their meaning over the course of the story.
We can all think of a wealth of examples of unforgettable objects that play critical roles in the stories that we love and exemplify the various ways objects can be utilized in telling a story. The One Ring in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” series acts as a point of negotiation and conflict between characters, in that it is coveted, hidden, and fought for, not to mention imbued with power. Objects can be vehicles for subtext as well, expressing a character’s feelings without the need for explicit explanation or dialogue. The mirror in “A Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde and Sylvia Plath’s eponymous bell jar are poignant examples. An array of notable objects appear throughout J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series, including Harry’s wand, his scar, and the Marauder’s Map, all which help to build a magical world that can be believably analogous to ours. Objects are commonly center-stage in children’s books because they help to retain attention and draw a physical and thematic throughline through the story. Harold’s purple crayon in “Harold and the Purple Crayon” by Crockett Johnson is the perfect example, literally drawing the story from start to finish.
Aside from their symbolic role, objects are a window of opportunity for beautifully descriptive writing to materialize. In the title story from her collection “Vampires in the Lemon Grove”, Karen Russell’s descriptions of the lemons’ appearance (“a soft, round lemon, a summer moon”), the way in the which the vampires handle them (“We plunge our fangs, piercing the skin”), and their subsequent reaction to them (“a sort of chemical effervescence along my gums”) are nothing short of poetry. Nuanced, specific descriptions such as these allow readers to truly manifest the elements of the story within their imagination in a way that feels superbly real.
Anything can be sacred if you imbue it with meaning, and it is human nature to become attached to things. A story without objects would be impossible, and a story in which they are not used meaningfully would be boring. Check out the titles mentioned here at the Lewistown Public Library.