Saturday, January 28, 2023

SMFS Member Guest Post: Definitively Objective by Paula Messina


Please welcome Paula Messina back to the blog today…



Definitively Objective

by Paula Messina


“I Drive Your Truck” was a number one hit for Lee Brice and the 2014 Academy of Country Music Song of the Year. It’s hardly surprising that a truck appears in the lyrics of a country song, but this song is different. It’s not about the truck. It’s about what the truck represents.

Written from the point of view of a young man grieving for his brother, everything the listener learns about the brothers is through objects: the truck, the eighty-nine cents in the ashtray, dog tags, an Old Skoal can, a “Go Army” shirt. While driving the truck, the brother feels his deceased brother’s presence.

There’s a story behind the song. One of the songwriters, Connie Harrington, heard an interview with Paul Monti in which he talked about his son Jared, who was killed in Afghanistan while attempting to save another soldier. In an interview, Mr. Monti said about the truck, “It's him. It's got his DNA all over it.

“You've got to hold onto something. It's just a good feeling to drive that truck knowing that he drove it. I talk to him when I'm in there. I talk to him all the time."

The song and Paul Monti’s grieving process are great examples of the power of inanimate objects in fiction and in life.

In a Writers Digest article, “How to Use Objects to Strengthen Your Characters,” Chris Freese says, “One of the most common techniques fiction writers fail to implement is the use of objects. Chances are, your character isn't just standing there, spouting off dialogue. The character is doing something with his hands. She's exchanging a business card. He's fiddling with a pencil. Objects provide concreteness to scenes and bring importance to dialogue and encounters.”

Freese cites an excerpt from Matt Bird’s The Secrets of Story: You can’t rely on character interactions to reveal all the emotions....But when you establish their relationship to an object, they can express their true emotions, unfiltered by other baggage.”

The power of “I Drive Your Truck” is its unfiltered emotion. The listener becomes the brother and experiences what the brother feels, his attachment to his brother and his grief.

According to Italo Calvino, “The moment an object appears in a narrative, it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic field, a knot in the network of invisible relationships.”

I doubt that objects are always magic, but when they are, those objects become superlative revealers of character, mood, motivation. They show. After all, inanimate objects cannot tell. Think Citizen Kane’s rosebud. Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. Dorothy’s ruby slippers, and Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg’s bearing balls. These objects are literary magic that reveal entire worlds about these characters.

I’d never thought about infusing objects with magic until I realized it’s something I often do. In my short story, “The Last Leaf,” banana bread and an oak tree establish the deep connection between a dying grandfather and his granddaughter. My essay, “Tomatoes,” is ostensibly about growing them. It’s not. Tomatoes magically represent love and loss.

In my WIP, a mystery set in Boston during World War II, I originally had an investigating police officer discover a blood-stained scarf, a gift from Donatello, the main character, to his sister Antonia, the murder victim. The scarf didn’t feel right. It lacked magic.

In the revised scene, the officer discovers a glove, but not just any glove. It’s a monogrammed, Persian-blue leather glove. Antonia’s best friend had helped Donatello pick out the perfect Christmas gift for his sister. Now the gloves are the last gift he’ll ever give Antonia.

That one-of-a-kind glove takes on great emotional weight. It is evidence against Donatello, but more than that, it represents what he has lost. He will never see his sister wear those gloves or share another Christmas with her. A gift he chose with great care is now stained with her blood. It is soaked in her DNA.

And, of course, gloves come in pairs. Where’s the other one?

Who will find it? When? Where?

The reader can easily identify with the importance of objects because we infuse them with importance. We save them to revisit again and again, just like Paul Monti driving his son’s truck. A menu from a first date. A high school football team jacket. A child’s first pair of shoes.

Poet, novelist, and storyteller Joan Leotta agrees that objects are magical. “Oh my yes, I find them very magical! Many of my poems, not just the ones that are classically ekphrastic, inspired by art, are inspired by objects.”

Leotta also expresses the importance of objects both in her life and in her fiction. “I feel the touch of my loved ones on certain plates we use. My fourth novel, Secrets of the Heart, features a heart-shaped box that holds the key to family history.”

That heart-shaped box contains “family secrets kept for the love of the two main characters. The shape of the box was, for me as a writer, key to the fact that family ties are more important than the history and clues to treasures in the box.”

Objects can be much more important than something a character does with his hands. Objects might be inanimate, but they can become more than clues and red herrings. They can reveal a character’s personality and emotional life. Their magic can deepen the reader’s connection to characters.

Objects are another tool that a writer uses to express a character’s emotional life and to create a bond with the reader. Don’t objectify objects. Breathe life into them. After all, they’re magic. 


Paula Messina ©2023 

Paula Messina is a seasoned Toastmaster and an award-winning speaker. She writes essays, fiction, and non-fiction. While she does not own a cat, she is on the board of Indelible Literary and Arts Journal ( Indelible’s Evenings can be found at


Sarah Smith said...

Love this essay! Full disclosure, Paula and I are in a writers' group together. She previewed this at the group, I applied it to something I was writing, and it made a HUGE difference. I'm really liking her current novel, which uses that baseball to good effect all through the story.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Lovely piece on the important role objects can play in a story. This is a good reminder for me for something I often forget.