The Tarantula in the Outhouse
Author Katie Rose Guest Pryal shares a helpful writing trick she learned from her students (hint: it involves tarantulas).
My creative writing students teach me a lot. Recently, they taught me the best phrase I’ve ever heard for referring to a thing that writers often know intuitively, or that writers (and editors) sometimes refer to as “key objects” or “cathectic objects.” (I’m going to use those terms interchangeably.)
A cathectic object is a physical item in a story that the writer imbues with power and meaning. Cathectic objects nearly become characters in their own right. If you think about books you love or have read recently, you can likely identify the cathectic objects. Sometimes an object is only the cathectic object for a chapter, or just for a scene. Sometimes the cathectic object maintains its power throughout an entire book.
Some authors rely on key objects more than other authors. I’m a big fan of key objects because they give your reader something physical to lock onto with their brains. Books that use key objects well are books that you visually remember long after you have read them, as though you watched a film rather than read a book. And remembering something visually is, in this author’s humble opinion, the very best way to remember it.
Here’s an example from a book that many of you have likely read. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is full of cathectic objects. Every major scene or chapter has one. Even the title has one.
Here’s one example that you may remember. Atticus Finch, the father of the narrator, young Scout, has a stand-off at the prison late at night. When the stand-off begins, Atticus is sitting in a folding chair, reading a newspaper. The newspaper is the key object of this scene. When the would-be lynch-mob arrives, Scout is watching from a hiding place:
We saw Atticus look up from his newspaper. He closed it, folded it deliberately, dropped it in his lap, and pushed his hat to the back of his head.
And then, when the children burst onto the scene, and Atticus is afraid, the newspaper takes center stage again:
Atticus got up from his chair, but he was moving slowly, like an old man. He put the newspaper down very carefully, adjusting its creases with lingering fingers. They were trembling a little. (Chapter 15)
The newspaper signifies the differences—of social class, education, and more—between Atticus and the men in the lynch mob. You can’t picture Atticus outside of that jail without picturing that newspaper.
In another scene, a rabid dog is making his way down a main street of Maycomb—and a rabid dog was a life-and-death emergency in those days. Up until this scene, Scout has spent some time expressing her shame over her “feeble” (her word) father. Sheriff Heck Tate and Atticus soon arrive at the Finch house, with Tate carrying “a heavy rifle”—the key object in this scene. They promptly begin arguing over who should take the shot:
“Take him, Mr. Finch.” Mr. Tate handed the rifle to Atticus; Jem and I nearly fainted.
“Don’t waste time, Heck,” said Atticus. “Go on.”
“Mr. Finch, this is a one-shot job.”
Atticus shook his head vehemently: “Don’t just stand there, Heck! He won’t wait all day for you—”
“For God’s sake, Mr. Finch, look where he is! Miss and you’ll go straight into the Radley house! I can’t shoot that well and you know it!”
“I haven’t shot a gun in thirty years—”
Mr. Tate almost threw the rifle at Atticus. “I’d feel mighty comfortable if you did now,” he said.
In a fog, Jem and I watched our father take the gun and walk out into the middle of the street. He walked quickly, but I thought he moved like an underwater swimmer: time had slowed to a nauseating crawl. …
With movements so swift they seemed simultaneous, Atticus’s hand yanked a ball-tipped lever as he brought the gun to his shoulder.
The rifle cracked. …
Mr. Tate…stopped in front of the dog, squatted, turned around and tapped his finger on his forehead above his left eye. “You were a little to the right, Mr. Finch,” he called.
“Always was,” answered Atticus. (Chapter 10)
The “heavy rifle,” the cathectic object here, in the hands of Scout’s “feeble” father becomes very powerful indeed. As a reader, you can picture Atticus standing in the road, you can picture the bolt-action rifle, you can picture him sliding the round into place and pulling the gun up to aim in one smooth motion, wowing his children.
Here’s where my creative writing workshop students helped me out, and can help us all out, readers and writers. One of my students wrote a scene in which the child narrator found a giant spider—as big as a tarantula—in the outhouse he was using. Obviously that spider made an impression on the narrator, and the writer, in telling the story about the spider, made an impression on us readers. The tarantula in the outhouse was the key object in the writer’s piece. We started calling cathectic objects “tarantulas.” Try it: “tarantula” is WAY more fun to say.
So now that’s what I call cathectic or key objects: tarantulas.
For the rest of that class, for each student’s piece, we tried to identify that writer’s tarantula. And then we asked, was it possible for the writer imbue the tarantula with even more power? Unless the author already deliberately wrote a tarantula into her manuscript, there always seemed to be ways to give a tarantula more power. And giving the tarantula more power made the manuscript stronger.
I’m revising my next novel right now, the next book in my Entanglement series. (The one that follows Chasing Chaos.) Here’s how I’m implementing the Tarantula Rule:
(1) I ask myself, What’s the tarantula in this scene?
(2) If there isn’t one, I ask myself, Should there be a tarantula in this scene?
(3) If the answer is “yes” (and it almost always is), I ask these questions to help determine what the tarantula should be. What would my character notice if she entered a room for the first time? What would she remember? What would she care about? And why?
As a writer, I enjoy discovering what objects would be meaningful to my characters. Similarly, as a reader, I enjoy discovering the tarantulas in the books I read—the objects that I forever associate with those books long after I finish reading them.
Katie is a novelist, freelance journalist, and sometimes lawyer in Chapel Hill, NC. She is the author of the Entanglement Series, which includes ENTANGLEMENT, LOVE AND ENTROPY, and CHASING CHAOS, all from Velvet Morning Press.
As a journalist, Katie contributes regularly to QUARTZ, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION, THE (late, great) TOAST, DAME MAGAZINE, and more. She earned her master’s degree in creative writing from the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins, where she attended on a fellowship. Currently, she teaches creative writing through Duke University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, works as a writing coach and editor, and writes her next novels.
Favorite shows on summer reruns? Try one of our picks ..
Considering blogging? Read what author Katie Rose Guest Pryal has to ..
There's nothing we love more at Shelf Pleasure than a ..
Author and Shelf Pleasure contributor Karen A. Chase on how ..
One of author Mary Miley’s favorite things about being a ..
Author and police psychologist Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., weighs the pitfalls ..