Have you ever watched an emotional scene in a movie where the main character was marching around punching walls and kicking doors, maybe even yelling about how angry they are? And you knew that was your cue to feel angry along with them, but you just … didn’t?
You might’ve thought something was wrong with you.
But maybe something was wrong with the movie.
The characters might have been showing you their emotions so hard that, try as you might, you couldn’t really connect with them at all.
This happens on Instagram all the time, too. People tend to shy away from heavy-handed content that grabs them by the shoulders and yells, “FEEL THIS!”
It comes across as annoying — or worse, manipulative.
But what if you’ve got some strong feelings or deeper issues you want to share with social media?
While there’s definitely a time and a place for all those pictures of tropical sunsets and latté foam, posting emotional content can pave the way for true engagement with your audience.
Expressing Emotion on Instagram? Learn the Objective Correlative
As we’ve discussed, you don’t want a giant blinking emoji that just tells people what you feel. You want photos and captions that subtly but powerfully evoke that same feeling in your viewers. That way, you attract real engagement — followers who actually enjoy and connect with your content — and through it, you or your cause.
So how can you craft powerful, emotional content that doesn’t yell at your reader or insult their emotional intelligence? Look to the literary world!
For example, there’s a literary device called the Objective Correlative. It’s exactly what you need.
What is the Objective Correlative?
The name sounds super fancy, but it boils down to a kind of feelings metaphor: an object or a set of objects, places, or characters that take on the emotions you want to convey. Made famous by poet T. S. Eliot, the Objective Correlative is a tool by which you show the reader something important, as opposed to telling them.
Here’s how it’s used in fiction or creative nonfiction writing:
- Look closely at the story you’re telling and identify the emotion that’s important to you.
- Find an object, place, character or event that could evoke that emotion.
- Example: instead of saying, “I’m sad,” a character might stare out the window and watch cold rain slowly fall like teardrops from the sky.
- Use that object, again and again, placing it strategically through your story and in fresh but thematic ways.
- Example: later on in the story, maybe your character’s sadness turns to bitterness. To show this, you can evoke frost or snow. It crystallizes the edges of everything. A burst of wind blows it in violent circles around her feet.
Using these three steps, our new friend Objective Correlative can help you navigate three Instagram-worthy emotions. We’ll show you how to apply this technique to your own content with lots of fantastic examples.
Take Your Followers by the Hand
Let’s say you’ve just started taking Instagram more seriously and you want to let your new audience know how happy you are to have them along. Or maybe you’ve been an influencer for a while, but want to welcome a new crop of your followers with a happy, friendly post.
Instead of just saying, “Welcome to my little corner of Instagram!,” how can you craft a post that subtly makes your viewer feel like you’re taking them by the hand and going somewhere fun?
You’re in Cuba Now!
A favorite influencer of mine, Marissa Daniela (@mimaincuba), posted a welcoming photo on her Instagram page a few months ago. She’s standing in front of the Malecón in Havana, Cuba. The wind whips her hair upward. Waves slap the sea wall and spray droplets into the air. The sidewalk around her is slick with water.
The photo’s subject, Marissa herself, looks joyful. The water off the Malecón seems to invigorate her, and in turn, the whole thing invigorates us.
Water, then, is her objective correlative. It conveys energy, life, and vitality, suggesting that these are things you will feel when you view the rest of Marissa’s Instagram page and read her content.
Her caption is short and simple. Though many non-Spanish speakers could figure it out, I’ll translate it here: “Welcome to Cuba!!!! Where are you following from?!”
She doesn’t say, “Welcome to my page! I share photos of myself and other local Cubans that make you feel like coming to visit me right here in Cuba, where you can take my tours to various locations!” That would be too in-your-face, not to mention too wordy.
Instead, she transports us right to Cuba. With her caption and the splashing water over an iconic Cuban landmark — the Malecón — she lets us know we’re in for a lively perspective of another world.
She also uses an abundance of punctuation, which isn’t always a good choice. But in this post, the exuberance matches the energy of the photo.
How To Show Your Own Sunshine:
Here’s how you can convey a lively sense of welcome on your own IG page:
- Pick an object — sunshine, let’s say — to convey a feeling of liveliness and joy.
- Find a sunny area in your home or outside. (Or a bright yellow wall if you live in Seattle…)
- Set up your tripod, set a timer, and take some shots of you smiling in the sunshine.
- Choose the best one and apply a cheerful filter like Lark or Amaro, or use the editing tools to bring out the strength and energy of the sunshine.
- Make a short and sweet caption that transports the viewer straight into your world.
Be sure to keep that sun shining in future posts so that your viewers keep getting rushes of that same feeling of welcome and acceptance that you introduced.
Creative, Subtle Examples of a Warm Instagram Welcome:
Sunshine + Smiles + Humor
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HI, IT'S ME! 👋🏻 There's a lot of new faces around here, so I thought I'd say hi and introduce myself! ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ My name's Isabeau (Ee-sah-bo, yeah I know) and I'm a professional singer and portrait photographer. I currently live in Tilburg, the Netherlands with my life-size teddybear 👆🏻 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ We met in 2014 when we both sang in the same show (yes the clichés are true) and got married just three weeks ago! 💍 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I started my photography business last year because I'm passionate about portraits. I truly think there's beauty in every single person and there's just too few who believe it. I live for showing a woman who never considered herself as such, that she's beautiful too. And I love that photography can do that. 💕 ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Oh, and when I'm not shooting or singing you'll find me on my yoga mat or on coffeedates with friends! 🤸🏼♀️☕️ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ I love connecting with new people, so leave a comment and introduce yourself! It'd make my day! ☺️ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Photo taken by @bemind_fotografie ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ #jstarchallenge #introduceyourself #welcomenewfollowers #coupleshoot #piggybackride #goldenhourphotography #hiitsme #thisisscary #doingitanyway #meetingnewpeople
A Jumping Dog + Welcoming Hashtags
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Today is Saturdaaaaay!! #ares #enjoying #germanshepherd #ilikeit #welcometomylife #welcometomyinstagram #dogsofinstagram #dogstagram #dog Hoy es sabadooll #ares #disfruntando #pastoraleman #meencanta #bienvenidoamivida #bienvenidoamiinstagram #perrosdeinstagram #perros #perrosdeinstagram #perrosgram
Warm Colors + Wintry Background + Short Welcoming Caption
Sharing Your Struggle
Everyone craves authenticity, and Instagram followers are no exception! After a while, people get tired of perfectly-crafted photoshoot perfection and want to see some grit and honesty.
Enter sorrow and struggle. We all feel sorrow, and we all struggle — most of us every day. Those hard moments are sandwiched between our bursts of joy and coziness, which we love to share.
But sharing your struggles too shows your followers that you are real, just like them. That you’re in this thing called life together.
And when you let your followers in on a difficult part of your life, you’re giving them something else with that peek: trust.
While you’ll probably get a compassionate response even if you aren’t subtle with your struggles, you can use the objective correlative to let your readers take on a bit of your sorrow and struggle in a more personal and powerful way.
This will make them really, truly feel for you — like your best friend or sibling might. A few may even private message you with stories of their own similar hardships, and you’ll find yourself with new friends to walk with through your life’s valleys.
Thanks to the objective correlative!
Looking Down on My Pain:
Some influencers have the joyful-sorrowful-everything in-between balance mastered. Jenna Kutcher is one of them. Just a few years ago, she was getting several hundred likes per post. Now her posts regularly see upwards of 20,000 likes and over 1,000 comments.
She’s not an actress, a model or a reality TV persona, yet she has 767K followers.
A recent post of hers got almost 40,000 likes, which is a lot even for Jenna. I attribute this partly to the objective correlative, whether Jenna knew she was using it or not!
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Three years ago in Maui, I sipped a spicy margarita while watching the sunset, not knowing that it would be my last for awhile. 🍹 The next day on our way to a luau, in a public restroom, I found out I was pregnant. We ended up losing that baby and the one the year after that. These last three years have been filled with uncertainty, fear, hope and questioning. 🙏🏼 Last night we sat at that same restaurant, I ordered a virgin lava flow and watched the same sun set and paint the sky in pastels. I paused as the baby in my belly started kicking, as if to say, “I’m here, mom. Thanks for waiting for me.” 🤰🏼 There’s so much in our lives that we can’t explain, can’t give answers to, but there is something I wish I could say to the Jenna who was stuck in the sadness, who was wondering what her future would hold. ✨ “There is more to your story. This is just a chapter… it’s a hard one and I know that waiting sucks but sometimes the season of waiting is just as important as the thing that we are anxiously waiting for.” 😭 Hold tight. Hold on. Don’t give up. This is just a chapter. You are loved, so deeply loved. There is more to your story. The light is coming soon. ☀️ Tag someone below who is in a hard season, a season of waiting, or is questioning the plan for them to let them know they aren’t alone.
This beautiful birds-eye shot looks down on two tiny people: Jenna and her husband (also an influencer!) both lying on a stretch of sand.
Volcanic rocks, broody and surrounded by swirling sea foam, take up the first third of the photo. Bony fallen trees stretch into the frame. A lush, green tangle of vegetation bookends the bottom.
On its own, this photo evokes the feeling of looking down on something intimate— but it’s not a perfect carefree beach photo. The rough rocks and crashing waves and immense distance from lens to landscape are the objective correlative for something more.
Then we read the caption, which has quite a bit of text. Jenna Kutcher knows how to make even a long string of words look clean and easy to read, though, so our eyes start off down the text. In the caption, she talks about “…watching the sunset, not knowing it would be [her] last for a while.”
She then lets readers in on a personal trauma she’d been experiencing for the last few years: the staggering loss of a pregnancy, followed by the loss of another deeply-wanted pregnancy.
But she doesn’t stop there! She writes about revisiting that area with a baby currently kicking healthily in her belly, and as readers, we really feel both sad and joyful for Jenna. She doesn’t say, “Losing my babies made me so sad,” though she has the complete right to say such a thing.
Instead, she tells of her pain through specific moments and correlating objects.
With her broody, distant photo and her caption that packs so much sadness and joy into 6 short paragraphs, she successfully brings the reader into her joy and sorrow and lets us feel it with her.
In the 7th paragraph, Kutcher invites followers to tag friends who are struggling. What a perfect way to build a community around the universal feeling of loss, of waiting and of longing for something better!
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How To Show Your Dark Side:
To use the objective correlative to bring readers into your emotional landscape’s dark corners and invite connection, follow these steps:
- First, look to the weather. If it’s rainy, foggy, snowy, or sleety outside, you’ve got something moody to work with.
- If it’s all sunny and happy out, find objects inside your house that could inspire the emotions you’re looking to evoke.
- If you want to pay tribute to a canine companion that you lost, for example, gather objects that remind you of your dog: a collar, a tag, a favorite toy. These will serve as your objective correlative.
- Take your photo of the sorrowful weather outside — rain slapping a window, a sky swallowed with dark clouds — or your meaningful objects.
- Choose a brooding filter, like Moon, Sierra, or Willow — or edit your photo to highlight the objects that correlate your emotions of struggle and sorrow.
- Make a caption that describes a favorite memory of something that can’t ever be revisited, or captures a favorite place. Try to stay away from saying, “I can’t stop crying,” even if that’s how you feel. Simply highlight the beauty of what you lost and what it meant to you.
- Invite your followers to share their own stories of loss and struggle.
- If you posted a picture about your dog, for example, you could end your post with something like, “What’s the name of a truly special furbaby you have loved and lost? What was your favorite thing about them?”
- This is specific, personal and bittersweet. You’ll get to read and respond to lots of neat stories from your followers.
Each time you write about struggle or loss on your Instagram page, include similar weather and/or object shots. They will subconsciously remind readers of your original post and invite the same powerful feelings and engagement.
Powerful Examples of Sharing a Struggle:
Black and White Filter + Sweet Quote + Dog and His Guy
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© How beautiful it is to find someone who asks for nothing but your company. I Really miss my dog. What i had with Bob was different ! I adored him, and in return he gave me his undying loyalty and devotion. • • • • #imissmydog #bob #dogsarefamily #bestfriend #blackandwhite #throwback #black #niemalsvergessen #dogstagram #heutevor3jahren #dogslife #pug #pugpuppy #lovemydog #hameln
Meaningful Objects + Powerful Caption
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@lifeofderosiers shares, "When I need to feel my child, I cannot hold him or kiss him. My time with my baby is now spent rifling through his old things, smelling the bits of his beloved grey blanket where his scent still lingers, touching the tiny locks of hair the funeral home cut from his head and tied neatly with a string. Holding the castings of his hands and feet, that had been pruned from being kept cold a few extra days just so they could get us the best molds. Opening the small box the bag of his ashes rest in, running my fingertips over the charred metal tag attached to it." Read the full blog article, What It Is To Be, Without Your Child, at the link in my bio or by visiting @lifeofderosiers blog ❤
Candle as Objective Correlative + Call to Action Caption
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I am aware that many people feel so alone during Baby Loss Awareness week and I want every person to feel supported. I also want every baby who has gone ahead to be acknowledged and honoured. So I came up with a little idea. Tomorrow is the International Wave of Light – and I thought it would be very special to start an instagram wave of light – so add you baby’s name(s) or a personal message in the comments below. #sayinggoodbye #mariposatrust #blaw #blaw2018 #miscarriage #stillbirth #babyloss #waveoflight #instagramwaveoflight
Maybe You’re ANGRY:
With psychologists and people in general finally realizing that anger has its place in our lives (as long as it’s not hurting someone), opportunities to get passionate are everywhere. And anger, if done well, attracts viewers — people want to know what there is to get angry about.
Once they know, they will either empathize with you and add their own passion to the fire, or they’ll disagree with you and probably let you know. Either way, you’re sharing your message and getting engagement.
One influencer I follow, @defendthesacredak, posts content that is passionate by nature. Their organization is working to decolonize Alaska and make it a place where everyone feels welcome and Natives are supported in living their traditional ways of life.
A recent photo of a woman at a Defend the Sacred Alaska protest caught my attention. This protest, specifically, centers on the BLM’s decision to pursue drilling in the enormous, pristine, previously untouched Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
The woman looks sober. Her chin is streaked with three lines, which matches the symbol on the red flag she holds above her head. This flag embodies anger: its color, the point of its letters, the way it casts a shadow on the woman’s face.
The red bandana swallows most of the photograph and points down toward the protesting woman. Made tiny in the background, a man watches with his arms folded.
The caption is simple: a statement of what the group is doing, and where, followed by informative hashtags. Imagery does all the talking, and it speaks with powerful, collected, influential anger and defiance.
Anyone who views the photo can feel the anger, though it’s never stated outright. And we want to find out more about the cause behind it.
How to Scream Without Losing Your Cool:
If your Instagram page supports a cause or you simply want to show your followers where you stand on a certain issue, you can use the objective correlative to show your passion.
- Choose an object to convey your anger (seeing a trend here yet?), such as a black shirt or an item with your cause’s logo. For the post from @defendthesacredak, the red banner serves as the objective correlative for anger and defiance.
- Take your photo with shadows and lighting in mind. Let the object take up a lot of the frame or be noticeable in a meaningful way.
- Post your photo with a simple or understated caption that points to the cause of your anger or passion. While outright rage has its place, oftentimes subtle anger goes a lot further in helping your cause.
- Take it one step further and invite people to share their views or private message you for more information on the cause.
Make sure to use the same symbol, or a variation, each time you post about the issue. Here’s another post from @defendthesacredak.
See how the bandana is there with the symbol again? By using the familiar symbol in slightly different ways, you evoke that same passion in readers who saw your original post.
And if you have new followers who weren’t there for that first post, they’ll still get that same emotional response and may scroll back to find earlier posts on the subject.
More Fire-Stoking Examples of Instagram Anger:
Determined Native Youth + Short, Sharp Caption
A Tough Question + An Original Drawing
Unusual Stitch Art + Red Lettering as Objective Correlative
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I have rage bubbling away inside me. I know that many women feel the same rage. It seems like everything I see and hear is fuel on the fire. Watching 'The Stepford Wives' yesterday was probably a mistake too…. . This pattern is a little stress reliever, a pressure valve. I deliberately chose powerful blood red tones because I was feeling murderous AND pre-menstrual when inspiration hit me. It's the muttered suffix to 'have a nice day' 😁 . The phrase is my slightly sinister twist on the curse of an old friend 😈 Thanks for the inspiration @bclarke182 . The first three people to comment "Smash the patriarchy" in the comments below, can have early copies of the PDF pattern for a mere £3.00 💜 (It will be £3.30 + tax on Etsy) . . . #creativewomenrock #instagood #hoopart #baameowxstitch #crossstitch #embroidery #crossstitchersofinstagram #xstitch #xstitchersofinstagram #crossstitchdesigner #baameow #handmade #flossboss #shopsmall #puntocroce #puntodecruz #bordado #pointdecroix #modernembroidery #kanaviçe #embroideryart #embroiderydesigner #supportsmall #swearystitching #creativebusiness #rudecrossstitch #righteousanger #mrxstitch #humour #craftybitch
Now That You Know A Fancy Literary Term…
…go forth and use it on your own emotional Instagram content!
You’ll be pleasantly surprised at how your followers respond when you trust them to take on some of your emotions for themselves.
We all experience the same huge range of emotions, and the objective correlative is a way to subtly activate those emotional centers in our readers, too. It’s basically a tool to switch on the empathy light in our fellow humans.
It’s powerful in literature — and it’ll be powerful on your Instagram page.