Writing Exercise: The Objective Point of View
So I plopped down at the computer to create a post on how to write a short story from the objective point of view (POV).
Mostly, I stared at a blank screen.
Where do I start?
Then a flash: I realized that I had never written a complete story incorporating the objective POV.
Sure, I had written short passages, but never an actual story.
So how on earth could I ever offer pointers when I had never written an objective POV story myself? What kind of teacher is that, anyway?
It was time get cracking on my own objective POV story.
I fell down the writing rabbit hole and started to rewrite an existing short short story (896 words) titled “Poyke,” posted on Suddenlys.com, told from the limited third person POV.
I thought it would be easy-peasy to change “Poyke” to the objective POV.
A cinch, no?
Did I mention that this exercise took over two months to accomplish?
Finally, I have completed a draft. Yes, a draft. I’m still revising; I’m determined to make this the best objective POV story I have ever written.
Okay. The only objective POV story I have ever written.
Setting that fact aside, here’s a review of what the third person, objective POV entails:
Implied “he,” “she,” “they,” or “it.”*
In the objective POV, the gender of the narrator is generally unknown to the reader.
The narrator, gender-neutral, acts as a “movie camera,” recording all the tangible details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures) in the scene and setting. “Records” dialogue, body language, surroundings, but does not comment on them, either from the narrator’s perspective or the characters’ viewpoint (other than via dialogue and plausible hints). The reader must fill in the “subtext” (the emotions, meaning, and messages between the lines), which is usually accomplished via dialogue. If done well, this point-of-view can be very effective, as Ernest Hemingway has exhibited in his short story “Hills Like White Elephants.”
A very difficult viewpoint to pull off, the objective is often referred to as the “dramatic viewpoint” or “journalistic” viewpoint because it shares many characteristics of playwrighting and newspaper writing, with its emphasis on reportage of dialogue, detailed description of the physical world, and observable action. This means that feelings, abstractions, and emotions are not articulated, except through that which can be directly observed in the physical world. The narrator is neither the protagonist nor antagonist but is often an unknown minor observer who observes details about the major characters but does not reveal any personal information about the gender-neutral self. In fact, the narrator will not even refer to “I”* at all because this isn’t the observer’s story, even tangentially. Thus, the reader knows nothing about the observer, including the internal thoughts of the narrator. If done correctly, the objective is a very powerful viewpoint, because, as in real life, actions and dialogue (or lack of dialogue) can speak louder than all the feelings and articulated angst in the world. From: Elements of Fiction: Point of View (P.O.V.)
*Note: In a true Objective POV, the narrator never refers to him/her/them/itself; the narrator is dispassionate, remote, and nonjudgmental. Like a camera or drone (“it” narrator?), the narrator simply observes the scenes as they unfold: recording body language, surroundings, and dialogue.
In that sense, the objective point of view story is different from that of the first-person story, in which the narrator is a minor character who observes the actions of the main character. While the reader has access to the interior thoughts of this minor narrator, he/she/them does not know what the main character is thinking, and, therefore, must base his/her/their opinions on observation of the physical world. Moreover, the reader is viewing the main character through the eyes of the minor character, who may, in fact, be judgmental, emotionally involved, close to the main character, and, perhaps, even unreliable. Confused?
Yeah, it’s tricky.
Now that I have completed a draft of the rewrite, I can now offer short sample passages from both versions of “Poyke”:
Limited Third Person POV (From the beginning of “Poyke,” posted on Suddenlys.com):
The man unloads the black cauldron from the van.
“It’s called a ‘Poyke,’” he says.
The woman doesn’t care what it’s called, just that it’s too big and heavy for this camping trip.
He insisted and prevailed because she was too exhausted to argue.
It had been a gag wedding present –
Some joke, she thinks.
Once camp has been set up and dinner finished, they will tell the children.
She wants to blurt it out, get it over with.
Just nuke it.
Yes, painful, but over quick.
He wants to cook the news slowly, prepare and prime the children, a pinch of information here and there, brought to a pre-boil.
Simmer over a low fire.
Note that the reader has access to the thoughts of both the man and woman; therefore, dialogue, body language, and description is less important than it would be for the objective POV. In this excerpt, there is only one line of dialogue and no description at all.
However, with this viewpoint, it would be difficult to withhold important information from the reader because the interior thoughts of both characters would be readily available.
If you, as the writer, wish to withhold important information – at least through interior thoughts – then it’s best to use the objective POV:
Objective POV (Another version of “Poyke,” unpublished. In this version, this excerpt begins on manuscript page 5):
The man unloads a black cauldron from the van.
“It’s called a ‘Poyke,’” he says, dropping it to the ground. “Egad! This thing’s heavy.” Wiping his brow, above high cheekbones and hewn jawline, he runs fingers through a thatch of wavy black hair.
The man’s inverted pyramid frame, through snug yellow t-shirt, hints of rib, sinew, and muscle. Trim waist, tight rear snug in Levi’s.
Still, the man grunts as he drags the cauldron, its bottom scraping the ground, toward the fire pit.
At a distance, the woman observes and sighs but doesn’t move toward him. “Why drag that thing here, anyway?” She frowns and slaps her palms on her hips. “I mean, what the hey?”
Against the crisp air and pale orange sun, the woman pulls her plaid jacket close to her and visibly shivers. “Too cold.”
“You need to move more, get your blood pumping.”
“I just want this to be over.”
“I know.” He drags the cauldron next to the fire pit, where an iron stand with a hook has been erected.
“I want to move on.”
“You’ve already moved on.” Next to the pit, he kicks up a bit of dirt with his boot and rubs his hands together.
The woman turns away and stares off into the forest. “I’m sorry.”
The man shrugs. “Can’t be helped.” He taps the cauldron with his boot, a high-topped Timberland. “Time to break in Greg’s gift. It’s been only 15 years…”
“Fifteen years too long…”
The man stops, hangs his head, and mumbles, “You could say that.”
The woman, still holding her jacket close, stamps her feet. She looks down at her red sneakers, the only bright spot on her. “I mean, who brings such a ridiculous gift to a wedding?”
Note that the reader does not have access to interior thoughts of either the man or the woman; everything that can be revealed must be shown through dialogue, actions, and description. Also, it seems to take longer to reveal important details about what the characters are experiencing. My short short version morphed from 900 words to a fairly hefty 5,500 words. Perhaps a more skillful writer could have developed a short short version of an objective point of view story; however, I’m not that writer.
What are some pros and cons of the objective POV?
1. Physical descriptions of characters feel more natural, something that is nearly impossible to accomplish in the first person POV without seeming contrived (“I look in the mirror to see a woman who has aged at least 10 years in the past two months…”) Even the third person description can feel a bit contrived if not handled properly: (“She looks in the mirror to see a woman who has aged at least 10 years in the past two months…”). A better way:
She looks in the mirror and rubs her face. “Oh, my God, I’ve aged at least 10 years.”
Actually, this works for both third person, singular, and objective POV. But if you add:
It has been a difficult two months: her beloved husband died, and her oldest daughter joined a cult and cut off the family.
This last sentence brings the narrative into third person, singular, territory.
2. You have the luxury of allowing the story to unfold slowly to reveal details about the characters without having to withhold information about what the characters actually think because the narrator doesn’t know. “Withheld information” is one of the main complaints readers have about the fiction they read. However, if the thoughts of characters are not available to the narrator, then this complaint is no longer valid.
3. It’s great practice, even if the result isn’t quite satisfactory.
1. ALL emotions and feelings must be conveyed by surface details – not as simple as it may seem. I ran into snags and even a few lapses in the objective POV.
2. It’s too easy to “telescope” past events in dialogue, a technique often used in soap operas. For example,
Remember when we went swimming at Pinchot Park, and you flirted with that tart in the red bikini?
Seems a bit contrived, no? Given the relationship between two people who are close, they would most likely speak in a familiar shorthand, for example,
Remember her at Pinchot?
The male character would know exactly what his girlfriend is referring to, although the reader does not know the history – and isn’t that part of the fun? Trying to figure what is going on?
3. This viewpoint may seem too dispassionate and stilted; by not offering interior thoughts, the writer must find other ways to convey inner struggles: through description, observable body language, and dialogue.
4. The reader, who may not realize that this is an objective POV story, may feel cheated and even feel that the writer is withholding important information.
5. At the beginning, the story might feel confusing to the reader; certain actions and details might not make sense at first, which may be asking a lot from the reader. In stage drama, the captive audience is prepared to feel confused at first and knows that details and information will slowly come to light. Readers of fiction are less patient, however; the writer can’t reach out and say, “Hang with me here; it gets better and will make sense.” The writer must create some interesting nuggets, to be revealed early on. For example, in the objective POV version of “Poyke,” this detail appears on page 1:
From the van, a faint high-pitched and discordant melody can be heard:
Maria loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to Her belong;
we are weak, but She is strong.
The reader might scratch her head, but this gender upheaval of a popular children’s Christian hymn might be interesting enough to propel the reader forward.
Are you game?
Your assignment (should you choose to tackle it):
Rewrite an existing short short story of yours, changing it from its original POV to the objective POV.
Rewrite someone else’s short short story, changing it from its original POV to the objective POV. (If this story is still in copyright, keep in mind that you can never publish your version. No need to find yourself in legal hot water – this is just an exercise).
From scratch, write a new short story, using the objective POV.