Eight Points of View -- Objective Third10 Aug 2018
This is part 5 of my series on point of view.
In part 1 of this series, I explained that a story’s teller can be a character inside the story or some external entity. Nowhere is the latter situation clearer than in the case of objective third. This point of view is also known as “objective narrator”, and Ursula K. Le Guin uses the term “detached author” in Steering the Craft. I prefer objective third person, so that’s what we’ll be using.
Whereas the previous POVs have the author’s persona be close to a character (or multiple characters as we discussed last time), objective third is close to no one. From this POV, the author’s persona only sees and perceives what a movie camera or a fly with human intelligence could, hence the nicknames “fly on the wall” and “camera eye”. Le Guin elaborates by saying…
“The author never enters a character’s mind. People and places may be exactly described, but values and judgments can be implied only indirectly.”
This is the most cinematic POV in our list because it follows many of the same restrictions that films have. Not all of them, of course, but we’ll talk about that at the end of this post.
Last time, I also identified objective third as the hardest POV to write. Why? I hear you asking. It stems from a truth about human nature and the nature of fiction.
People aren’t just how they behave in front of others – the external lives anybody and everybody can witness. People have inner lives that only they themselves are aware of. Ordinarily, the inner lives of others are completely hidden from us, but fiction can reveal them. Seeing these inner lives allows readers to know and perhaps identify with these characters on a deep level.
Writing in objective third is the writer deliberately cutting readers off from these inner lives. The writer should have some idea of what’s going on in each character’s head in order to portray consistent behavior and motivation, but they are the only one who can have this kind of access. The end result that the reader reads must be as neutral as possible.
Being this neutral requires a great deal of restraint, far more than beginners and those unfamiliar with the POV realize. It can be especially difficult for writers who have been formally taught or have worked in this business for years. Conventional wisdom and practices say that good writing always says something about a character’s inner life. Seven of the eight POVs in the series expect writers to do this. In forcing you to remove all of these references, objective third forces you to exercise different creative muscles, pay closer attention to word choice, and rely on other narrative tools and devices that you may not use all the time.
Can you write an engaging story from this restrictive POV? Absolutely, though you may find it’s not every reader’s cup of tea. Just know jumping in that it requires a hefty amount of skill and effort to pull it off. It’ll be your plot, not necessarily your characters, that carry the story. To hold the reader’s attention, you’ll need interesting, concrete descriptions and dialogue that shines.
I don’t claim to be an expert at objective third, but here’s a taste of what objective third looks like in practice.
Professor Ellar, Garrett, and Dora entered the room at the center of the warehouse. It was dimmer and warmer than the rooms they had wandered through. Human skulls stare back at them, stacked one on top of the other along three walls. The far wall was covered with a thick, red curtain. A large pentagram was drawn with chalk in the middle of the floor.
Dora shivered, her arms crossed tightly over her chest, her eyes wide.
“Dora?” Garrett asked her.
“Are you alright, Ms. Marcel?” Ellar asked.
“We have to find Dr. Allen,” she said. “We have to get her out of here now.”
Silent, the three split up. Dora remained frozen, staring up at the few dozen bare lightbulbs that hung from the ceiling. Ellar examined the pentagram and the collection of symbols around the outer circle. Garrett walked along the stacks of skulls. He saw numbers carved into each skull’s forehead – 331, 573, 646.
“Don’t touch those. Old bones are awfully fragile,” Niles Vasco said as he entered the room. He wore an over-sized shirt splattered with dark stains.
“You!” Garrett exclaimed, drawing the others’ attention.
Vasco walked forward and unrolled his sleeves. “Professor Ellar,” he began. “I’m not surprised you’re here. Unfortunately, you’re too late.”
Dora asked, “Where’s Dr. Allen? What have you done to her, you monster?!”
Ellar and Garrett stepped in front of her. “I know you are behind the kidnappings, Mr. Vasco,” Ellar said. “What I don’t understand is why. What is this place? Why did you bring your victims here?”
Garrett added, “Why are we too late? And what about these?” He pointed at the skulls. “Are they your victims too? Do you keep their bones as some kind of sick trophy?” The more questions he asked, the more his voice cracked.
Vasco chuckled. “Those people are long dead, kid. I simply gathered them here to witness tonight’s ritual. My victims, as you call them, have an important role to play.”
“What kind of ritual?”
“You’ve seen how divided this town is. How it hides its rotten soul. That ends tonight.”
Something clicked beneath the floor. The door Ellar, Garrett, and Dora came through slammed shut. A metal grate dropped in front of it.
“No!” Dora screamed and ran to the door. She touched the grate, and bolts of blue electricity converged on her with a loud zap. She fell backwards.
Garrett rushed to her side. He called her name and tried to shake her awake. No response.
Ellar turned to Vasco. “What is the meaning of this? Why are you locking us in?”
“I can’t have you calling the police,” Vasco said, smiling. “You know too much.” He checked his watch, and his smile disappeared. “Excuse me. I have a lot of work to do.” He quickly left.
Ellar slowly followed him.
“Professor?” Garrett asked.
Ellar said, “Stay with Ms. Marcel. I’ll come back.”
Ellar nodded then walked through the door.
I went on about what you can’t do in objective third earlier. So what can you do?
Instead of delving into your characters’ thoughts and emotions, spend time describing their facial expressions and body language. Supply readers with clues they’d use in real life to infer someone’s mood or mental state.
You can also imply thoughts and emotions through a character’s business – what they do while they’re participating in a conversation. For instance, an anxious character could pace, and a bored character could spin their dagger on the table. This even includes more involved tasks like shuffling a deck of cards, washing dishes, or sorting through emails. Vasco had a bit of business in my scene – unrolling his shirt sleeves. I’m curious to hear what you extrapolated about Vasco from that.
You can also rely on the environment to establish mood and atmosphere, exploiting the Pathetic Fallacy. Le Guin defines this as…
“A phrase… to describe a passage of writing in which the landscape, weather, etc., mirror or embody human emotions.”
If a character is sad, it’ll be raining. Festivals invariably take place on sunny days. And every spooky story ever starts on a dark and stormy night. While it’s incorrect to assume that reality actually functions this way (hence why it’s called a fallacy), this is a narrative tool you can use to reflect the things this POV forbids you from stating outright.
At the beginning of this post, I called objective third the most cinematic POV. Yet while traditional cinema is limited to sight and sound, fiction can use all five senses. Utilize all of them to keep your prose interesting. This is good advice for every story, but it’s especially important for stories written in objective third. The extra three senses will keep it from sounding like the description of a movie. Incorporate smell and taste when you can. Don’t ignore the myriad sensations that fall under touch. How hot or cold is the place? Is the air wet or dry? Is the ground soft, slick, or uneven?
Those of you who’ve been following this series from the beginning know what’s coming – the writing challenge. Take the scene you’ve written multiple versions of by now and write it again in objective third. In place of each character’s thoughts and emotions, work in additional details about what they look like, how they behave in this scene, and the setting.
Share your scene, or a link to it, in the comments below. Have you ever encountered objective third in the wild? If so, did you enjoy reading the story? Did you enjoy working with objective third for this challenge? Will you use it again? Stay tuned for the series finale.