Despite what lots of people might say, there’s a distinct difference between objective and subjective truths. As writers, it’s important that we remember this.
Why? Well, for one, your writing is mostly going to center around the observations of a character. What they see and sense, what they think, and what they feel. Almost all of your story is filtered through observations. The observations of your characters are the vehicles by which your characters, settings, and conflicts will be delivered.
So what’s the difference? Basically, objective observations are matter-of-fact. There is no guesswork involved in them. “The mountain was 14,000 feet tall,” or “The room was completely empty,” are objective observations. Anyone can measure those facts pretty much the same way.
In contrast, subjective observations are matters of opinion, based entirely on the biases of the observer. “She was being mean,” or “The man was ugly,” are subjective observations. They’re observations based on opinions, and they will differ between people.
For me, there’s an even more important distinction: objective observations only do one thing. They only help the reader identify or imagine one static, boring fact. Subjective observations, on the other hand, do a number of things at the same time. They can evoke character and setting and conflict simultaneously.
In great writing, you want your words to be doing lots of things at once. That’s how you build a deep, immersive experience. It’s also how you juggle all this formulaic storytelling stuff without feeling trite or easily anticipated.
I’m going to write two examples of the same situation. One will be totally objective observations. The other will be only subjective observations.
Objective Observations: Mary stood in the doorway, hand cupping her mouth. She watched as her husband, Matthew, grunted on top of a woman. Mary was quiet, so he didn’t notice. It went on for almost an hour. Then, Mary started to cry. Matthew and the strange woman realized she was there.
Subjective Observations: The girl Matthew was screwing was no looker. She sounded like she enjoyed having sex with Mary’s husband as much as Mary enjoyed watching it. Matthew… that disgusting pig. Worth less than the crumpled money on the dresser. It went on for an eternity. Mary burst into tears, unable to hold back any longer. Matthew yelped like a little girl. His world was going to shatter for this.
Do you see the difference? Can you feel the difference? That first paragraph is terribly dry. Even as I wrote it, it was very difficult to make it feel interesting. Even with such a dramatic conflict taking place, you really don’t feel what Mary feels. But in the second paragraph? Anger. Sadness. You understand more about Mary and Matthew’s relationship, even though it hasn’t been spelled out for you. You “get” Mary a little more.
This is classic “show vs tell”. Now, I don’t believe you should avoid objective observations. Sometimes, they’re just necessary. I think a good mix of these is important for gripping and interesting storytelling. For example, if Mary was a sociopath, that first paragraph might actually be an interesting way to show her emotional detachment to the conflict.
This is a quick example, and we can “what if” all day. My point is: when you describe something, don’t just describe it as if trying to make someone imagine it. Link as much as you can to the character. How do they see the things around them? What do they notice or choose to focus on and why?
Get your reader to think like your character, and they’ll feel with your character. The pain of loss, the elation of victory, the futility of capture. Those emotions will resonate if you apply a subjective lens to things.
That’s all I’ve got for today, all! I hope you enjoyed the read! As always, please feel free to bring in your opinions. What are some great examples of this? Do you know of any interesting contrasts between objective/subjective storytelling? Have you ever thought about this before?
Share your thoughts!
Ronin is a traveling writer and a student of the craft. He’s currently working on a degree in Creative Writing with a special focus on Fiction. Check out his writing tips, stories, and musings on Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and WordPress. He releases a video on his YouTube channel every Friday.
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