Objective and Subjective Detail

Some of my Composition students were having a hard time with this topic yesterday, so I thought it might make a good subject for this forum.  I’ve talked about Objective Point of View previously; used perhaps most notably by Shirley Jackson in her short story The Lottery. Jackson uses this limited point of view to tell her shocking story with detachment, creating the chilling effect of cold distance as the story reaches its climax.  Much of what Jackson does is achieved through objective detail. This is where many students get confused.

Writing from a purely objective point of view is extremely difficult, and some experts say nearly impossible to do.  Once a writer comments on a detail, experts argue, the comment becomes suggestive.  Objective details should be presented like a video surveillance camera recording information. A camera doesn’t infer emotion or detail; it simply records what is visually (and sometimes auditory) clear. For example,

if I were to use objective details to describe this photo, I might say:

       The young woman and her father posed together with the flower-covered birthday cake.

The detail is limited by the objective point of view.  I can’t comment on how either person in the picture (that would be me and my dad a very long time ago) feels or what either is thinking because it isn’t evident in the photo.  The more detail I add to the description, the more subjective it becomes. Just by identifying colors or trying to describe clothing I begin to impose subjective details on the scene.  For example, if I were to describe the young woman (me) I might say:

     Her pale skin seemed lighter when framed by her red hair.

Someone else might describe me this way:

     The strawberry blonde blushed as her picture was taken.

I know what some other people might write about me, so we’ll stop there. The point is, as writers we apply subjective detail to encourage a reader to see a scene the way that we envision it.  Sometimes, thought, using objective detail can be just as effective. Limiting the detail to factual statements and creating a more objective picture for the reader can allow the reader to fill in more significant details of his or her own imagining. If, as a writer, you want to paint a creepy scene, you might include things that are frightening to you. Maybe snakes are slithering across the floor, or spiders dangle from ceiling corners in your view of creepy.  The trouble is, not everyone is afraid of spiders and snakes. Your subjective attempt to scare me wouldn’t work because I’m not bothered by those things. Possibly leaving some specifics out and making the description more objective would create the effect you’re after. For example:

     The basement corridor was dark. Fluorescent tubes flickered and buzzed at irregular intervals. Water pooled in dark puddles on the floor and scurrying noises came and went behind the walls. Cold, damp air blew in from an unseen source and raised goose flesh on the arms of the two young women.

There’s a lot left to the imagination, and often that’s more powerful than filling in every detail for the reader. Objective detail works on almost a Zen level, with the idea that less is sometimes more.

The Japanese refer to this concept as yohaku-no-bi. It’s like the concept of the Zen garden: empty space has value, meaning, and beauty, too.

There is a place for each type of description, but as writers we are so often told “show, don’t tell” that we come to believe everything in our writing requires adjective overkill.  Sometimes, leaving a bit of the page blank and allowing the reader to fill in his or her own details is a much stronger way to tell the story.

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2 thoughts on “Objective and Subjective Detail

  1. Micahel says:

    Now I know what objective detail means. Excellent article. Excellent examples. I get it. I learned something…,YES!

  2. bisrat says:

    i still have not got any thing about objective history

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