Direct Observer | A Camera’s-Eye Point of View

by Marylee MacDonald in For Beginning Writers, For Readers

16 mm Movie Camera | Direct Observer The Direct Observer point of view (also called the Third Person Objective) forces a writer to “show don’t tell.” Indeed, you can’t tell. You must only show, and if you want to portray characters with inner turmoil, you will have to figure out how to convey those feelings through dialogue.

Direct Observer is a tough point of view to get right because you can never, never go inside a character’s head.

If you’re going to choose this viewpoint, you must constantly remind yourself that your only role is to record what a camera would see and hear. Nothing stands between the scene and the reader. No narrator interprets and selects. Stories in the Direct Observer point of view are like stage plays or movies. The author provides description and detailed stage directions to show what actors would provide in the way of voice and gesture.

Which Authors Have Used Direct Observer?

The French author Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) wrote novels and films, most famously Last Year in Marienbad. He was part of an avant-garde movement that wanted to reinvent storytelling. To my mind his experiments in the New Novel led to a dead end, but I find his approach intriguing. His novels show just how much the reader can intuit, and in today’s world, where new writers often start by “seeing the movie in their heads,” Robbe-Grillet’s experiments could be a good way to transfer that mental movie to the page.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jérôme Lindon. 1977 : photographies]

Novelist and director Alain Robbe-Grillet

According to Wikipedia, Robbe-Grillet’s “…second novel, The Erasers (Les Gommes), superficially resembles a detective novel, but it contains within it a deeper structure based on the tale of Oedipus. The detective is seeking the assassin in a murder that has not yet occurred, only to discover that it is his destiny to become that assassin.” Let’s take a look at an excerpt.

THE ERASERS

On the second floor, at the end of a hallway, the manager knocks, waits a few seconds and, since he hears no answer, knocks again, several times, a little louder. On the other side of the door an alarm clock goes off. His right hand frozen in its gesture, the manager keeps listening, spitefully waiting to discover the sleeper’s reactions.

But no one turns off the alarm. After a minute or so it stops of its own accord with astonishment on the few last abortive sounds.

—Alain Robbe-Grillet, THE ERASERS

What? Is the alarm clock astonished? How can that be? Ah, but remember! The Direct Observer renders just what a camera with a sound system would see or record. The reader is a witness to the story, not an audience for the teller of the tale.

On the down side, perhaps you noticed that your feelings weren’t particularly engaged in this excerpt. Because Direct Observer sounds clinical, it wouldn’t be the right point of view for novels where you want to convey complex thoughts and feelings.

On the other hand, if the conflict is between external forces (spaceships or aliens), if the impact and importance are worked out in word and deed, and if the writer doesn’t want to take sides in the struggle, then the Direct Observer is for you.

Hemingway As Direct Observer

To my mind, the writer who best exemplified the skillful use of Direct Observer was Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). Perhaps his many years as a journalist had trained him to be an observer, not a commentator or a “feelings” person.

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923

Ernest Hemingway’s 1923 passport photo shows him as a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star. Living in Paris, he had just befriended Ezra Pound, who would introduce him to other modernist writers.

Hemingway’s powers of observation and his amazing use of dialogue give him a leg up on other writers using Direct Observer.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

The hills across the valley of the Ebro were long and white. On this side there was no shade and no trees and the station was between two lines of rails in the sun. Close against the side of the station there was the warm shadow of the building and a curtain, made of strings of bamboo beads, hung across the open door into the bar, to keep out flies. The American and the girl with him sat at a table in the shade, outside the building. It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty mintues. It stopped at this junction for two minutes and went on to Madrid.

“What should we drink?” the girl asked. She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.

“It’s pretty hot,” the man said.

“Let’s drink beer.”

“Dos cervezas,” the man said into the curtain.

“Big ones?” a woman asked from the doorway.

“Yes. Two big ones.”

The woman brought two glasses of beer and two felt pads. She left the felt pads and the beer glasses on the table and looked at the man and the girl. The girl was looking off at the line of hills. They were white in the sun and the country was brown and dry.

“They look like white elephants,” she said.

“I’ve never seen one,” the man drank his beer.

“No, you wouldn’t have.”

“I might have,” the man said. “Just because you say I wouldn’t have doesn’t prove anything.”

 

Let’s zero in on the text. The voice of the Direct Observer pans across the landscape much as a movie camera would swivel on its tripod. We see the distance in great specificity—the long, white hills across the valley. The camera turns back to the station, and we get those great “telling details” of the elongated shadow and the bamboo-beaded curtain. We get the sensation of heat and we hear the ticking clock. The train will arrive in forty minutes and leave two minutes later. Readers intuitively know that the characters have reached a turning point.

Notice how much work that dialogue is doing and how quickly Hemingway puts tension on the page. We don’t know why the characters are antagonistic, but they are. She seems to be talking about something fanciful. He seems to have dug his heels into the dirt of reality. It takes time for the real argument to surface. She’s pregnant. He wants her to have an abortion. She doesn’t want to. None of this will be revealed in the characters’ thoughts. Instead, the reader will pick up the clues from the descriptions, from gestures, and from dialogue.

How Is Direct Observer Different From Third Person Limited?

 Before moving on to another example of Direct Observer, let’s just take a look at another Hemingway story. In many ways the story begins the way “Hills” begins. We get the situation (fishing trip) and a place and characters with names. Hemingway feeds us plenty of closely observed visual details.

What’s different is this sentence: “Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist.” Read the following excerpt with and without that sentence.

“Indian Camp”

At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up. The two Indians stood waiting.

Nick and his father got in the stern of the boat and the Indians shoved it off and one of them got in to row. Uncle George sat in the stern of the camp rowboat. The young Indian shoved the camp boat off and got in to row Uncle George.

The two boats started off in the dark. Nick heard the oarlocks of the other boat quite a way ahead of them in the mist. The Indians rowed with quick choppy strokes. Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him. It was cold on the water. The Indian who was rowing them was working very hard, but the other boat moved further ahead in the mist all the time.

–Ernest Hemingway, “Indian Camp,” THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES OF ERNEST HEMINGWAY

 

Just as in “Hills” the author provides the reader with sensory impressions of heat and cold and comfort. But, unlike “Hills,” the reader can enter Nick’s feelings. We know we’re in Nick’s feeling-state when we read “Nick lay back with his father’s arm around him.” If this had been Direct Observer, Hemingway might have written. “Nick lay back on his father’s arm.”

The sentence, “It was cold on the water,” is similar to the following sentence from “Hills:”

“It was very hot and the express from Barcelona would come in forty minutes.”

And, yet, the reader knows that it’s Nick experiencing the chill. After the author introduces us to Nick, and after we’ve dipped inside his head, readers begin to associate sensory details with his consciousness, even when those details are similar to the details we’d get if the story were told from the Direct Observer point of view.

One More Example of Direct Observer from China Mieville

A few years back James Sallis, a Phoenix poet and crime-fiction writer, introduced me to the work of China Mieville. I read Mieville’s stunning dystopian novel, PERDIDO STREET STATION, and the writing blew me away. Not only is Mieville a superb storyteller, he’s a skilled practitioner of the Direct Observer point of view.  Here’s an example of how Mieville uses Direct Observer to set the scene.

PERDIDO STREET STATION

A window burst open high above the market. A basket flew from it and arced towards the oblivious crowd. It spasmed in mid-air, then spun and continued earthwards at a slower, uneven pace. Dancing precariously as it descended, its wire-mesh caught and skitted on the building’s rough hide. It scrabbled at the wall, sending paint and concrete dust plummeting before it.

The sun shone through uneven cloud-cover with a bright gray light. Below the basket the stalls and barrows lay like untidy spillage. The city reeked. But today was market day down in Aspic Hole, and the pungent slick of dung-smell and rot that rolled over New Crobuzon was, in these streets, for these hours, improved with paprika and fresh tomato, hot oil and fish and cinnamon, cured meat, banana and onion.

After this initial panning shot, Mieville dips into the head of the protagonist, Isaac Dan der Grimmnebulin, but that’s not until the author has fully described the book’s dystopian world. Mieville feeds the reader sensory and cinematic details, and he uses his incredible imaginative powers to make you believe that such a world exists.

How Might You Make Use of Direct Observer?

Many novels use a First Person point of view. “I did this. Then, I did that. I felt so confused about my life and about whether I should change jobs or just max out my credit card, that I shoplifted a Gucci purse.” If your beta readers tell you they’re tired of nonstop, trivial thoughts, try this experiment.

Write an opening scene using Direct Observer. Look at the world through the eyes of your protagonist. Or, if your story has a narrator, look at the world through the narrator’s eyes. For more on this, see my post on The Establishing Shot Sets the Scene.

Your job is to observe, listen, and record. Make the world of your novel vivid for your reader, and then see if you can bring some of those details back into your story.

 


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