Well, there’s a title that’s liable to get me in trouble.
Whenever I watch a movie or read a book, only half my mind is approaching the work as an audience member. The rest of it is looking at it as a writer. I am constantly asking myself, “is this good? How does it compare with what I’m doing? Can I learn from what they are doing?” The hardest part of answering those questions is figuring out which reactions I’m having are subjective and which are objective.
By objective I mean issues related to pacing, character development, use of archetypes, believability of plot and so on. I’m asking if the story is good based on the principles that can improve the quality of nearly every story. In other words, can I take the problem I’m having with a particular story and generalize it into a lesson that I can apply to writing as an overall art form?
By subjective I mean elements that are really down to personal taste. When language is so flowery or so terse that it is difficult to clearly understand what the writer is saying, there is an objective problem, but within those boundaries is a broad spectrum of writing styles that some people might like more than others. Similarly, whether a joke is funny or not isn’t something that can be predicted by logical rules. If it made you laugh, it was funny to you, and if it didn’t make me laugh, it wasn’t funny to me, and there isn’t much more to it.
I should say right here that I’m not talking at all about reasons why you should or shouldn’t enjoy something. It is fine to like something or dislike them for either subjective reasons or objective reasons. For example, I can acknowledge that Matt Smith’s seasons on Doctor Who tended to have a frenetic, poorly balanced pace to their story arcs. However, I still enjoyed them because Matt Smith was delightful. His stories had an objective flaw that did not stop it me from, subjectively, enjoying him. On the flip side, I enjoyed Frozen because I appreciate how skillfully the plot, character and thematic elements wove together. My friend Rebecca did not like it. She didn’t like the music, and she’s annoyed by stories where a good part of the plot problems hinge on misunderstandings. Whether the subjective or objective elements of a given story matter more to you is in and of itself a subjective question.
As I said in the beginning, though, when I watch a movie or read a book, only half of my mind is actually in audience mode. The rest is trying to figure out if I can learn something from this story about how to be a better writer. As writers, the subjective elements are out of our hands. Any individual audience member might dislike or like them, depending on who they are and where they are in their lives and what is currently in style. The best we can do is write to please ourselves, and hope that at least some people will like the same things. The objective elements, however, are in our control, and by writing them to the best of our ability we can maximize our chances of making art that really moves people. Subjective elements are good at making works fashionable, if you’re lucky and happen to like things that many other people like. Objective elements are good at making works that outlast their creators.
One of the first stories that made me think seriously about this was the 2008 film Easy Virtue, based on a Noel Coward play. It’s about an American racecar driver who marries into an aristocratic English family in the 1920s. Her personality and values clash with those of the family she marries into. In the end she becomes fed up and leaves with the father of the house, who has felt constrained by the upper class English lifestyle for years. Her ex-husband is left with his childhood sweetheart. The first time I watched it, I was angry. I felt like the protagonist was stubborn and arrogant and that while at times her family was certainly bigoted and rude, she could have tried harder to make it work than she did. I rewatched it, pen and notepad in hand, ready to tear it apart.
I couldn’t. Every scene made sense, in light of who the characters were. The acting was excellent, the structure of the scenes was good, and while I could imagine myself finding common ground with the English family, and eventually gaining their acceptance, that wasn’t something the protagonist could do. She was an extremely independent, self-assured person, a little too stubborn at times but not to the degree that she was mean-spirited or domineering. At the end of the story, everyone was better off, because even though the separations were painful, everyone ended up with someone who would make them happier. The choices she made were different from the ones I would have made, but that didn’t make her a bad person or the story a bad story.
So why was I so angry? Probably because I had just come out as transgender and was living in my friend’s guest room, on extremely strained terms with nearly everyone in my family. I was not in a good mental place to see a story about someone picking up a family and then abandoning it. No matter how objectively well-crafted that story was, it couldn’t have been written in a way that I would have enjoyed in at that moment, in that stage of my life.
Let me get away from that darker point and give an opposite example; Pitch Perfect, a sleeper hit from 2012. It’s a motley-crew-of-underdogs-learn-to-cooperate-and-win plot, with the sport being competitive a capella singing. I certainly enjoyed this one a lot more than Easy Virtue, because I’m a sucker for a cappella covers and underdog plots. However, I can’t say it’s objectively good. It has more story problems than I can fully explain here, but I’ll explain the worst one, in my view. The central obstacle of the plot didn’t make sense. The group of protagonists, the Bellas, were failing because they have been singing the exact same song the exact same way for years, and judges are bored with it.
First this created a suspension of disbelief problem. Anyone familiar with performing arts knows that performing the same thing over and over again is boring. If the Bellas had a whole show, fine, I could buy them doing that for several years because at least the different acts within the show would provide some variety, but the same two minute song at every competition for year after year? When audiences have clearly lost interest? Every time someone brought this problem up, it jerked me out of the story. Unfortunately, being the central conflict, it came up a lot.
Second, it didn’t feel natural to the characters. The leader of the Bellas wanted to win, she wasn’t winning, and everyone knew the reason her group was struggling was because they kept boring the judges. So why didn’t she change the act? She was not characterized as stupid. In other scenes, she sang and enjoyed other songs. She was controlling, but a controlling director who knew there was a problem would still try to fix the problem. The writers tried giving her the trait of randomly projectile vomiting because of her “anxiety,” so perhaps their justification was that she was too anxious to leave her comfort zone and try a new song. That just made the problem worse, because in no other scenes did she seem like someone with a real anxiety problem. Those bouts of nausea looked nothing like a real nervous meltdown. They looked like an actress spitting out something the special effects team gave her. I didn’t connect with her, an important main character, because she wasn’t written like a real person.
You could ask, why does all this matter? Pitch Perfect still did well, so why did it need a better conflict? Well, maybe it didn’t. Maybe the writers were just having fun with a premise and weren’t looking to create something profound and lasting. If that’s all they were doing, there really isn’t anything wrong with that. However, most of us as artists don’t aspire to that. Most of us want to create something that is good as well as popular, and many of us would rather be poor but making works we care about than rich hacks. If our stories are objectively crafted, but disliked because the subject matter is currently out of fashion, most of us can live with that. We all want to be Shakespeare, both popular and classic, but if that’s not on the table, if that’s off the table, most of us would rather be Poe, brilliant but unrecognized in his time, than someone who writes ephemerally popular drivel.
Which leads to a problem, because we would rather believe that others dislike our work for subjective, rather than objective reasons, it can be very hard to overcome that bias in ourselves. It’s very easy to convince yourself that your Mary Sue is perfect and anyone who dislikes her just doesn’t understand. Furthermore, critics and audiences often don’t give their criticisms in forms that are easily deciphered. When some smart-assed reviewer calls your work a beige calf sacrificed on the altar of blandness, is that because your work was actually boring, or because they wanted to read an action thriller instead of the suspense novel you wrote?
I think there are two things writers can do to help figure out the difference. First, there is the practice of asking yourself whether you disliked a particular story for objective or subjective reasons, and trying to be really honest with your answers. This can train you to recognize whether someone else is saying, “I didn’t like that plot twist,” or “there was a big logical flaw in that plot twist.” Second, there are the alpha readers, the ones who read the work before you publish it or even send it to a publisher, who can tell you how the story works from another person’s perspective. Choose readers who are very intelligent and frank, but who also happen to like the sort of stories you want to write. Then, take their criticism to heart, because they know what they are saying.
Now, I think the distinction between subjective and objective is a spectrum, rather than a dichotomy with clear dividing lines. Writing is a complex skill, and many aspects of storytelling come into conflict for each other. If a writer sacrifices a good plot twist for a moment more authentic to a particular character, is that better or worse? What about someone who writes something experimental and new, but because it’s untested it alienates some audience members? If a writer has beautiful prose but relies heavily on simple, archetypal plots, is that better than having acceptable but unexciting prose and complex, twisting, multifaceted plots? All those could be considered objective elements, because they are related to key elements of storytelling that transcend genre, but whether these tradeoffs are ultimately worthwhile is an entirely subjective question.
But that’s a topic for the next post.