Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Remember that deep POV isn’t a new kind of point of view; it’s a way of pairing third-person POV with a close narrative distance. It’s a way of creating the intimacy of first-person narration with a third-person point of view. Narrative distance is the perception of the reader—how close am I to major characters and story events? But narrative distance is a direct result of your choices.
We can use a combination of word choices to draw readers closer to characters and actions, or we can use word choices to hold readers at a distance. The effect is the difference between readers feeling as if they’re part of the story’s events—or at least standing close to events and characters as action is unleashed—and readers feeling far from the action, as though they aren’t permitted to get a closer look.
The difference? Readers feeling like participants with a stake in story outcomes with stories and scenes featuring close narrative distance or readers feeling like observers with little investment in characters and their travails when the story or scene has a wide narrative distance.
Remember, however, that narrative distance is not limited to two options—extremely close and extremely distant. Readers can enjoy fiction from a variety of distances from the action. Since we’re looking at deep POV, this article focuses on close narrative distance. Yet you will find a few tips for other distances as well.
Tips and Techniques for Creating, Using, and Adjusting Deep POV
• Filter Words. Filter words can sound like the report of an outsider, and many times, especially with deep POV, they’re unnecessary. Filter words include see, hear, notice, feel, knew, noted, and so forth.
If we’re always seeing story events through Paolo’s eyes and experiences, there’s no need to report that Paolo saw a bird’s nest fall out of the large maple. If you wrote a bird’s nest fell out of the large maple, we would know that Paolo saw it. We wouldn’t need the additional words (identifying words) delivered as a report; we could instead experience the action as it happens, with the accent on the action itself and not on the identity of the one experiencing it. In this way we skip unnecessary filler and stay focused on the meat of the story.
One great benefit of using deep third or first-person POV is that you can skip all those unnecessary uses of I or the character’s name. You can reduce the number of references to the character and keep readers involved in story events instead.
Think of how this works in your own life. You don’t go around thinking I heard him cuss out his mother or I noticed that new tattoo peeking out from his shirtsleeve. You’re more likely to think—he just cussed out his mom and cool tattoo. You don’t think I heard or I noticed, you just go through the experience. You are the I, so that element is already included.
In the same way, the reader in a close POV doesn’t need the report, just the experience. If you want readers to experience story events as a character does, treat the reader as if he’s experiencing events as they happen, not as though he needs a report given by someone else. Reduce instances of stark telling.
He heard the cry of a newborn becomes a newborn’s cry shattered the holy hush of the sanctuary.
He smelled the overly sweet odor of lilies becomes the overly sweet odor of lilies took him straight back to his mother’s funeral.
There are exceptions to this advice about filter words. For example, if a character can hear again after not being able to hear, use the filter to relay necessary information.
Frankie tapped his ear. He immediately heard Katy’s whispered words.
• Thought Tags. For reasons similar to those regarding filter words, thought tags are unnecessary in deep POV. Since we know who’s thinking, there’s no need to report he thought or she wondered. Those words are telling. They are a report, not an experience. Just let the thought (or self-talk) blend with the narration.
The cars raced backwards before spinning around and smashing into the wall. Foolish kids. They never listened to him.
There’s no need to add he thought after foolish kids or they never listened to him.
Thought tags may have readers hearing or imagining a narrator telling a story. If you want to avoid that, to have readers imagining themselves inside story events, no one speaking in their ears, do away with thought tags.
To create more narrative distance, however, add thought tags.
Time was, he thought, when he wouldn’t have given the man a second look.
Just a month earlier he wouldn’t have given the man a second look.
• Explanations. Characters in deep POV don’t need to explain in their thoughts. Why would they? They’re not talking to someone, they’re living their lives. They don’t need to explain in their own heads.
When you use a character’s thoughts to baldly explain—why a character does something or how a piece of technology works—you’ve stepped out of deep POV and are giving information from a narrator’s perspective. Or worse, from your own perspective.
An omniscient narrator might explain technology, but a character has no purpose for explanations in his own thoughts except to convey information to the reader. And readers very quickly see through such techniques.
It makes no logical sense for characters in deep POV to explain to themselves what they already know. Exceptions if a character is trying to remember or memorize information or is maybe running through the order of a series of steps, trying to get that order correct.
Even simple explanations can be omitted. When we read something such as Imelda threw up from the pain, we are no longer inside Imelda’s head. Imelda doesn’t need to report that pain is the reason she threw up—she knows why. Plus, she’s not explaining to herself, as if keeping herself up to date. She doesn’t have to do that. That’s the kind of detail an outsider notices and reports. Or that’s what a writer reports when he forgets he’s using deep POV.
The first-person narrator might say I threw up from the pain, but typically that character would slant the telling to make a point. My leg hurt so hard, I threw up. First-person narrators are often aware—or seemingly aware—of an audience. Of the reader. They often open a story by telling us why they’re telling their stories; sometimes they act as though they’re writing for posterity or to warn the next generation.
Not all first-person narrators act as though they’re aware of an audience, but at the heart of the first-person POV, we know that the narrator is speaking to someone. After all, most of us don’t go around narrating the events of our lives just to hear ourselves talk. The character who does, whether we admit it or not, is talking to someone.
The first-person narrator used to speak directly to readers in stories written over a hundred years ago, but that device isn’t nearly as common today. Still, you may find narrators addressing “you” or asking questions of someone. Unless we assume that the narrator is talking to himself all the time, we make allowances for these narrative devices or we assume the narrator is aware that at some point, someone will be reading his words.
But in deep POV? Cut out explanations. One major purpose of deep POV is to draw the reader into the story to experience it without interruptions from a narrator. Explanations are interruptions. After all, you don’t hear a narrator or voiceover artist narrating the events of your life, do you?
Let’s consider a few examples of unneeded explanations in deep POV and ways to put the information to work another way.
Tara’s family had built the house uphill, away from the stink of the paper mill. The house was high enough to catch the breezes off the bay instead.
Lillibet twined the thread tightly. The bundle would loosen otherwise, and she’d lose her rare mushrooms as she hiked.
Tara and Lillibet don’t need to think such thoughts to themselves. They know this information. So rather than state it baldly, use the same information to reveal something else.
Tara, shivering and sweaty at the same time, had never been more grateful that Grandpa Pat had built the house far from the stink of the mill. She curled up in her dark room, windows open to catch the bay breeze, and prepared to wait off the migraine.
Lillibet twined the thread tightly and tossed the bundle from hand to hand. No mushrooms escaped.
To go deep and close, reduce explanations in thoughts. To create narrative distance, use explanations. Yet don’t overdo explanations in thoughts even in distant POVs. Explain via showing and through dialogue, not only through thoughts. And use wording that lets the reader conclude why a character does something rather than always telling him why.
You will include certain kinds of explanations, of course. When one character asks another why he did something, you’ll let him explain. But you can use those kinds of explanations to deepen conflict and raise the emotional levels of characters and readers. The kind of explanation you want to avoid is the kind that tells a reason for something when the reason should be made obvious from what’s happening and the characters’ reactions to the event.
• Teaching Characters. Closely related to unnecessary explanations are unnecessary moments of self-education by characters. Characters don’t have to teach themselves what they already know, so when you’re using deep POV, a character doesn’t have to give himself a lesson.
Linus worked steadily to add the right amount of flour. If he didn’t measure just right, the bread wouldn’t rise.
Linus worked steadily to add the right amount of flour. After the last time and all the flak from his guests, he’d never measure wrong again.
In deep POV, a character also doesn’t need to teach himself details about the setting—why a monument had been set up or why Main Street circled a fountain. He also doesn’t need to remind himself why he’s doing what he’s doing. A little twist or a touch of rewriting allows the character to relay the necessary information to the reader without sounding like a teacher or reporter.
James had to see the company president because only she could approve the purchase of that many computers.
James hurried to Lainie’s office for her signature on the purchase order. What a pain in the ass, running to her for approval for every little purchase.
• Facial Expressions. In deep POV, a character can’t step outside himself and report that his cheeks flushed a bright red. A character can report how his face feels, but not what it looks like. Every so often I’ll find a self-reference with information a character couldn’t know in a manuscript that otherwise handles deep POV deftly. Usually the reference is to a facial expression or the way the character looks against a backdrop. But while we can arrange ourselves, hoping to create a certain effect—even mention that that’s exactly what we’re doing— we can’t see ourselves and declare what we look like in our pose.
When referring to themselves, characters should only report what they feel or experience from inside their bodies and behind their eyes. In deep POV, show experiences from the inside out—her face got hot—rather than from the outside—her face went white.
• Limited Knowledge. As with many POVs, deep POV can’t report what the character doesn’t or can’t know. Characters can make guesses, of course. But be sure not to imbue your characters with the ability to know everything. Exceptions for paranormal beings.
• Word Choices. Word choices in thought and narrative should reflect the viewpoint character’s experiences, knowledge, passions, education, motivations, and emotion levels.
Words that don’t sound like a character, especially in first person or deep POV, can nag at the reader, serving to draw her out of the story. But you don’t want to do anything to destroy the fictional aura you work so hard to create.
When words used in the narrative itself (and not only in dialogue and thoughts) sound like the viewpoint character’s opinion, the narrative distance is a close one.
An omniscient narrator can use neutral words, but in stories with a close narrative distance, words should reflect the character and the events the character is going through. To create and maintain a wider narrative distance in third-person stories, you can use neutral or less evocative words for the narrative and leave more emotionally charged words for thoughts and dialogue.
Remember that narrative distance isn’t only a matter of very near and very far; story elements can be tweaked to reflect any point along a range. But if you’re using deep POV, your word choices should reflect that. Readers should hear your character’s thoughts in words he would use. Neutral words or words that sound like they come from a PhD candidate in literature create more distance and don’t fit a deep POV.
• Hidden Thoughts. Hiding a character’s thoughts becomes difficult with deep POV. If we’re inside a character’s head and he doesn’t know we’re there, would he hide his thoughts? Not likely.
Yet a character can fool himself, he can misremember, he can try to make himself more or less than he is. So a character doesn’t have to be scrupulously honest, even in his own head. However, hiding thoughts purposely is a way of cheating the reader. If you’ve chosen deep POV, you need to deal with the positives as well as the negatives, the pros and the cons. And the ability to hide thoughts is not a natural part of deep POV.
So what can you do? Rather than outright lie to readers by having a character ignore or not think about something he should think about, write around the issue.
When a character gets too close to thinking about information you’re not ready to divulge, interrupt that character’s thoughts with a phone call or a ringing doorbell or with some event to distract him. If another character asks a question that you don’t want the viewpoint character to dwell on, have him answer it in an incomplete way or with humor or with anger. Allow that interaction to naturally move the conversation away from the unmentionable topic.
Deflect or misdirect. Tease at the topic in thoughts and then redirect away from the thought. Or don’t try to hide the topic from a character’s thoughts at all. Play it up in a character’s thoughts and then let it play out later in dialogue and action.
Hiding thoughts in deep POV takes a lot of finessing if you don’t want readers accusing you of playing false. If you can come up with a legitimate and believable means of hiding key thoughts, that’s great. Otherwise, you may not want to try to hide anything important in thoughts in deep POV.
• Character Questions. We’ve all read stories in which characters ask questions in their thoughts—have you ever wondered who those characters were talking to?
Why would he do something like that? She’s a head case, isn’t she? He couldn’t imagine she’d agree to such a thing, right?
Thought or internal questions in deep POV can come across as a character talking to the reader, as a character who’s more than a bit odd, or as a cheating way of filling the reader in.
A very few characters might ask questions, but how likely is it that every character would do so? Do you ask yourself fully formed questions in your thoughts? Do you sit around thinking questions?
I’m guessing that most of us don’t ask too many questions other than things such as why the hell did he do that or similar sentiments. But even with questions such as these, we often mutter them under our breath rather than only think them.
Many writers do put questions into the thoughts of their characters, but I’m going to suggest that you cut back on such a practice in deep POV since there’s no one in the character’s mind to be asked the question.
Explore other ways of addressing an issue. Have the character use the sanctity of his thoughts to curse the other person for his actions rather than pose a question. Have the character whisper the question. Have the character shout the question to another character.
Characters can talk to themselves, even ask questions of themselves. But keep the questioning natural, the act of a real person. Don’t stretch the technique so much that the character sounds unnatural.
Too many internal questions can get annoying. They can come across as artifice when you’re trying to create reality. They can have readers wondering who the character is talking to, wondering if the character knows the reader is there.
They can stop story momentum cold.
But there’s no prohibition against internal questions; ask a few questions throughout a story if your character is given to that kind of thing. But resist stopping the forward motion of the story every few pages to allow the character to draft a series of questions. Reduce the number of questions if they’re likely to cause readers to think of story mechanics rather than plot events.
• The Fourth Wall. The fourth wall refers to the fourth side of a stage, the invisible one that exists between audience and characters.
An indoor stage typically has a back wall and wings (and then walls) to the left and right that encase the space. There is no physical barrier, at least not one that hides actors from the audience, between the audience and the stage once the curtain is up. So when the curtain is lifted or opened, the audience can see and hear everything that transpires onstage.
However, the players act as if there is a wall between audience and characters—the characters pretend that they can’t see the audience and can’t interact with it.
When the characters do speak to audience members or interact with them, they’ve broken the fourth wall.
In most contemporary fiction, characters don’t speak to readers. They don’t acknowledge that they’re even there. And this is likely a practice you’ll want to adhere to. If you want readers lost in the events of the story, lost in the fictional world, you don’t want to do anything that reminds them they’re only reading fiction. Once characters acknowledge readers, readers become aware of the structure and underpinnings of the story. They’re paradoxically once again the audience and not a participant. Yes, it’s odd how that works, but it’s true. The reader sees more than the events of the story, he sees the framework and the individual pieces. And lost is that fictional dream state.
Some fiction takes advantage of this quirk of storytelling to good effect (see metafiction for examples), so I’m not saying that you can’t break through the fourth wall and do it spectacularly well. But you don’t want to accidentally speak to readers. You don’t want to accidentally destroy the fictional dream for the reader. You don’t want to accidentally point outside the fictional world and back toward the real world where characters are only creations of a writer and events are only imagined.
You don’t want to remind readers that the events they’re reading about are wholly fictional.
Addressing the reader in a story told in deep POV would be very shocking. Not shocking that you’re doing it, but shocking to the reader. We use deep POV to draw readers inside the story, inside the character if possible. Yet as soon as a character starts talking to the reader, you destroy the close narrative distance because the reader is catapulted outside the story where he again becomes a spectator. When a character is aware of readers and speaks to them, the character is no longer living his story and therefore readers can no longer live it either.
Even when a character doesn’t seem to be talking to readers, something like the use of the seemingly innocuous you can cause problems in deep third POV. Who is the character speaking to when he says things such as you know how it is and you simply count the rings to come up with your answer?
The use of you can make a reader feel as though he’s being addressed by a character. This can lead to the reader being pulled out of the fictional bubble.
I hope this two-part series was a useful exploration of deep POV. Deep POV is used often in contemporary fiction, used to give readers an experience not possible in most other forms of entertainment. Knowledge about the benefits and drawbacks of deep POV can help writers create story worlds, characters, and events capable of capturing readers and holding them inside the fiction without reminding them of the real world.
If you choose to write in deep POV, look for ways to deepen the experience for readers. Remove from your stories elements that would remind readers that they’re not really living the experience.
As with any rules, suggestions, and options in the writing world, recognize that there are exceptions and allowances. Learn as much as you can about writing concepts (including deep POV), about when and how to use them, and then learn how to finesse them so you can make adjustments when necessary. Learn about the pluses as well as the limitations of deep POV. Try deep POV to see how it works with your plots and characters. And put it to good use, one more tool to help you craft believable and riveting fiction.