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Questions About Deep POV

August 23, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified August 23, 2016

In the comment section of a recent article on deep POV, a blog reader addressed a few specifics concerning deep POV that other writers may also be wondering about. We’ll look at those issues in this article.

I’ve edited the reader’s questions for clarity and/or length.

Question

I want to write my first story in deep POV, but there are a couple things I’m still unsure about. First, are there times when I shouldn’t use metaphors or comparisons? My understanding is that in deep POV there basically isn’t an author on the page. Everything that I write basically comes from the mind of my protagonist, right? So, I would only use metaphors/comparisons that they would also come up with. But here’s the thing – when I describe something with a metaphor/comparison is it implied that, in that moment, my protagonist is actually thinking of that metaphor/comparison? I personally almost never think like that when I see something. I just see it and don’t come up with things that I could compare it with. And I think much less would my 12-year-old protagonist come up with such things. So my question is, can I intrude as author and include metaphors/comparisons in the viewpoint of a 12-year-old while still staying in deep POV? As I said, to minimize potential damage it would only be things that a 12-year-old could theoretically think of.

 

Answer

If you want to truly remain in deep POV, no, you can’t intrude into the story. You, the creative author, can’t insert similes and metaphors from your viewpoint into the thoughts of your characters.

If your characters wouldn’t think it—and not too many of us are that quick with the creative comparisons at the spur of the moment—the character can’t think it. Not in deep POV.

This is the same as trying to insert yourself into the thoughts of a first-person narrator. If the first-person narrator doesn’t wax poetic and couldn’t/wouldn’t think of similes or a metaphors, you can’t put them into his head.

Deep POV uses the same close narrative distance for third person that’s common in first person. If you want to stay true to deep POV and not leave it, all thoughts and spoken words of your viewpoint character must fit the character.

That said, there are allowances for moving along the continuum of narrative distance. And yet, for the fewest disruptions to the reader’s experience, you’d ideally move along the continuum in small steps only. You wouldn’t want to jump several levels in one shot.

Moving from deep POV (or from first person) to an omniscient narrator who inserts similes that reflect his own personality (or the writer’s) is a major jump, one I suggest you avoid. After all, we choose first person and deep third for a purpose, for the close narrative distance that we can’t get in any other POVs. Why interrupt what we’ve purposely created with an appreciable change in POV or narrative distance?

It’s easy to introduce a section from the omniscient to POVs that already have some narrative distance. When the distance is close, however, a switch to omniscient is jarring.

As you wouldn’t switch to omniscient with first-person narration, you also shouldn’t do it with deep third.

Still, there is no absolute rule here. A writer can always try anything. But don’t forget your readers and their experience. You should strive to make all the story elements work together to first create and then maintain the integrity of the fictional world. You don’t want to jeopardize the reader’s experience of the adventure. Giving a character thoughts or poetic phrases not his own don’t add to story cohesion, they threaten it. They introduce cracks into your solid foundation.

In deep third and first, readers expect thoughts and words to belong to the viewpoint character.

 

Question

Okay, so if the answer is yes, as I think it is (otherwise the story would be rather dry), now take as an example an intense scene that’s life or death for my protagonist, where there is something I could describe using a metaphor/comparison. That would be a situation where he would be even less likely to think of one. When he faces a murderer trying to kill him, he wouldn’t think of the murderers’ eyes as dark holes or whatever. But without stuff like that, by just describing objects and people in a more realistic way, it would be less interesting and exciting, right? So am I allowed to exit deep POV for a moment or two to keep things more interesting?

Answer

We saw that first answer, given the original question and the explanation I laid out, is actually no. This next section deals with the second part of that same question, how to make a scene fascinating and gripping when your responses (and therefore your character’s) are restricted in some way. (In the reader’s example the restriction comes from the ongoing action. The character wouldn’t have the time to come up with creative similes or lyrical descriptions if a murderer was about to kill him.)

This is where some of the hard work of writing comes in, in making a scene and/or a character compelling given the limitations your other choices have imposed.

When you choose a point of view, you restrict yourself to the limitations of that point of view. You are bound by its strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, you’ve cut yourself off from the strengths and weaknesses of the other POVs.

When we choose a POV, we’re deliberately choosing all that comes with it and not choosing the possibilities inherent in other POVs. This is why writers shouldn’t choose a POV willy-nilly simply because they’ve seen it in a book they liked. That may be a place to begin with when investigating POV for a new story, but writers should know what’s involved in each option and the limitations of each in order to make an informed decision before they begin to write.

This may mean a bit of study on POV, especially on what can’t be done with each POV. It’s much easier to plan a story when you know what the possibilities and restrictions are before you begin.

So whether we’re talking the improbability of a character in a life-or-death struggle being in the position to devise creative similes or we’re trying to convey the thoughts of someone other than the viewpoint character, we need to know what our chosen POV allows for. We either need to accept the limitations of the chosen POV, or we need to choose one that better fits the needs of a particular story.

The answer here, then, is also no. We don’t step out of deep third momentarily just to be able to write more creatively. Deep POV reflects the character no matter what’s happening around him or her. As a matter of fact, deep POV’s strength is doing exactly that—reflecting the viewpoint character’s thoughts, emotions, and plans, revealing the inner man or woman—at the same time the current story events and revelations influence those thoughts, emotions, and plans.

 

Question

My second question concerning deep POV: Since stuff like he/she wondered, did not know, thought about, etc. is telling rather than showing, should I always replace those phrases with their respective questions? For example, he wasn’t sure if he should shake her hand would become should he shake her hand? Or are there places for each option even in deep POV?

Answer

Once again, the answer won’t be something like “you should always do it this way.”

Both telling and showing are necessary for fiction, so you won’t want to eliminate either. Still, I understand that you don’t want your story to sound as if someone’s reporting all the events. In deep POV, you want readers to feel as if they’re part of the action at the side of (or even from within) the viewpoint character.

The way you present your information and the way you craft your sentences will often depend on a wide variety of factors, including the wording in the previous sentence and what you intend to include in the following one.

Say that you wanted to have a character do and think something like the following—

Refusing to call her one more time, he paced from living room to garage and then back again. When a siren wailed in the distance, he wondered if he should call once more.

That works in many stories, but we do get the “he wondered” part, which we usually omit as unnecessary in deep POV. So another option, as you pointed out, is asking the question directly.

Refusing to call her one more time, he paced from living room to garage and then back again. A siren wailed in the distance. Damn, should he call once more?

Like the original, this last sentence can also work in many circumstances, and yet the format of the question is still a bit distancing for deep POV. Not completely distancing—and you could use this in deep POV—but the distance is there. Or it might just be a distancing setup, depending on the wording around it and other choices you’ve made in the same section of text.

So how about showing the character doing the wondering? Rather than say that’s what he’s doing, show what wondering looks like in action.

Refusing to call her one more time, he paced from living room to garage and then back again. When a siren wailed in the distance, he started dialing. [He’s not wondering at all here, but we have some insight into his thoughts.]

Refusing to call her one more time, he paced from living room to garage and then back again. When a siren wailed in the distance, he reached for his phone, punched in a couple of numbers, but threw the phone at the couch before dialing. [This gives the reader some sense of his ambivalence.]

Refusing to call her one more time, he paced from living room to garage and then back again. When a siren wailed in the distance, he stopped pacing, stopped moving, one hand outstretched toward the phone on the coffee table. [Without him asking a question, the reader can see that this guy isn’t sure whether he should call or not. And depending on what has come before, readers should be able to read the character’s emotions clearly.]

So you can change the wondering from a thought—from a line of text—to an action.

Or phrases like she thought or she wondered can simply be cut from deep POV. Just let the thought, even for a question, run right into the rest of the text.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. Would he worry? she wondered. She pulled her carry-on higher on her shoulder and hurried down the jetway.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. Would he worry? She pulled her carry-on higher on her shoulder and hurried down the jetway.

A great technique for keeping the emotion and tension strong is to have characters make an assertion rather than voice a question, even if they’re unsure of something. After all, a character’s assertion doesn’t have to be right. Sometimes the character is wrong because of a lack of knowledge. Yet other times a character may be trying to convince herself that what she’s asserting is true.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. He’d worry, but he’d worry if she called or didn’t call.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. He’d worry, but he’d pretend not to.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. She hoped he’d worry. It would serve him right.

She was the last to board, and now it was too late to call Randall. But he wouldn’t worry. He never worried about her.

Notice how including an assertion rather than a common question can raise the emotion and tension levels. Each of these examples can be played up and lead to other thoughts until the woman boarding the plane has stirred herself up. Randall doesn’t even have to be near; the tension and conflict are increased simply because a character is thinking thoughts guaranteed to influence those elements.

If a character is honestly wondering, however, feel free to show him asking a question; don’t let me discourage you from that option. Yet don’t include so many questions that readers wonder who the character is talking to—we don’t constantly bombard our minds with questions.

We might mutter some of our questions out loud (especially when our emotions are running hot), and we might restrict a few questions to our thoughts, but you don’t want to turn your characters into questioning robots who ponder or dither incessantly. As hedge words can leach the power from a sentence and a scene, so too can unending questions that leave a character sounding uncertain and without opinions about every issue. Make characters commit, even in their thoughts.

 

Question

And another question: I’m always uncertain how I should state my protagonists’ thoughts. An example: She looked around. She was lost. Or should it be: She looked around. I’m lost.

I can’t decide. Should I choose one way and stick to it throughout my whole story, or are there times where one is better than the other? If so, when do I use one rather than the other?

Answer

The answer to this one is based on a practice that’s in a bit of flux.

In most third-person narration, including deep third, we’d say—

She looked around. She was lost.
or
She looked around, lost.

We could use the same wording for the omniscient as well.

Yet with the switch to deep third and with so many stories told in first person, some writers are using I for the thoughts of their third-person narrators in an attempt to draw readers even closer to the character’s thoughts. This has been an accepted option for quite a while when those thoughts are italicized, whether or not a thought tag accompanies the thought.

She looked around. I’m lost.

She looked around. I’m lost, she thought.

More recently, the italics were dropped as long as the thought tag was included.

She looked around. I’m lost, she thought.

But even more recently, some writers have started dropping both the italics and the thought tag.

She looked around. I’m lost.

I admit that I’m not sure about this last option. It can work and obviously does for some writers in some genres. And yet, as an editor, I feel for the reader who has to jump from he or she in narration and into I in thoughts (and typically only some thoughts) without some kind of visual or tag as an aid.

For new writers, I suggest going with italics for thoughts when the narration uses he or she and the thoughts use I. For deep POV, skip the thought tag.

But you don’t have to switch to I in a character’s thoughts to maintain that close narrative distance of deep-third POV. The switch from he to I is noticeable and serves to make readers aware of the story’s mechanics. Yes, readers do get used to pretty much anything you throw at them if you do it consistently and you introduce the pattern early in the story. Yet if you want readers lost in the events and in the characters’ lives, you shouldn’t work against that goal in your choice of structure or style options. Make your story elements work together rather than in opposition. Opposition requires additional techniques to overcome the new challenges and problems it creates.

As for consistency, it’s typically the first and best option. If you relay thoughts one way in chapter 1, do it the same way in chapters 10 and 25 and through the end of the story. Single exceptions for clarity or effect are allowed, yet always keep the reader in mind. Make sure that an effect doesn’t introduce new problems that you leave uncorrected.

 

Question

In a similar vein to the metaphor question, what about body reactions that a character isn’t necessarily aware of (but technically could be)? For example, angrily clenching a fist or sweat breaking out  or eyes widening? Are those legit phrases to mention in deep POV?

Answer

This one is straightforward. In deep POV, as in first person, if the viewpoint character isn’t aware of something, she can’t react to it. She can’t mention it, and she can’t mention that she doesn’t notice it.

Stella didn’t see the man who fell into step behind her. [This is a no-no in deep POV. If she doesn’t know he’s there, her POV can’t address him at all. This is the report of a narrator, not viewpoint character Stella.]

Stella didn’t see the man fall into step behind her. But she did smell his garlic and onion breath. [This, however, does work. Stella knows he’s there.]

Characters in deep POV can respond only to stimuli or information that they know about. (Exceptions for involuntary responses.) This is another reason to make sure the point of view you choose for your story can do everything you need it to.

In deep POV as well as first person, be sure that a character’s reactions originate from within the character. The viewpoint character can’t note his own red face (he can note warm cheeks, however). Characters don’t report details about themselves in the same way that an observer would. Characters are looking out from inside their own bodies, through their own eyes and feeling with their hearts. In deep POV, they are living what happens to them, not watching it. Choose words that reflect the character’s vantage point and experiences.

Also, keep in mind that you’re not locked into one POV and one viewpoint character only. No, I don’t mean that you can go in and out of deep POV when your protagonist is the viewpoint character. But you could use first person for one character and a typical third person POV for another character and switch viewpoint duties between chapters. You could use deep third for the viewpoint scenes of one character and a very distant third for the rest of the story. You could even use deep third (or first person) for two characters and switch viewpoint duties with each chapter or scene. With this last option, be sure readers know exactly whose head they’re in at the beginning of each new chapter and scene.

With any blend of POVs, recognize what you gain and what you lose when you switch between the different POV styles. You wouldn’t switch POV midscene (exceptions for purposely creating distance with omniscient when the other POV allows for such a switch), but you can certainly switch at scene breaks. Still, it’s likely that you may use the same POV even if you have alternating viewpoint characters. Hero and heroine in romances both get viewpoint scenes, and these days the scenes of both characters are virtually always told via deep-third POV.

 

Question

One more related question.

When writing from the POV of a 12-year-old, does that mean I have to write exactly as he would formulate the things I’m describing? I would have to write in a very simple style, using only words that my POV character would use in his daily speech. That would mean I can’t write stuff like “a sharp pain ran through Aaron’s nose” or “his mind raced” or “tears burned in his eyes” or “golden light was flooding the backyard” because no average 12-year-old would say stuff like that. (Hell, even I don’t talk like that. I say “my nose hurts,” “I have tears in my eyes,” etc. I don’t even know how I would tell someone that “my mind raced” in a non-awkwardly-formulated way).

But are those phrases in the vocabulary of a 12-year-old? So my question is: is it enough that the words I use are in the vocabulary of my 12 y/o POV character, or do I have to write like he would actually say it out loud? The latter would be quite restrictive, I think. If I use phrases that you wouldn’t necessarily use in daily speech but are still very common and easily understandable “like flooding light” etc., does that mean I’m not writing in deep POV anymore?

Answer

Deep POV purports to be the words and sensibilities of the viewpoint character, so the word choices, the rhythms, the sentence structure, the focus, and the concerns of the character need to reflect the character. If you don’t want to craft the story from the sensibilities and viewpoint of a 12-year-old, you probably don’t want to use deep third.

If you only want to convey your character’s thoughts at occasional moments, you don’t need deep third to do that. Use a more distancing third person and share the character’s thoughts when you need to.

However, if you’re writing for a preteen audience, you may want everything to be in your character’s words, with his style and his concerns behind those words. Writing in the style of a child or teen isn’t required just because the main character is a teen, but do consider your audience.

As with all POV options, you could do a little fudging with word choices here and there, but readers might notice. Is it worth the risk of them saying, “Jimmy wouldn’t say that” just to include a few creative phrases? First person and deep third are so much the reflection of the viewpoint character that it’s hard to get away with sneaking in thoughts the character wouldn’t have or words the character wouldn’t use. And why bother to try? There are other POVs that easily handle that setup.

___________________________

The right POV choice can be freeing, but it’s also limiting. And in deep POV, word choice is limited to the character’s knowledge and experience. In deep POV, a character can’t report what he doesn’t know and he can’t report what he does know in words he wouldn’t use.

Deep POV is a clear representation of the character, and word choices need to match the character as well as fit the circumstances. That’s both the power and the beauty of deep POV.

As is true with all writing advice, keep in mind that we’re usually talking best practices and what will work most of the time in most situations. Yet there are always exceptions, so writers are free to explore what might work in one story and for one set of characters that wouldn’t work in other stories or for other characters or even in other genres.

On the other hand, writers shouldn’t assume that their situations are always exceptions. We follow accepted practices because they help us create the kinds of stories readers like to read and they help us create those stories in a way that makes the story clear and entertaining. My suggestion for all writers is to learn not only what works, but the reasons why a particular practice works and why it typically doesn’t. Knowing the reasons why we don’t use a particular option under certain circumstances should help the writer choose the best option or help them adapt the second-best option.

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15 Responses to “Questions About Deep POV”

  1. Nick Nichols says:

    Excellent post. Don’t know why, but this is one aspect of writing that does not come easily to me. You make it much more understandable.
    Thanks.

    • Thank you, Nick. I’m glad you found this useful.

      I think that one of the reasons point of view is so hard to grasp is because we think it should be an easy topic since it’s so integral to fiction, but instead it’s rather more complex than meets the eye. And we always find some little line or section of text that doesn’t want to fit the POV we’ve chosen and then we’re stuck trying to make it work.

      A great way to start a new project might be to examine a list of what each POV can do and what each can’t do, a list with examples showing how to work out some of the trickier traits of each POV. Then when we’re stuck or at a loss once we’ve begun writing, we should check that list again.

      I wish you success at mastering the concept in your own writing.

  2. Mar says:

    Great post, Beth.

    I’ve noticed that most of the issues with POV that writers have is because they don’t trust that the reader will “get it” or because they fall in love with their own words

    I recently read Me Before You and nearly stopped reading it becaue the POV changes irritated me–the only reason I continued reading was because I saw the film and loved it. There are about 5 different POVs in that book, all in first person; the voices aren’t distinctive enough and the info imparted through their narrative is clumsily dumped adding nothing of value to the characterization or plot. Of course, Jojo Moyes can get away with things like that because she’s an established writer. But emerging writers, should be a bit more careful with how they handle POV.
    If a new writer wants to write in third person, deep POV, they should stick to what makes the POV third person deep. If this POV feels too restrictive, it might mean that this isn’t the right POV for the story, or that the writer needs to learn more about the POV. Reading many stories written in this POV can help understand it. I mean, a bit of a POV slip here and there isn’t a big deal. The problem is when it’s done in a clumsy and/or indulgent way.

  3. Nick says:

    Best source for such a list? Have you written one?

    Thanks,

    Nick

  4. Oskar says:

    Thank you Beth, for writing this post! You’re incredible.

    Well, I think deep POV isn’t the right choice for my story, after everything you mentioned. It has many positives but just as many restrictions. I’m not a skilled enough writer that I could write an interesting story from the viewpoint of a 12 year old in deep POV.

    So I have to find an alternative. I really want the POV to be as intimate as possible, the narrative distance as close to deep POV as possible (to be more clear, I still want to write on a level of intimacy that for instance allows me to omit phrases like “she wondered”). I’m a bit lost there though. What are some important things I have to know for that? I mean, I fear that it could end up becoming a mess between passages that you would find in deep POV, and sightly less deep passages. What are the exact differences even between deep POV and an intmate third limited POV?

    You also wrote about ‘changing the wondering from a thought—from a line of text—to an action’. This is great, really effective (though I’m a bit surprised that it makes the scene more intimate even though we’re not even in the head of the character at that moment). When is it best to apply this technique? I assume it’s ideal for intense scenes? If so, when things are more “relaxed” is it okay to just say things like “she was unsure if”, even in deep POV?

    When I’m most of the time integrating my protagonists thoughts into the narrative (ex.: “she was lost”), would it actually make important/emotional scenes more intense when I’d instead say “I’m lost.” (in italics), or would it catapult the reader out of the story?

    “Characters in deep POV can respond only to stimuli or information that they know about. (Exceptions for involuntary responses.)” –> That’s what I meant, what about involuntary reactions, such as sweat breaking out in a stressful situation. It’s something that a character can feel, so it’s not outside their POV, but maybe only notices subconsciously because of other influences in a scene. Is that what you mean by exceptions for involuntary responses, can I metion these kind of things?

    Again, thank you for your time, I have too many questions :/

  5. Very helpful post! I tend to struggle with putting thoughts and questions of my protagonist into action. The thing is that I actually tend to form questions in my head and exploring a lot in real life, so writing this down comes so natural to me – it’s what I would do. I have to get a clearer idea of how other people with different personalities would do it. Perhaps I will get inspiration via MBTI for this (I’m an INTJ myself).

  6. Nick says:

    Forgive this if it’s too basic of a question. But I just started to write a new story, and it struck me that I was uncertain how to start the story so that the reader understands that the deep POV is coming from the protagonist. E.g., April’s arms opened wide to embrace him.

    With deep POV, I shouldn’t use April’s name, should I?

    Thanks,

    Nick

  7. Steve Lowe says:

    As usual, Beth does a good job of exploring this problem, however the entire concept of ‘Deep POV’ is nothing but an annoyance to me. More and more, the fashion in publishing these days seems to be to aim for deeper & deeper POV – probably connected with the similar obsession for 1st person POV. Yet to me, both seem to be aimed at capturing the ‘1st person POV shoot-’em-up computer game-playing spotty teenager’ market (or similar kinds of readers). And while these writing-styles may allow a greater sense of ‘immediacy’ for the reader (for those who demand one), to me, they simply result in a rather frustratingly written story which – frankly – reads as simply being less grammatical, badly written and a ‘short-handed’ way of saying exactly the same thing if done properly instead. Sorry, but it’s true.

    But then, what I would prefer to see in every story is plain, good writing, before anything else. Which would probably necessitate each novel being written in 3rd person Omniscient (which is my own preferred writing-style). And there’s a very simple and logical reason for that, which is that it that allows the most information to be communicated by the writer to the reader; because there *is* no restriction on exploring the POV of any of the characters. Nothing is then ‘off-limits’, and the reader is not excluded from any part of the story. But not only is that the most ‘inclusive’ writing-style, it’s actually the simplest and most natural one to use, which all of us would probably be most comfortable using (if we’re honest about it).

    So it’s my enormous regret that modern publishing is heading in the other direction, promoting POVs that play ‘mind-games’ with both the characters & the readers, forcing both into restrictive corners of the story and not letting them out (and it seems to be inordinately proud of itself for doing so).

    I mean, there are many other ways of keeping the mystery in a story rather than by not allowing the reader to see beyond a single POV. You could try, instead, simply withholding vital clues to the identity of the killer, as Agatha Christie used to do in her Marple & Poirot novels. But then – as more than one editor has admitted to me (despite liking her novels, themselves) – Christie is one of those classic authors who would probably never get published, these days, precisely because of that style. Yet, to me, there’s really not that much difference. Because it can be just as annoying to some of us to be denied access to more than a single POV throughout the story as it can be to have vital clues in a mystery deliberately hidden until the moment when the ‘genius-detective’ unravels the knot for us on the very last page… Think about it :-)

    Steve

    • Peter says:

      I think it’s wrong to say that one is better than the other. It simply depends on personal taste. I adore the intimacy and relatability of close third person POV, which I’m very much missing in an omniscient POV (that I for one find rather annoying and unimmersive). Albeit I can understand that one would be frustrated by publishers refusing stories written in an omniscient POV for the sole reason of not being popular for the broad audiance.

      • Steve Lowe says:

        Well it’s nice to hear you say it’s wrong to say that one (writing style) is better than the other. However, isn’t that contradicted by your final sentence, where you imply that (in a totally hypothetical situation, of course) publishers are showing just that attitude by (theoretically) rejecting stories written in the traditional (though probably now sneered at as being ‘old-fashioned’) Omniscient POV? It’s all very well to claim that publishing is (or ought to be) a ‘broad-church’, with all writing-styles being welcome, but are you saying that Omniscient won’t being considered by modern publishers any more…

        And do we know for a fact (or is it just another of those notorious urban myths, like: ‘The Great Wall of China being visible from space’ – it’s not, btw) that 3rd person Omniscient POV is currently a less popular writing-style with prospective book readers than, say, Deep 3rd person… or even 1st person? Or is it just a case of those working as agents/publishers these days having decided that (having grown up playing ‘1st person shoot-’em-up computer games’, themselves, they are unilaterally deciding what the rest of us should read? After all, you get nowhere in getting your novel published these days unless an agent/publisher takes a ‘personal liking’ to your story, and decides to promote it for you, so it’s ultimately their literary taste which is the gate-keeper to publication, not necessarily that of the majority of potential book-readers out there.

        I make that point simply because there is so much ‘advice’ from the publishing establishment these days about how to write – and how not to write – yet much of it can be demonstrated to be entirely arbitrary, despotic and (ultimately) untrue. One example I pluck out of the ether is that of a proscription against beginning stories with dream-sequences or prologues (which is not something I ever do, personally, though I know some who do). This is a general ‘no-no’ in agenting circles, and will get you rejected arbitrarily. Yet would it surprise anyone to know that no recorded research or polling has ever been done about whether the ‘great unwashed’ reading public give a damn about dream-sequences or prologues or not, and that this entire ‘writing-rule’ has been invented by agents; not for any rational reason, other than it gives them yet another excuse to thin-out their slush pile a bit quicker?

        Perhaps it might be helpful to do some straw-polling, sometime, among book-readers (rather than industry insiders) about what kind of POV they would like to see modern novels use. The traditional Omniscient 3rd person (used from time-immemorial for telling stories and still common among the ‘classics’ which many of use were given to read at school/university) where any & all POVs are free to be explored, leaving no restriction on the information the author can give to the reader? Or the other kind, which (to me, at least) feels more like being locked in solitary confinement, within a single character, while you can imagine all the other ‘prisoners’ laughing and socializing freely in the exercise-yard outside, on a warm, sunny day in Spring. God! You can only guess everything you’re missing out on, all because you’re not being allowed to see the ‘big-picture’… Shawshank Redemption, anyone :-) But then, as always, the movie version is much more Omniscient in POV than the novel. Which you’d think would make Omniscient POV novels more popular these days among a movie-going audience, who are used to the lack of restriction of POV which movie adaptations allow…

        Steve

        • Steve, you make the exact points that I am making. I can tell you the following:
          1) The distinctions used to describe the different flavors of narrative voice are by no means consistent or universal even among published writers and professors of writing, or editors themselves; 2) being ill-defined and open to interpretation, the game of getting published can be like playing dice at that point; 3) the same writers and editors can’t even agree on the narrative point-of-view of stories like “A Christmas Carol,” “I Am Legend,” “The Hobbit,” or “Dune; 4) lastly, the stories they do point to, except for obviously very consistent novels like GRRM’s “Song of Fire and Ice,” are filled with point-of-view violations, which would land slashes through our manuscripts, and all anyone can say is “He’s a published writer.”

          In other words, these are simply industrial conventions and standards that the publishing community has latched onto at this particular locus in time. In order to increase your odds of a sale, you have to conform to the trends, even if they seem contradictory.

          I also know, in speaking to my writing friends, that they rarely if ever have the same reaction to aesthetic choices that how-to-write books warn us about. These books on writing suggest that if you use a particular technique, it will result in a singular and universal effect in your readers. But this is not true. There has not been a statistical survey sophisticated enough or large enough to see how and why people lose interest in a novel in response to prose. And yet, because there is no definitive statistical analysis on the subject, people feel free in the publishing industry to perpetuate a set of codified rules that seems to hint at some secret formula for success.

          But there is no formula. You can’t boil Harry Potter’s success down to any one thing, and so what is the publishing industry forced to do? Find something that looks a lot like Harry Potter. This means, the work of another novelist that is structured the same way, told the same way, concerning similar subject matter and more…

          The last and final point I will agree with you on is the analogy between cinema and writing. As someone who has studied cinema and worked in the film industry, and has a thorough understanding of linguistics, I have analyzed the ways in which cinema is very much like and yet very different from human language; and it’s obvious to me in my thirty years of experience that the audience is far more sophisticated, even on a subconscious level, about cinematic grammar.

          For instance, jump cuts used to be very controversial techniques. At a time when it was believed the director should remain hidden behind the camera, a jump cut, such as that used in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” was considered very avant garde, and in some cases jarring.

          So much so, that when I was editing film and video in the 80’s and 90’s, and I emulated the work of Sam Peckinpah and Sergei Eisenstein, the people who saw my work always commented on how the jump cuts seemed to interrupt the action and create “distance.” I would always counter by showing them movies they had never seen and saying, well, if that’s true, why does this work? “Why did Hitchcock’s shower scene work?” It’s because jump cuts work when they are properly understood and placed in a context that makes sense.

          So now flash-forward 25 years, and you can’t watch a single show on TV without seeing jump cuts. They’ve become passe. In fact, they don’t create distance with the audience (and I am not really sure they ever did… there were different schools of thought, and there were people as early as the 1920s who were using jumps); they actually help engage audience attention as jumps are necessary for montage, to create cinematic passages that speed up narratives or mundane action, and or unify motifs through associative editing.

          So… as someone who has also worked as an illustrator as well, I am very familiar with directional lighting, point-of-view, the horizon line, the angle of the camera in relation to the scene, as well as the distance of the view from the action; all of these choices help to create stories out of images. If I draw a street scene where the horizon is two and half feet from the ground plane, and the it just happens to run through the eyes of a four-year-old in the mid-ground while everyone else in the foreground and background are at least five feet tall, you can bet that the story is going to be about the four-year-old.

          Likewise, these exact same considerations are at play in literature. In fact, every cinematic and illustrative technique has its analogue in literature (whether you agree with it or not, it’s true). Partly because cinema also developed its own associative language by practitioners who studied… yes, literature!

          If that’s the case, I think it’s very safe to say that an author can use whatever technique he wishes, breaking all the conventional rules that must be fulfilled to be published, and still write a brilliant story that will transcend time. The question is not really if it will work with the general public. The question is if the gatekeepers have enough savvy to see outside their own prejudices to give something that new and revolutionary a chance.

          This is the same risk producers took when “Psycho” was made (and Hitchcock had to bankroll some of the movie himself). It’s the same risk Lawrence Bender took when he helped produce “Reservoir Dogs”–a script that couldn’t get traditional funding because–why? Because it broke the rules, and as Tarantino himself has said “My work always did well with producers, when it got to them. It just could never get to a producer because they broke all the rules that the READERS had in their heads. My work could never get past a reader.”

          In short, I think cinema has already conditioned people to think in narrative terms that currently lie outside of the publishing world’s current strictures. I just hope some of these editors and publishers are realizing the same thing.

          • Steve Lowe says:

            Gabriel, we are in complete accordance once again. Where have you been all my (writing) life? :-)

            As you say, whenever any of us point-out to editors/agents that the modern writing-rules, which the rest of us are being brow-beaten with, are completely ignored by the most successful authors in the world today, all any of them can say is: “They’re published authors, and so they can write however the hell they like !” And if there’s one thing that makes me angry, it’s hypocrisy. According to the American constitution, all citizens are supposed to be created equal, and are equal under the law (which goes all the way back to Magna Carta). And I resent any of us being told that different rules apply to debut authors than to established, best-selling novelists. Not only is it patently unfair, but it makes no commercial sense for the publishing industry *not* to want any of the rest of us to emulate the most commercially successful authors in the world today.

            I love Lawrence of Arabia, and I think I know the ‘jump-cut’ you refer to: The one between Lawrence blowing out the match in Dryden’s office in Cairo and the sun coming up in the Arabian desert. David Lean was also revolutionary in using that long-approach shot where Omar Sharif appears through the haze out of the desert at the Harith water-hole, as if a mirage. Lawrence is a personal hero of mine, among others, since he tried finding a lasting settlement to what became the current problem between Arab & Jew. And of course, it was the betrayal of both Lawrence and the Arabs by the British & French Empires (because they wanted to appropriate all the Arabian oil-fields) that led to the creation of an artificial country called Iraq…

            I’d also suggest that Hitchcock’s shower-scene works because he was breaking the mold of movie structure and demonstrating to the movie audience that they should never assume that the putative hero/heroine *necessarily* always survives to the end of the story. Catherine Bigelow pulled the same trick in The Hurt Locker, where the putative hero – Guy Pearce – gets whacked in the first reel, to be replaced by Jeremy Renner.

            That’s an example I’m always giving to editors/agents to explain why the modern fashion for using 1st person POV is a mistake, as it completely undermines that sense of jeopardy/sympathy which the reader/movie-audience absolutely *need* in any story where the protagonist is facing death every day of their lives. Why? Because if you write the story in 1st Person POV, then you are telegraphing to the reader that you – as the protagonist – must necessarily survive (intact & presumably unscratched) to the end of the story… otherwise there’d be nobody left to finish writing the story, would there. And thus the tension in the story gets flushed down the pan on page one.

            It’s not rocket science, and ought to be taught as ‘creative writing 101’, but if so, why do so many modern novels (thrillers, murder mysteries, historical epics) use 1st person POV, when they shouldn’t… :-)

            Cheers,
            Steve

  8. Excellent examples and tips to writing Deep Point of View for writers. Thanks, Beth. I’ve shared generously online.

  9. I have been writing in what I had thought was Third Person Omniscient Subjective (yes, I know, it’s outdated, but it fits my fiction). However, after submitting my work to an editor, I received feedback that I was lapsing into Third Person Limited.

    So then, I found, in the course of my research, that the categories that define narrative voice differ from one source to the next (some making the traditional distinction between Third Person Omniscient Objective and Third Person Omniscient Subjective; while others don’t).

    For example, “Hills Like White Elephants” is considered by my professors to be an example of Third Person Omniscient Objective as the narrator mostly maintains a neutral voice. However, there is a line in this short story where the Omniscient Objective Narrator seems to color his narration with the thought of the male character. The specific line occurs when the man is drinking at a bar and observing the people in the bar: “They were all waiting reasonably for the train.”

    According to how I was taught, this sort of “coloring” is a no-no for a Third Person Omniscient Objective narrator.

    There are two major distinctions between a Third Person Omni Objective and Third Person Omni Subjective narrator: 1) The Omni Objective narrator cannot reveal the internal thoughts and feelings of the characters at all, but must stick only to describing external actions; and 2) the Omni Objective narrator cannot impose his own voice on the action, but rather uses his voice to describe action neutrally.

    The use of “reasonably” is a violation because if it’s not revealing the male character’s observations of the bar crowd, then it’s the narrator revealing his own judgment on the action, which violates point 2). If it’s not the narrator’s assessment but the male character’s assessment of the bar crowd, then it’s a violation of point 1) because the Omniscient Objective Narrator shalt not reveal a character’s thoughts.

    An additional point of contention comes up when discussing Third Person Omni subjective. I have been taught that the Omni Subjective point-of-view is allowed to reveal character’s thoughts; I have even been taught that the subjective narrator can allow a character’s thoughts to overlap his own, as if the Omniscient narrator were in fact mocking the characters.

    In “A Christmas Carol,” for example, Dickens allows the highly opinionated, very humorous, Third Person Omniscient Subjective Narrator to color his passages with the words that Scrooge himself would normally use to describe a scene. There is no confusion in such an instance that it’s still the narrator speaking, but it’s a narrator who is so familiar with the repugnant personality of the central character, that he/she is able to channel Scrooge’s personality and to explain how Scrooge would normally react to specific instances in the story.

    However, I have been scolded for doing this myself as if the narrator’s voice is being confused with the main characters and that I am dipping into Third Person Limited instead.

    But I am not dipping into Third Person Limited… my narrator is merely channeling the other personality to postulate on the mimicked character’s hypothetical response to a subjunctive moment.

    There are books where the narration is fairly straightforward. “A Song of Fire and Ice” is clearly written in Third Person Limited/Multiple, and it’s very clear whose personality is saying what.

    But there are other novels where the point-of-view is less so. “The Sorcerer’s Stone” uses a complex interplay between Third Person Omniscient Subjective and Third Person Limited, to introduce us first to the Dursleys (whom the narrator clearly thinks very little of), and then to attach to Harry’s point-of-view. Rowling, of course, uses clearly defined breaks to make these switches, or uses clever bait and switch tactics where the narrative focus moves by association from character to the next character, to show us information that neither character possesses on their own. “The Lord of the Rings” also uses multiple narrative strategies to tell its story.

    So this brings me finally to my questions:

    1) Can you please break down what is okay and not okay to do in Third Person Omniscient Subjective narration? When are internal thoughts and feelings okay? What are the no-no’s for not not lapsing into Third Limited?

    2) While point-of-view is clearly necessary and beneficial, how much of POV is really the stuff of convention? For instance, people always say, “this narrative strategy brings the reader closer; this pushes the reader away.” But how much of this is really true?

    People talk about ruptures in POV taking them out of the story. And yet, I can tell you right now, that the people I associate all feel the same way… we have never been taken “out” of a story just because an author switches POV or changes tense. Mostly, these choices challenge us to understand the world that the author is building. Most of the time, we only notice these changes as aesthetic choices by the author, but they have never taken us out of the story.

    We are only taken out of a story, when a strategy doesn’t work.

    I sometimes feel that the guardians of any art tend to get caught up on minutiae to justify their stewardship, until a boy comes along and pulls the sword from the stone, and suddenly what couldn’t be done, can now easily be done because one person was able to do it.

    I don’t know that people always get taken out. I think it depends on what type of thinker you are. In photography, people always say, “if you use this lens, you get this effect” in the viewer. That’s not necessarily true. Aesthetic choices engender different responses in different people. You would need a very large survey to find out the percentage of people who react the same to the same sentences, and I think the results would be very enlightening and cause people to rethink their approach to storytelling.

  10. Steve Lowe says:

    Well, Gabriel, we both seem to be singing from the same ‘Hymn sheet’ :-) And now that you’ve seconded my original ‘motion’ (about taking a poll/survey with a large number of potential book-readers on the most popular/acceptable POV for a modern novel) maybe somebody can progress this into action, to settle the question once and for all…

    From your analysis, above, I’d have to say that the POV which most approaches my own would be the one you describe as ‘Third Person Omniscient Subjective’ combined with ‘Third Person Limited’, which you assess (accurately) as being employed by J.K.Rowling in her Harry Potter books. And judging by the popularity of her stories (among adults as well as children) one would suspect that this ought to be a pretty good clue to the entire publishing industry that this particular writing style is not only acceptable to the modern reading public, but actively welcomed by them, n’est-ce-pas? :-)

    Like you, I’m constantly mystified by the many people who claim to have difficulty in dealing with changes of POV in a novel, as if they cannot cope with more than a single one, throughout. Similarly, I’m not aware of many people in the ‘real world’ (i.e. outside of writing forums, editorial consultancies or literary agencies) who express such a problem. And as you also point out, the fact that so many published (indeed, best-selling) modern authors seem completely to ignore the rigidly imposed POV advice which is given to aspiring authors, makes one seriously question what the heck is going on here? Why exactly is it that the writing styles/POV choices of so many successful authors (both historical and modern) seem to be being denied to the rest of us? Frankly, it just doesn’t add up, does it.

    And it can even feel almost like deliberate sabotage of our writing ambitions when we’re advised (as happened recently on the ‘Writers in the Storm’ forum, but echoed almost everywhere else) *not* to attempt writing like ‘best-selling’ authors do, but instead to try emulating contemporary ‘debut’ novelists, instead (who – by definition – may or *may not* transpire to enjoy the same commercial success as best-sellers do). I mean, what kind of commercial sense does that make for the publishing industry? That’s right… none at all! Modern publishers seem to be bent – Kamikaze-like – on a path of commercial self-destruction; by trying to tell aspiring authors *not* to emulate the styles of the most successful authors in the world today!

    I also love your reference to Dickens’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, which is one of my favourite stories. Not only because of the central character’s ultimate redemption, but also because he actually begins by correctly assessing the root-causes of the problems being faced by Victorian Londoners (i.e. simple over-population – due to lack of effective birth-control – and the entirely consequent over-crowding, unemployment and homelessness etc.) which are only just now being seriously considered by politicians and the public once again in the 21st c.

    I also like to play a game, which consists of imagining what the forthright Ebenezer Scrooge would say, from his own POV, if he had been attempting to get his own novel published. One can just see him reading his latest literary agent rejection letter and screwing it up before casting it into his open fire, announcing: “Humbug!” at the lack of perspicacity being shown by the publishing establishment. I then like to imagine him paraphrasing what he said about the custom of celebrating Christmas to his nephew, a propos the advice given to aspiring authors: “If I had my way, every idiot who went around with the mantra ‘Show, don’t tell’ on their lips would be beaten to death with a copy of their own creative-writing guide and then buried with it shoved down their throat!” At least, it makes me laugh… :-)

    Cheers,
    Steve

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