Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.