The Nuances of Deep POV – Part 2

We’re taking some time to look at deep POV, mainly because I see violations running rampant in the manuscripts I edit and critique. So much so, it feels like a horde of orcs storming the castle doors.

We looked last week at some basic issues surrounding deep POV. I talked about how every line in every scene should sound like your POV character. That includes the narrative. Anytime your writing sounds like you, you, the author, are intruding.

I also explained how, when you “show” instead of “tell,” you are only going to show what your POV character is thinking and feeling in any given moment. And those things must be in context. Meaning, the events transpiring should organically trigger those thoughts and reactions and be pertinent to what is going on.

But there is so much more to deep POV, and in this post we’re going to look at some more issues to help you understand and master this imporant technique of being deep in POV.

Today’s readers want to be immersed in our stories. Unlike in the past, when most novels were heavy on narrative, backstory, and explanation, today’s great novels are all about show, don’t tell. And that requires going deep into characters’ heads.

While there are many degrees of POV, readers feel more engaged and care about characters more when they are in deep POV.

In deep POV, writers can reveal so much about inner conflict, motivation, and core need of their characters. That internal tension creates microtension, and that keeps readers turning pages. In addition, going deep allows the reveal of complexity—helping to convey all the aspects of character, which you can’t easily show well in shallow POV.

Deep POV also allows for much more personalized sensory detail. Instead of describing weather with descriptive language, the weather would be tinged with the emotion the character is feeling in the moment. Everything in the narrative would feel as if filtered through the POV character’s senses and feelings.

Deep POV also means tighter writing, because you eliminate a lot of superfluous cluttery words. I’ll give examples in a minute.

Mastering POV is not easy. Even the most seasoned authors violate POV rules at times, and it behooves every writer to spend time studying what those are and to ensure their scenes aren’t filled with head hopping and showing characters knowing things they couldn’t possibly know.

Deep POV can be in first, second, or third person. Basically it involves filtering everything in a scene through one character’s head, showing only what he experiences in real time. And there are specific ways to write that subtly cross the line and violate the deep POV.

How to Write As the Character instead of About Them

The objective is to write as the character instead of about them.

Here’s a great example from MasterClass that shows the difference:

He peered out the window. “Are they coming for me?” he wondered as he listened to the sound of distant hoof beats.

Here’s the same idea written in deep POV:

He peered out the window. Are they coming for me? Hoof beats rumbled in the distance.

Do you notice the difference? When you are in a character’s head, you never need to say “he thought,” “he wondered,” “he felt.” It’s a given that he’s the one thinking, wondering, feeling.

One way to help you get into deep POV is to freewrite a few pages, in first person, in that character’s voice. Imagine him sitting across from you and talking to you and then talking to himself (which you wouldn’t hear, of course).

Try this. Then take out every word and phrase that doesn’t need to be in there—words that distance you from the character.

You want to make sure every single word in a scene sounds like your character. That means they shouldn’t sound like you trying to write impressively. Use the vocabulary, syntax, vernacular your character would use in speech.

When you think inside your head, you sound like the same “you” as the one who speaks out loud, unless you are deliberately attempting to change the way you sound aloud to someone else.

Instead of saying “Joan felt John was acting out of character,” say, “John never acts this way. What’s he doing?”

Author Alice Gaines shares this:

Your heroine is running for her life from the bad guy. She has ducked into an alley and hidden in a doorway, hoping he’ll go by without finding her. You could write: “She could feel her heart pounding in her chest and hear his footsteps approaching. Fear washed over her. The first two are sensing verbs, and the third is a variant of an emoting verb. This passage has the author telling what’s going on inside the heroine rather than letting the reader experience it directly.

As a reader, I’d much prefer: “Her heart thundered in her chest as his footsteps approached. Damn, this had to work. If he found her, he’d cut her to ribbons.”

When you find yourself writing, “She saw a plume of smoke on the horizon,” or “She knew he wasn’t telling the truth,” or “The sound terrified her,” you stop and take a look at the passage and see if there isn’t a more convincing way to create the image you’re reaching for.

It may be that “A plume of smoke appeared on the horizon,” or “Lying came naturally to him, it seemed,” or “Damn! What was that sound? Had someone broken in the back door?” will do a better job for you.

I hope her examples help you see the difference between normal POV and deep.

Deep POV means strong nouns and verbs, avoiding passive construction with phrases like it was, they were, she was, etc. Instead of saying, “It was a dark and stormy night,” which isn’t in anyone’s POV, say “Nora shivered as thunder shook the house and the menacing dark clouds gathered outside the window.” Instead of saying “the floodwaters were inching toward the house” say “Ruth scurried up the porch steps as the floodwaters swirled and nipped at her ankles.”

Go through your scenes and look for these verbs to seek out and destroy:

Perceiving verbs: to see, hear, taste, feel, smell, notice, etc.

“She could feel the sweat bead on her forehead” —change to: “Sweat beaded on her forehead.”

Thinking verbs: to know, wonder, think, doubt, question, realize, imagine, ponder, muse, be puzzled or confused, etc.

“He wondered if he had left the door unlocked and questioned if he might be losing his mind.” —change to “Had he stupidly left the door unlocked? Another indication his mind was slipping—and getting worse every day.”

Emoting verbs: To love, hate, like, desire, fear, dread, mourn, wish, etc. To feel anger, hope, fear, joy, sadness or any other emotion.

“Fear coursed through her veins, and she felt the rage about to explode.” —change to: “She picked up her purse and clenched it, her knuckles white. Go ahead. Spit it out. Who was that blonde I saw you with in the backseat of your car? She pinned him with her gaze, letting the images roil in her head as he squirmed like the proverbial bug under her seething glare. She had to admit—it gave her a jolt of satisfaction to see him like that.”

Once you start looking, you’ll spot those extraneous words and phrases that pull out of deep POV. And always remind yourself what matters most: revealing character. Through deep POV you help readers get what is motivating your character, what her mind-set is, and what needs and fears and worries are driving her. All these things are shown and hinted at rather than explained to the author. And that’s what “show, don’t tell” is all about!

What POV violations were you not aware of until you read this post? What stands out as most important about POV in this post? Share in the comments.

Be sure to read the first post in this series HERE.

Part 3 HERE

Part 4 HERE

Featured Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

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  1. I have to admit, I hadn’t heard this term until recently, when another writer asked me what it was. Duh! I’ve heard “he saw, she thought” described as filter words and knew to try to eliminate them, but I appreciate this more thorough explanation of it.

  2. Thanks for another set of very useful tools. Guess if I find places everywhere in my text where I can apply them! 😐 😀

    However, a question:

    “… She had to admit—it gave her a jolt of satisfaction to see him like that.”

    Isn’t “she had to admit” breaking out of deep POV?

    1. I suppose you could look at it that way. But it is her thought. In other words, if you put this in first person, she would be thinking, I have to admit it–it gives me a lot of satisfaction …” That’s a good test to see if you are really in deep POV.

  3. Thank you for this great explanation. Readers have told me they feel like they’re “in the room” or “right there” with my characters, but in reading this post, I cringe to think of the many times I’ve likely violated the “rules” of deep POV. As a matter of fact, I went through the current chapter of my WIP and rewrote several sentences. Your enlightening advice has already made a difference in tightening my manuscript, and I’m grateful. Going to check out (and save) the first post in this series now as well as your books on Amazon. Blessings!

  4. I am confused about using third person, inserting a character thought by switching to first person, and then going back to third. Would you italicize or leave what I put in parenthesis as regular text: He peered out the window. (Are they coming for me?) Hoof beats rumbled in the distance. Or could you keep it in third with the same effect? He peered out the window. (Were they coming for him?) Hoof beats rumbled in the distance. That’s where I get hung up…the thought insertions. I use them but I don’t think I use pronouns in the thought. I’d probably just say something like: Oh shit, they’re coming. Thanks.

    1. The switch to first person is just an exercise for you to help you hear how the character’s voice sounds. In those examples, you don’t use parentheses (I feel a writer should never use parentheses in fiction). When using a direct thought, whether the scene is written in first person or third, most writers opt to italics. Example: I went to the window. I sure hope he isn’t late.. You could switch that out to third person in the first sentence. But the direct thought is always first person because when you think something, you are “I” not “he” or “she.”

      1. Direct thought, like normal dialogue, is always present tense. This brings up the issue of reader jarring with mixing past tense prose with unexpected present tense direct thoughts: [He peered out the window. Are they coming for me? Hoof beats rumbled in the distance.].

        I’m using square brackets [ ] to delineate the whole example and curly brackets { } to delineate the italicized part (note: Linda used parentheses to delineate the italicized part – same diff).

        Conventional wisdom is to use italics for direct thoughts in past tense prose: [He peered out the window. {Are they coming for me?} Hoof beats rumbled in the distance.]. This gets annoying if there’s much of it, but can be reduced by using indirect thought in place of some of the direct thoughts: [He peered out the window. Were they coming for him? Hoof beats rumbled in the distance.].

        Alternatively, the story could be written in present tense: [He peers out the window. Are they coming for me? Hoof beats rumble in the distance.]. Many readers find present tense stories annoying and won’t read them.

        It seems that a growing number of writers choose the slight tense-change reader jarring over the two conventional wisdom choices.

        Adding to this problem, Sci-Fi and Fantasy have made three levels of POV character communication common: Dialogue – POV character talks to other characters using voice, hand signals, etc., Direct Thought – POV character’s own private thoughts (shared with reader), and what I call True Internal Dialogue – POV character’s conversations inside his/her/its head (with split personalities, with deities, via telepathy, with embedded AI, via embedded comm link, etc.). Could be four or more levels of communication if POV character has AI, embedded comm link, telepathic, etc. that are all isolated from each other.

        Currently, my choice to minimize reader immersion disruption with past tense stories that have three levels of communication is quotes for Dialogue, italics for Real Internal Dialogue, and Direct Thought in present tense, (ignoring the tense change jar). Is there an official method of writing three different levels of POV character communication?

        Side question 1: taking cause and effect into account, shouldn’t the example read: [He peered out the window. Hoof beats rumbled in the distance. {Are they coming for me?}]?

        Side question 2: re no parentheses in fiction: In one story, I included a letter read aloud by the POV character, as written by another character, including parentheses. Was that incorrect?

        1. There are lots of ways you can do this. I prefer using italics for direct thoughts. However, in first person deep POV, every line is a “thought,” so shifting the style of the direct thought helps to ensure it sounds like an exact, immediate thought. Once you get into ESP or things like that, you have to come up with something. I’ve seen writers use <> to bracket those types of silent communications. In answer to your other question, either way is fine. It’s up to the author to decide the order of events. Yours makes more sense to me. But a guy could be at the window, wondering if the bad guys will come for him, then hear hoofbeats and realize, yes, they are …

          And, really, I don’t think parentheses make sense in fiction. They are asides and feel like author intrusion. It’s not right or wrong, but I haven’t ever seen it done in great fiction.

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