The Nuances of Deep POV – Part 3

Deep POV is all about readers experiencing sensory details through a character.

Writers know they need sensory details in their books. But here’s what a lot of writers do. They have a scene start off showing a character somewhere, and we get what feels like a laundry list of visuals to show the place he’s in—if even that much.

Maybe he’ll hear something—but it won’t tell us anything useful, like the sound of the clock ticking by the bed (do clocks tick anymore?).

We need to be aware of two key things: what the POV character is feeling and experiencing in that moment and what genre you’re writing in. The first concern determines what your character will notice and react to and how. The second concern speaks to the way you, the writer, should present these details—the writing style, the amount of detail, the tone, and everything related to genre.

Much to most people’s surprise, we have more than twenty senses that the brain combines and interprets to form a map of reality. Yet, so many writers fail to include even the five general senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. They rely almost exclusively on visual descriptions, with the occasional sound or smell as an afterthought.

Your character’s senses are the lens through which they (and your readers) experience the story world you’ve spent so much time and energy crafting.

If you want to get nerdy, the definition of a sense is “any system that consists of a group of sensory cell types that respond to a specific physical phenomenon and that corresponds to a particular group of regions within the brain where the signals are received and interpreted.”

Much of how we communicate is unconscious and through the body.

Be specific in your use of these senses, as well as anything in your fiction. Don’t go overboard: capture the flavor; don’t list the ingredients. As writers, let’s take advantage of these tools consciously.

Things don’t merely taste sweet or sour. They can taste (and smell) salty, rusty, fruity, minty, toasted, pungent, or spoiled. You can taste dust and diesel through molecules that enter your nose. What does blood taste like? I recall reading in a Margaret Atwood book at least three decades ago in which she described it similar to those orange popsicles with the vanilla inside (we called them dreamsicles). I read someplace the taste described as a rusty nail. Those descriptions stuck with me years later.

Your Character Should Be Processing Sensory Detail

When you’re working on your scenes, consciously consider at least three senses to bring in. When a character enters a new space, indoors or outdoors, she’s going to be hit with sensory data.

Think: when you leave an air-conditioned dark, cool building in the heat of summer in a place with high humidity, like the deep South, what do you notice upon pushing out the doors?

I notice immediately the brightness of the light and the quality of it. I notice the humidity shift–the moisture in the air and the stickiness on my skin. I’ll then notice nearby sounds and smells, all within a few seconds of leaving the building.

Anytime a character is confronted with a sharp shift in sensory detail, he should notice and react to it. A blind person may not see visuals, but she can feel the hot sun on her shoulders. Her other senses are heightened, as would a character who is blindfolded.

All too often writers show characters outdoors and fail to establish the weather and time of day. Do you ever go outside and not notice the weather? It’s the first thing you notice unless you live in the Tropics and the weather is the same every single day. Even there, a rain squall approaching can make the air feel thicker and heavier. Someone living in that type of climate may feel slight shifts in weather changing when others wouldn’t. I began to become aware of these nuances when spending weeks scuba diving in the Caribbean.

Consider each page of a scene and ask: Is my POV character experiencing sensorily? Would he? What is going on in the action that would cause him to notice or not notice?

I can assure you, if I’m sitting in the dentist’s chair getting a filling, I’m not thinking about the weather outside. I may be irritated by the Muzak coming through the speakers, a contrasting cheery sound grating my nerves. I will be aware of more immediate sensations, such as what’s going on in my mouth, the smell and sound of the equipment grinding my teeth, the pressure on the skin of my face with my lips being pried open.

You may gravitate toward some particular senses. I do. I’m always cognizant of lighting as well as the way my skin feels—how it reacts to air pressure, touch, feel of clothing, heat. Those are mechanoreceptors and thermoreceptors. I bring these often into my scenes.

We are all aware of proprioception—the sense of where our body parts are and the strength we use to move, lift, walk, and all other movements. Characters can feel the weight or lightness of their limbs as they run. They can feel tight in their bodies and be aware of tension.

Hunger and thirst are senses. They’re the body signaling a need.

Great writers won’t rely on just a few sensory details here and there. They won’t just describe what a character sees around him. They will expand the range of sensory detail to create a rich landscape of experience for their readers, and this is done by going deep into POV.

Let’s take a look at two random selections I grabbed off Bookbrowse. This one from His Only Wife by Ghanian author Peace Adzo Medie:

Eli came at 1:36 p.m. I knew the exact time because I was sitting and staring at the analog clock on my phone when the doorbell rang. The sound startled me and I dropped the phone; I hadn’t heard the lift stop and open on my floor. My mother rushed out of her room and mouthed “Go” while pointing to the door. I hesitated; for some silly reason I wanted to fish my phone from under the chair before I answered the door.

“Ah, open the door,” she said with sound this time.

I stood up and smoothed my dress over my hips. My armpits were moist; it was a good thing that the fabric was light and patterned so that my sweat stains would not be visible. My feet felt heavy so that I needed extra effort to lift them. I imagined that I looked like a marching soldier. The frown on my mother’s face told me that she was displeased. The bell rang a second time. She flashed her eyes as if they had the power to physically push me toward the door. My hand was so damp with sweat that it slipped off the round doorknob when I tried to turn it.

Did you notice all the sensory detail? Medie uses some of these less obvious senses. This character is sensing moisture on her skin. The feeling of heaviness in her feet. Hand damp with sweat. She only uses these, along with sound and visuals–just the right ones to tell us what’s important to reveal about this character.

Here are a couple of paragraphs from  The Dazzling Truth by Helen Cullen:

Murtagh opened the front door and flinched at a swarm of spitting raindrops. The blistering wind mocked the threadbare cotton of his pyjamas. He bent his head into the onslaught and pushed forward, dragging the heavy scarlet door behind him. The brass knocker clanged against the wood; he flinched, hoping it had not woken the children. Shivering, he picked a route in his slippers around the muddy puddles spreading across the cobblestoned pathway. Leaning over the wrought-iron gate that separated their own familial island from the winding lane of the island proper, he scanned the dark horizon for a glimpse of Maeve in the faraway glow of a streetlamp.

Nice usage of imagery to convey the sensory detail. The feeling of rain on his skin described by flinching at spitting raindrops. The blistering wind attacking his pyjamas. Dragging the heavy door shows the sensation of his muscles working—proprioception.

And of course we have visuals, which paints the stage for us. As with other sensory detail, consider just a few key things to have your character notice. Here, Murtagh notices muddy puddles and the colors at the horizon and huddled sheep—adding weight to the ponderous weather, which adds bits to the stakes because Maeve, his wife, is missing. Cullen adds a bit of light source with the glow of a streetlamp. All this sets ambiance and mood.

We have the sound of the brass knocker—used for a specific purpose—to tell us he’s concerned about the children waking. This is a good point to pay attention to: sensory detail should serve more than one purpose. Don’t just add a sound or sight without thinking of the POV character’s mood, concerns, mind-set, and purpose in that moment. The more you can tie those things to the sensory details, the more powerful your writing.

Writing deep POV is a deep dive into sensory detail. I hope you’ll now be more aware of them as you go through your scenes and think how to wield them to create mood and reveal important facets of your character’s personality and mind-set—all through deep POV.

Read the first post in this series HERE.

Second post HERE.

Part 4 HERE

Featured Photo by S L on Unsplash

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  1. Great description of sensory detail Susanne, and how it is used effectively. It should always be just one more level in the revision process –– to go back and look at each scene through that moody and depp POV. Thanks for the reminder on HOW to go about doing that!!

  2. Enjoying this series, Susanne, thank you.
    I’ve been aware for some time that I don’t describe my surroundings in nearly as much detail as others, but maybe I’ve been implying more through the characters’ responses. I should go back and investigate!

  3. Enjoying this series quite a lot. Thanks.

    (P.S. the link from the other parts to part 3 doesn’t work — the url has the wrong date. Thought you would want to know.)

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