Deep Point of View

This is going to be a longer then my usual posts.

As I mentioned before, I chose to write The Darkening from a deep point of view, but only AFTER I finished the first draft AND after I rewrote the whole thing to change the plot. The reason I decided to do that was simple: John Piscus, the main character, is paranoid and he hears voices. The world and himself are his main enemies, and the best way to present this was to show his fears and thoughts (and paranoia) and survival struggle through a very tight POV. Now, I could have gone for First Person POV, but the way the story plays out (no, I won’t give you spoilers, even though I love them myself) felt like the wrong choice. So I decided to go with third person Deep POV. I had never done it before, had never written a story with that POV, and it was a challenge at first. It took me a while to figure it out.

So what does it take to write in deep third person?

1. First off, you need to spend more time than normal inside the main character’s head. You need more of the MC’s thoughts, which is a good way to show some characterisation. This is the best time to show us the way he/she thinks, certain words the MC uses, unique to him/her. To achieve this you need to spend some time with the MC, get to know how he reacts to certain stimuli. Would he/she curse if things didn’t go as expected? Perhaps accept it meekly and move on? What would drive the character to each decision?

2. Based on the previous point, it’s best to avoid having long passages of action without inner monologue. For instance: “She nodded a good morning to her assistant, opened the door to her office, sat down, and adjusted her skirt. She saw the pile of paperwork she had left for her assistant the day before was still there, unsigned. She heard her cellphone ring. She rummaged through her purse, found it and answered the call.” OK, this may not be the best example or the best writing (I’ve done it on purpose to stress some points later on), but as you can see it’s a long list of actions taking place, but we have no idea about the MC’s thoughts. Is it a call she expected? Was the caller someone she enjoyed talking to? Had someone annoyed her before? Did she enjoy having to sign all these documents, etc? It’s a good idea to insert some thoughts and feelings about things happening to the MC, otherwise the passage feels as if the reader is sitting at the other end of the room, eating popcorn, and watching a movie. It’s superficial. Not to mention the sentences don’t seem to sound/read/flow smoothly.

3. The other thing I learned while writing The Darkening, was how bad the tags “he/she thought” really are for deep POV. Lets have a look at the previous example again:

The pile of paperwork her assistant had left earlier, was still there, unsigned. Figures… why waste precious ink from our fountain pen, when Martha can do it for us, huh? It’s not like she’s got anything else to do, she thought.” Boom! The moment you insert that little tag “she thought” you dragged the reader out of the MC’s head and reminded them they are reading a book. You stole the magic. Deep POV and thought tags are not very good friends. Also, avoid using italics for the thoughts, as there’s no need. The same goes if you choose to use the “said” tag for things the MC says. If the MC is saying something to someone else, there’s no need for dialogue tags to indicate the MC is talking. Think about it; why would you tap the readers’ shoulder, take them out of the “spell” you’ve put them, and remind them that a fictional character says something, when you’ve gone into all that trouble to immerse them in the character’s head in the first place? If the MC is the one with whom we are taking this 300-400 page journey, who else would be saying his/her lines? Use action beats instead and describe what the character is doing or thinking. Do use dialogue tags for the other characters though. Otherwise, the dialogue won’t make sense.

4. Remember this post where I mentioned filter words? Remember how it was related to show, don’t tell? Guess what? It’s something you get to use here. A lot. All those filter words related to telling thoughts and telling feelings, words like see, hear, think, feel, realise, remember, watch, wonder, assume, believe, look, hope, touch etc, you want them out of your story. Use a macro to find and highlight them if you must, but they are not helping you or your strengthen your work. They have to go. If you’re in deep POV, pretty much everything not related to something happening to the character is going to be thoughts, things the MC realised, conclusions he/she makes. Readers get that. So why mention it again? It’s like having people waiting for a concert to begin when someone walks on the stage and announces they are there to watch a concert. So in the above example, “She saw the pile of paperwork she had left for her assistant the day before was still there, unsigned. She heard her cellphone ring,” you want to remove “she saw” and “she heard.” If you do that it will read “the pile of paperwork she had left for her assistant the day before was still there, unsigned. Her cellphone rang.” Everything that’s happening in that room, at that moment, is filtered through the MC’s senses so there’s no need to repeat yourself.

We all follow (or at least try to) the “show, don’t tell” rule. The same goes for words describing feelings. If the MC is terrified of something, try to avoid using the word terrify. Instead, describe the feeling. Perhaps his/her mouth is going dry, or the heart is racing. Yes, these descriptions are things everyone uses and tend to be called “clichés,” but you can come up with stuff of your own to describe the emotion.

5. Where things get a little trickier are the passages you’ve written which aren’t things the MC would say, but actually it’s writer’s intrusion. If you know your characters well enough, you ought to know what things they would say at any given time. That’s true even more for the MC. If you’ve shown your MC to be a misanthrope or a sociopath who would laugh when someone falls flat on their faces, have his thoughts, behaviour, and interaction throughout the story reflect that.

This is not the only intrusion a writer may unintentionally do. Another blatant example is when the MC is remembering things for the sake of backstory. If the scene demands the MC to recall something of his past, in other words be introspective, then by all means use it. But make sure it happens when it makes sense, when it’s the right time. In the above example, would there be any reason for the MC to remember (and tell the reader) the time she and her brother were playing in the backyard, and he pushed her and scraped her knee? How much she cried and for how long her brother was grounded for, or what she did to him to get even? Is it related to the workload waiting for her on her office? If so, then write it. If not, delete it.

6. Head hopping. Deep POV dislikes head hopping. In the example I gave, our MC can not know what her assistant is thinking. She can guess, and that’s something you can show, but not know for sure. Not unless the assistant has clearly stated whatever it is he’s thinking. Any thoughts the MC has about someone else are filtered through his/her lenses. It’s a personal opinion and if used correctly it adds more to the characterisation. Pay close attention to what is known to your MC and what is known to other characters (a.k.a. the writer). Remember, everything is filtered through the MC’s perception.

7. Prepositional phrases. I believe this is something everyone should be aware of, but it becomes more apparent when you write in deep POV. In sentences like “She slammed the door in anger,” the prepositional phrase “in anger” is problematic. First, it’s overwriting; if someone slams the door, chances are they are angry. The behaviour (slamming the door) is a good indicator of the emotion. Second and more related to deep POV, when you use something like that, which is intended to show something to the reader, that’s once again writer’s intrusion. That’s you forcing the reader to pay attention to the emotion. However, by using a prepositional phrase, instead of showing the emotion you end up telling it, so you have more than one problems there. This is probably an area I still need to work. I usually draft a story with such phrases strewn in it. Logically, the editing process should eliminate them, but I often miss identifying them as mistakes. For some reason I forget about them, and don’t spot them until several months and rejections later.

I think these points cover the basics about deep POV. If you think I’ve missed something, please share.

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4 Responses to Deep Point of View

  1. Yoann says:

    Great article and very good advice. I’ll keep that in mind when I write next. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Thanks Yoann. After three attempts on the manuscript (the first draft and two rewrites), I think I finally understood the basics of deep POV.


  3. schillingklaus says:

    I detest the whole “show, don ‘t tell” fascism utterly and unconditionally; and so I stick with editorial omniscient narration.


  4. If it works for your story and you’re ok with it, sure. Lots of good authors use it.


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