Thursday, May 22, 2014

Tips for Deep Point of View

Photo by Jason Odell
One of the first things I learned when I toyed around with writing, was that despite decades of being a reader, I didn't know diddly about Point of View. I accepted the challenge, and discovered an affinity for using what author Suzanne Brockmann calls "Deep Point of View." I thought I'd share her tips, and add my commentary.

In a nutshell, being in deep POV means you're in the character's head, very much the way you are in 1st person. You see only what he can see, hear only what he can hear. You're privy to emotions, to thoughts. The author isn't on the page. There is no narrator.

And, just as with first person, you have to work to let the reader know what you want her to know, or not know what you don't want her to know. Nobody said it was easy.

1. Don't cheat the reader. If it's logical for a character to be thinking of something in a scene, you can't hide it from the reader.

2. Make sure your characters don't notice things they would miss. This is one of my "pet peeves" with characters noticing brand names, designer labels, composers, or artists, that they logically shouldn't recognize. My favorite example – the red carpet parade before an awards show. Husband lost an argument and can't watch the game. She, if she's fashion conscious might reflect on the style of gown, perhaps even recognize the designer. The man's probably not going to go much beyond, "nice tits."

3. No unconscious thoughts. No slipping into omniscient POV. Music, which he didn't recognize as Mozart, drifted from the room. No slipping out of character. "He didn't notice Frank pour the drink." If your POV character didn't notice it, then the reader can't see it, either.

4. Don't use distancing words. Avoid 'he thought' in place of 'he said.' If you're in deep POV, the reader should know that the character is thinking. If your character is facing a man with a gun, and you write, "She was going to die," it's obvious that's what she's thinking. It's not necessary to write, "She was going to die, she thought."

5. Use anchoring words to maintain deep POV. Now, some "rule followers" might tell you to avoid these words because they're distancing, or adverbs, or some other violation. But if you're in a character's head, that character can't know for sure what someone else is thinking, seeing, hearing, etc. So, words like "seemed" "saw" or "wanted" help ground the reader. "He saw her eyebrow twitch and knew she was one step away from slapping him."

And, I'll add a reminder – whatever POV you choose, however many characters have front and center page time, it's about the transitions. If your reader follows your shifts, whether they're done with extra line breaks, asterisks, or just plain good transitional writing, then you've done your job.

To "test" yourself: Substitute "I" for "he" (or the character's name) in a scene. Is there anyone else sneaking in there? Write the entire scene again from another character's point of view. I did this as an exercise once, and it ended up being my first published work, the short-short vignette, Words. If you want to read it, you can get it free at Smashwords, Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

Third person doesn't have to be deep. It just happens to be the way I like to read and write.

Any preferences or pet peeves about POV?

Terry Odell is the author of numerous romantic suspense novels, mystery novels, as well as contemporary romance short stories. Most of her books are available in both print and digital formats. She's the author of the Blackthorne, Inc. series, steamy romantic suspense novels featuring a team of covert ops specialists, the Pine Hills Police series, set in a small Oregon town, and the Mapleton Mystery series, featuring a reluctant police chief in a small Colorado town. To see all her books, visit her website. You can also find her at her blog, Terry's Place, as well as follow her on Twitter, or visit her Facebook page.

29 comments :

  1. Thanks for this, Terry. It's a technique that's especially effective for showing the unreliable narrator, of course. I used alternating first person for a romance I wrote from the POVs of both the male and female protagonists, showing how they lied to each other, and themselves. But, in my most recent book, a fantasy, I use deep POV from 8 characters, to add complexity and depth to the story. It works well, but, as you say, is by no means easy. As I go through the editing process, I find I've got one character speaking in the voice of another; obviously something writers need to avoid!
    Good, thoughtful post, Terry. Thanks.

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    1. I've never used more than 3 POV characters, but I think Allison Brennan said she had something like 12 in her first published book. If you need them, use them. My only 'peeve' here is having a POV character show up for only 1 scene in a book. I like them to be "important" so I always stop and try to figure out how the author could have gotten that information across from a more major player. But that's only since I learned what POV was!

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  2. I like to identify with at least some of the characters in any book I read, and deep POV facilitates that. Several great pointers here, Terry. This is a keeper.

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    1. Thanks, Linda -- and Suz Brockmann deserves a lot of the credit. We learn, we share.

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  3. Definitely a keeper. I'm sure I've made every mistake over the years and have to watch the "she thought" phrasing. Like you, when I started writing, I had no idea what POV was. Neither did the first editor I hired because he wrote non-fiction. It wasn't until I joined a local critique group with two excellent writers that I began to learn the basics. Great post, Terry.

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    1. Thanks, Polly. I've been dealing with a few places in my current WIP where I've used the 'she thought' and I've decided that sometimes it helps, sometimes it's not necessary. Isn't that a brilliant discovery!

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  4. POV is always tricky ... choosing one and staying consistent is the thing. Oh, and I resent the gender stereotyping, Terry ... I've always been a leg man, myself.

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    1. Sorry, Christopher. Too many years of marriage to a mammalogist, both professionally and preferentially.

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  5. Great post but can I venture a wee question? What's wrong with omniscient POV? As long as you don't go muscling in, throwing your weight (and words) about, overwhelming the characters, isn't it a legitimate stance? Or is it just unfashionable in these post-modern times?

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    1. Ask away. Omniscient is still out there, and Nora Roberts makes quite a tidy living using it. It's not my preference, and if writing Deep POV, which is what this post focuses on, it's going to pull the reader out. But if you're using the omniscient POV for your book, nobody's going to say you can't. I'm not sure where editors stand on its use--it's definitely not as common as it once was. And, it'll depend on the genre as well.

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    2. I'm going to chime in here, too, if Terry doesn't mind. (smile) I think omniscient POV works for some stories and some books, and there is nothing wrong with it at all. I think we choose POV and tense to suit an individual story. Deep POV just works so well for suspense and some mystery. I'm sure it works well for some other genres as well, I'm just more familiar with it in those two.

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    3. Of course I don't mind, Maryann. Whatever POV works for the story is the 'right' one. I like Deep, because I think it brings me closer to the characters. Maybe others will do posts devoted to other POV options. I was just covering one of them here today.

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  6. Thanks for the great tips. I do like deep POV, and you do it so well. I learned a lot just reading your first books and paying attention to how you handle POV. So glad you pointed out that we don't have to tell the reader a character thought something. That has become so irritating to me it is like fingernails on a chalkboard. Does anyone even remember that sound anymore? LOL Trust me, it will make your teeth ache.

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    1. Thanks for the praise, Maryann. It means a lot. And yes, I remember that sound. It's even worse when you're the one making it. (Not-so-pleasant memories from my teaching days)

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  7. If you want a pet peeve, it's thriller writers who head hop. I understand the genre allows this to show differing POVs in tense action scenes. I just finished one by a MAJOR thriller author who not only head hopped but hopped into 1st person singular for a key character. The first time I read this I shrieked NNNNNOOOOOO!!!. I live on a lake. Ducks and other water fowl took flight.

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  8. When I was learning the craft, it was from romance writers, and head-hopping was a huge no-no. There IS a fine line between omniscient POV and head-hopping--outside narrator popping in, or just unclear writing.

    However, as I mentioned, if transitions are clear, if readers can follow, it'll probably fly. As writers, we're much more sensitive to these things. But to stick in a shift to a 1st person POV -- I think I'd have scared your ducks, too!

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  9. This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I don't mind third person shifting or even third person "narrated" by an omniscient narrator. But I truly prefer third person close up. It is worth mastering. Done wrong, the story is full of narrator intrustions and info dumping.

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    1. Those magic words: "Done Well." It takes practice and constant attention, but then, so does just about everything we want to succeed at.

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  10. Excellent points, Terry. I love your last tip about substituting 'I' for 'she/he' as a test.

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    1. Thanks, Elspeth. That's another suggestion from Suzanne Brockmann. It's a good reminder that Deep POV is almost 1st person.

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  11. This is the subject a few writer friends of mine and I discussed at our last meeting. I'm going to share the link to this post with them. You explained it so clearly. Thanks.
    Deb@ http://debioneille.blogspot.com

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  12. Terrific article. I guess I'm one of the "rule followers," you mentioned. You wrote: So, words like "seemed" "saw" or "wanted" help ground the reader. "He saw her eyebrow twitch and knew she was one step away from slapping him."

    Perhaps a better way to phrase the sentence and still maintain deep POV is: "Her eyebrow twitched and by her stance, she appeared one step away from slapping him."

    That eliminates the distancing filters - knew and saw, when it's obvious to the reader that he saw and that he can't know for certain she's ready to slap him. It shows that by "her" action, that he better duck.

    Thank you again for the article.

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    1. Brita - I would argue that "appeared" is just as distancing as "seemed" or "saw", but it's another approach to maintaining POV, for sure.

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    2. The way I learned Deep POV is this: seemed and appeared work if the POV character is observing another character, which is how I used it in my off the cuff example. "Her eyebrow twitched and by her stance, she appeared one step away from slapping him." He can't know she wants to slap him, but he can observe her appearance and from it, assume that she wants to slap him. (Gritted teeth, raised hand, some physical indication.) I don't find that distancing at all.

      You wouldn't use seemed for the POV character - I seemed unable to move. You know or don't know if you can move, so seemed doesn't apply. Saw - I saw him move across the room - is distancing. Obviously the POV character saw, thought, wondered, etc. Writing: He moved across the room - brings the reader into the story.

      Again, thanks for the article. Great info.

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  13. Thanks so much for sharing, Terry. I'm only in my early twenties and I've been writing since ten years old, but some of the points you've outlined here - it's honestly the first time I've encountered them. I am admittedly guilty of some of the pet peeves for deep POV, especially with the 'he thought' or 'she thought' phrases. No wonder, whenever I'm rereading and revising and editing my work, I always end up omitting these phrases as they don't only sound redundant, they place a huge gap between the character and reader as well, which defeats the purpose of getting your reader into the feel of the character. Thanks again! This is very helpful especially that I am currently writing a fic in deep POV (:

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    1. Glad to help, and it doesn't really matter if you've used those words; if you're seeing them in edits and they're bothering you, you've got the hang of it.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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