Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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June 13, 2018

Emotional Layers: The Gateway to Deep Point of View

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Deep point of view lets your readers experience story through a virtual reality headset. Readers want to take an emotional journey alongside the main character in every scene. This style puts readers IN the story as much as possible.

To achieve this, writers have to avoid summarizing or telling how a character feels. Instead, they must present evidence to the reader about how the character feels. Not enough evidence and the reader is lost, too much and the reader is bored.

To effectively write in deep point of view, the author must know the WHY in every scene. Why did your point of view character (POVC) say that, do that, hide that, run away or stand and fight—all of it.

I’m constantly looking for a way to break things down, create an actionable process, so I can understand things. Deep point of view makes sense to me by writing in emotional layers. Every action (or in the case of fiction, every thought) has an equal and opposite reaction.

Layer 1: Primary or Basic Emotions

These are the unthinking instinctive emotions. Some examples would be: attraction, lust, disgust, joy, fear, excitement, sadness, surprise, etc. Most often, we show readers primary emotions through body language and physiology—what’s going on inside: heart rate, skin prickles, sweating, etc.

Layer 2: Emotional Triggers

Sometimes, a situation or scenario can catapult a character straight to layer 4. They won’t be able to articulate the primary emotions involved because this particular mix is their unique brand of poison. This is most often shown to readers through internal dialogue.

Layer 3: Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions (such as anger, shame, anxiety, and love) are reactions to primary emotions.  Secondary emotions demand the character DO SOMETHING because these emotions are intense and uncomfortable and feel out of control.

Layer 4: Behavior

This is the observable part of primary and secondary emotions. This is where the fight, flight or freeze instinct would come in. Fear and surprise force a character to run away or fight back. Love forces them to hug or kiss.

In any given scene, your POVC could experience one or all of these emotional layers. Each layer may only be a couple of words – a sentence fragment. Just a word. Run! But readers will be pulled deeper into the story this way and take their own emotional journey—it may not be the same emotional journey as your POVC, but that’s OK. Your goal is to make the reader feel.

That’s a whirlwind summary of the emotional layers theory. Now, what many newer writers misunderstand about deep point of view is that each layer overlaps and is interconnected. These emotions and actions are not felt in isolation of one another. It’s like a spider’s web. Every intersection of the web is influenced by every other intersection. A tremor in a far corner of the web is felt throughout, right.

You Must Know The Why

So, getting back to the original question—the why. Why your character does things is what pulls the reader in. Readers don’t have to agree with your POVCs feelings or decisions, but they do have to understand them. In deep point of view, your POVC can’t keep secrets from the reader.

“Let go of me,” I say. I hear ringing in my ears. My voice sounds clear and stern—not what I expected to hear. I feel like it doesn’t belong to me.

I am ready. I know what to do. I picture myself bringing my elbow back and hitting him. I see the bag of apples flying away from me. I hear my running footsteps. I am prepared to act.”

- Veronica Roth, Divergent

Here, you can follow Tris’ thoughts to understand why her voice is clear when she should be scared. The reader understands why she feels the way she does, and in the next sentence we learn why she doesn’t give in to this impulse. She’s been raised to completely deny self, but in this moment of fear and surprise her ability to remain calm and have an action plan instead of just submitting to the abuse is a self-revelation and helps her make a decision.

There are plenty of readers who likely would never have this reaction to a homeless man grabbing them, but they cheer for Tris because they know this small tug is going to cause major reverb across the story web.

Make sure you come back next week where I’m going to take these concepts and explore the emotions of attraction and love and how this layering technique might work for you!

I’ve put together a free pdf for Writers in the Storm readers on the body language of attraction. You can get that here. Next Wednesday, I will be posting here at WITS on The Body Language of Love - Beyond Lust and Attraction.

I also have the free 5-day e course on writing emotions in layers that expands on the theory I’ve shared above.

July 1st is the release of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Subscribe to my blog or follow the Confident Writers page on Facebook for more details.


Is deep point of view something you feel you need to learn or learn more about? If you've mastered it already, what tips do you have to share?

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-WilsonLisa Hall-Wilson was a national award-winning freelance journalist and author who loves mentoring writers. Fascinated by history, fantasy, romance, and faith, Lisa blends those passions into historical and historical-fantasy novels.

Find Lisa’s blog, Beyond Basics for intermediate writers,  at www.lisahallwilson.com.

23 comments on “Emotional Layers: The Gateway to Deep Point of View”

  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Deep POV, and have trouble getting caught up in a story told from a distance, because I can't have that deep connection with the characters. (Although there are some exceptions, especially in some of the mystery series I love.) Thanks for showing the emotional connections.

    Suzanne Brockmann turned me on to Deep POV years ago, and I've never looked back.

    And this point is critical: "In deep point of view, your POVC can’t keep secrets from the reader."

    If you have more than one POV character, which is the norm in any romance sub-genre, choosing the POV character for any given scene is a powerful tool.

  2. Deep POV--the goal. Thanks for tools to help me get there, and harder (for me), stay there! I can't wait for next week, Lisa!

  3. I think of deep POV as seeing through the character's eyes, but really it's all those things you mention: primary & secondary emotions, triggers, and behavior. Thanks for sharing the layers, Lisa!

  4. Hello. These are some very well explained details about Deep POV, and very helpful article. I think I do understand every part of Deep POV rules now, except one... the "filtering" words. Now, I know what kind of words are the "filters", and I do understand WHY are they bad choice in Deep POV, but what I don't understand is the fact that I still see them a lot in the Deep POV novels. You took the example from Divergent, and I couldn't help but wonder: doesn't author use "filtering" words in that very example? Tris uses "I say", "hear", "sound" and "know". I've heard those are typical "filtering" words and shouldn't be used in Deep POV in order to avoid distance, yet we see the example in which Tris uses them. This really confuses me. Am I missing something about "filter" words? Are there any specific rules as to when and where we can or can't use them? Also, I've read all Divergent books and I was really captured with writing style nevertheless, it was intimate similarly to The Hunger Games which I absolutely loved. Anyway, I'm sorry if my comment is long or confusing. To sum up my question shortly, why this specific example is allowed to have "filtering" words in it? Is it because it's Tris's direct thoughts? Is character's "voice" allowed to use "filter" words? And if that's so, then why and when? Thank you.

    1. Julia,

      You are the God of your story. You can do anything you want! You pointed out to books that have them - the Epic Fantasy, Name of the Wind is positively chock full of them! That doesn't make your book bad.

      But. Readers today are used to sharp, fast reads. They want an immersive experience. They want to BE your character! Filter words keep them at a distance - keep them from being in the character's skin.

      Here's an example:

      She saw the mess in the living room, and saw how angry he was about it.

      See how you've showed us what's going on, like in a movie?

      Compared to this:

      The couch cushions were torn, the dirt from the potted plant, scattered across the carpet. Sean stood, staring, his face painted with anger.

      Okay, that wasn't great, but see how the second puts you in the room? She is the POV character, so if you mention it, we KNOW it's because she saw it.

      Neither is wrong, but the second brings the reader closer. See what I mean?

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