by Lisa Hall Wilson
One of the more common questions I get asked by those interested in learning Deep POV is: how do I know if I’m going deep enough for deep POV? How do you tell if you’re actually writing in deep POV? How do you know if you’ve “got it” or not?
Deep POV is a stylistic choice to remove as much narrative distance as possible between the reader and the point of view character. It’s an immersive storytelling style of writing – like putting your reader in a virtual reality SIM or first-person shooter style of writing.
The problem, especially when you’re newer at writing, is that you can read a couple of blog posts and get a survey of the basics and believe you’re writing in deep POV. All I have to do is remove these few red flag telling words and I’m good. Not so much.
I spent ten years in that demoralizing cycle of: Am I in deep POV now?
No, not yet.
Deep POV is hard, it takes the idea of telling to new levels of intensity. Your internal dialogue must sound like the character is alone in their own head. The emotional depth is almost visceral. And simply obeying the rules isn’t enough.
To make deep POV work for you, you need to do more than know which words to avoid, you need to know what effect removing those words is aimed at creating. Then you strategically use that tool to create specific effects.
The basics of deep POV are outlined in many many blogs online. Remove distance. Create immediacy. Write tight. Incorporate sensory details. Avoid naming emotions.
Most of the time, in deep POV, if you name an emotion: angry, hated, loved, envied, grieved, etc. it’s considered telling in deep POV. What’s considered telling in deep POV is perfectly acceptable in shallower writing styles, so it’s not that it’s wrong but it’s creating distance between the reader and the character and removing that distance is the goal.
Bronnie hated going to school. Everyone teased her. She trudged towards math class and wished she was anywhere else. The faces lining both sides of the hallway weren’t angry, in fact, they looked to be having fun. They laughed and giggled and pointed like she was the freak at the circus they’d all come to gawk at. She ducked into class, her shoulders sagged with relief, and counted the seconds until the bell rang.
This is very close to deep POV, but there’s telling, some emotional distance that feels like storytelling. Instead of walking that hallway with the character, the reader is in a theater seat watching this happen – which isn’t wrong, but it’s not the immersive effect we’re trying to create.
Below, I’ve highlighted where the telling and distance creep in, and anyone just learning deep POV will reword the sentences to avoid using those words. However, it’s still not diving deep into the emotions of the moment – what I call the character’s WHY.
The reason this feels like storytelling is because the reader is being told how the character feels. Deep POV gets curious about how emotions feel and lets the reader decide what emotion is being experienced. Bronnie hated going to school. This is telling and author intrusion in deep POV because it’s there simply for the reader’s benefit. Deep POV is written as though the character moving through a scene doesn’t have an invisible audience.
Three more doors, then math class, and then she could escape. Go home to her books.
This sentence does more than TELL us she hates school, it SHOWS us how she feels. The reader now becomes the judge and decides what label to give that emotion. It’s a view through this character’s particular lens.
Everyone teased her. She trudged towards math class and wished she was anywhere else. The faces lining both sides of the hallway weren’t angry, in fact, they looked to be having fun. They laughed and giggled and pointed like she was the freak at the circus they’d all come to gawk at. She ducked into class, her shoulders sagged with relief, and counted the seconds until the bell rang.
The big red flag words here are “wished” and “with relief” because they’re telling, but removing those words/phrases still doesn’t put the scene into deep POV. The whole paragraph is written as though the reader is being told a story. There’s no intimacy, no raw emotion, no stakes, no why. Let’s try a rewrite aiming to remove the distance and immerse the reader IN the story.
Three more doors, then math class, and then she could escape. Go home to her books. Bronnie clutched three text books to her chest like a shield and set a fast pace as though the hallway were a bed of hot coals. The cool kids stood at their lockers waiting to pounce like bored over-fed cats. She kept her head down. Please don’t notice me. Please be too busy with your boyfriend and your gossip.
“Freak.” Lizzie’s high-pitched taunt had every head turn in Bronnie’s direction.
Her teeth ached and she unclenched her jaw. Just leave me alone. Bronnie shifted her books to ward off Lizzie’s insults.
“I donated that sweater to the church last summer. It has a hole under the arm doesn’t it?” Lizzy latched onto Bronnie’s wrist and jerked her arm up to point at the hole. The hallway roared with their laughter.
Bronnie jerked her arm free. Papa got her birthday gift at the church clothing bank? Heat from her chest erupted upwards, her face on fire. Her daddy’s the town drunk, Papa’s deep voice echoed in her mind. She don’t know any better.
Steven stepped into her path. Bronnie swerved to avoid him, clutching her books so he couldn’t knock them to the floor again.
He blocked her escape. “What’s the matter, freak? Cat got your tongue?”
She couldn’t swallow around the lump in her throat. Be the bigger person – maybe that was true, but Papa didn’t have to get to math class. Why hadn’t the bell rung? Her eyes stung.
She flinched from the verbal punch.
Steven’s head tipped up with the force of his laugh. “Loser!”
Tears welled up, but she sucked in a deep breath, enough to inflate her belly. She ran the last few feet to class. The bell rang and she slid into her seat in the front row. Safe.
Yes, the deep POV version is much longer. Deep POV will add to your word count which is why you need to be strategic with it. But do you see how this scene puts the reader IN that school hallway with Bronnie? The reader is left to figure out what emotions she’s feeling, but understanding how that emotion feels is more immersive than labeling it would be.
Can you see the difference?
There’s no storytelling, there’s just a raw experience filtered through Bronnie’s perspective (her perspective dictated by what’s important to her RIGHT NOW).
Now, if this scene doesn’t move the story ahead, if Bronnie just needs to get to class, then diving this deep will slow the pace for no reason. That’s where an understanding of the rules and the effect the rules are intended to create, is essential.
Starting January 2nd, I’m launching 15 days of deep POV where I’ll be going live on the Confident Writer’s page on Facebook answering the most common questions I get about deep POV.
Does writing in deep POV frustrate you? What’s your biggest struggle right now?
* * * * * *
Lisa Hall-Wilson is 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.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Love the way you SHOWED us what deep POV is, instead of listing a lot of rules! You invited us into an experience ... which is what we need to do for our readers! One thing I've found helpful is to literally act out the posture, gesture, or movement myself before trying to put it into words. Anyone passing the door of my office would think I'm a bit crazy, but it helps! Thanks for this clear and helpful post.
Yes - emotive memory is so powerful when trying to write in deep pov. I don't physically act it out, but I do dive into my own emotions and relive them in order to share those feelings with my characters.
As usual, every post on WITS is one I save. I'm preparing to get knee deep in edits and will keep this information near. Thank you.
I may have missed something, but how do I register for the deep POV lessons you're going to offer in January?
What I'll be doing is short live videos on my Facebook page answering some of the most common questions I get about deep pov (and the link to the FB page is on this blog). Near the end of January I'll also be running my 5 Day Deep POV Challenge on Facebook, so if you're interested in that you can join the free group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/
Awwwww, thanks Winona!
Oh Lisa, this is so strong. I can DO deep POV, but I stink at explaining HOW. No more. I'll just point them to your brilliant blog. Thank you!
Thanks!! I love to get all geeky about deep pov. Everyone else in my life just rolls their eyes lol
We don't roll our eyes! We just bask. 🙂
Love love love Deep POV ever since I picked up a copy of Suzanne Brockman's leaflet at an RWA conference. A test she suggests is to substitute "I" for the character's name/pronouns because deep POV is almost the same as first person. You can't know what the character doesn't know, see, hear, feel, etc. And the thoughts need to be logical for that character. Nothing irks me more than reading something like this: "The breeze ruffled the floral chiffon of her dress. She wondered if her long auburn hair would get mussed." People don't think that way about themselves.
Also, writing deep POV means you will use filtering words when the character is reading body language, expressions, etc. of another character.
I haven't seen the leaflet. That's a good tip. Not all first person stories are in deep pov though, some are written in a shallower style and use words that would be considered telling in deep pov. And children's books and some YA use a shallower first person style because those readers sometimes aren't mature enough or experienced enough to understand the subtext and other elements that make deep POV work.
Thanks for this post! Looking forward to January 2nd!! By the end of the post I had my fists clenched ready to knock this Steven guy out!!
Good! lol But this is the intent of deep pov, that emotional connection to the character. You understood Bronnie's discomfort in the first version, the second version put you in the hallway with her and you almost felt her discomfort, shame, embarrasment - so many others.
Great post. What I struggle with is going in and out of deep pov. As you said, it adds word length. For practicality's sake, the entire novel can't be written that close, even entire scenes can't. Do you have posts or advice for going deep and then drawing back in a manner that does not jar the reader?
You need to be aware of your scene's emotional arc, your character's story goal, and the effect you're trying to create. That will help you decide how deep to go in any scene. Here's a short post with some ideas:
Thanks for this, Lisa. Lately, I've found some of my writing inching toward this, but now I feel like i can take some bigger steps. Time to break out some short stories and practice this technique.
I used to tell people that deep pov wasn't hard, once you understand all the rules and the effects the rules create. And I still think that's true, but it's a pretty huge learning curve to get there. Keep at it. Finding a crit group that understands deep pov, or a good editor, are pretty crucial to really making deep pov work for you.
Lisa, this post is awesome! I'm only three chapters into my new manuscript. I'll review the work so far and see how Deep POV can make it better. Your five day Deep POV Challenge sounds like something I should do.
Yeah - for sure! In the 5 Day Deep POV Challenge, I give five free lessons and then feedback on the homework from each lesson. But it's only 5 days and after those 5 days the lessons and homework threads disappear. 😀 You can find the free group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/5daydeeppovchallenge/
Nicely done. Deep POV isn't something I've used in my work (so far). But at some point I'd like to give it a stab to get a better feel for it. Unquestionably, done well it can be very powerful.
Most of what I write involves a large cast of characters, and my favorite voice is Omni-which lets me explore all my characters in greater detail.
Deep POV will not work with omnisicient POV. In deep POV, the reader knows everything the point of view character knows, but that's ALL they know. There's not often too many POV characters in a deep pov novel.
But, you could certainly use some of the tools of deep pov to give emotional depth to key scenes or moments.
Thank you, Lisa. I like what you did with the sample, giving us a deep POV alternative. This was a helpful read for me.
Oh, one more thing: I'm gobbling up Liane Moriarty's books--she's a master at deep POV, and fun to read, too.
Awesome. Glad it was helpful. I haven't read anything by Moriarty at all, but I'll have to check her out.
Good to know, Rick! I'll check out her books.
I was thinking along the same path as Terry's comment about using first person. Very interesting that there is a not deep POV in some first person. I'll be looking forward to learning more in your January workshop
Always love examples to remind me what I need to do and how to do it.
Terrific post and wonderful examples. Thanks for this post. I will be linking to it on my blog.
What a fantastic before/after! Thanks for sharing your knowledge, Lisa. So helpful!