Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 25, 2020

Why Don’t Bestsellers Use Deep Point Of View?

by Lisa Hall-Wilson

Hey Hey my fellow scribes *mittened fist-bump*

Most of the writers who request to join my free Facebook group “Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction” are looking for tips and help in writing deep point of view. So, I’m always a little confused when every so often someone posts some variation of: so why don’t bestselling authors use deep point of view?

I think these questions are often rooted in frustration. Deep point of view isn’t easy to learn. It’s even more difficult when you think you’re writing in deep POV, but really it’s limited/close third person (or even more distant than that) and you just can’t see the difference.

Psychic Distance

The idea of levels of psychic distance was coined by John Gardner in The Art Of Fiction. This is the idea of how close the reader is to the point of view character’s thoughts/feelings with the gap between them bridged by the writer/narrator voice. These POV styles have been given different names over time, I’ve tried to include a few of the common ones.

With omniscient POV, the writer/narrator knows everything, at times even the future. Sometimes the narrator is a character in their own right, but mostly it’s the writer/narrator voice telling the story objectively (details, descriptions, thoughts) about any or all of the characters. The reader gets a story about one or many characters from the writer/narrator. (ie. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman)

The next level of psychic distance is known by a few names (Indirect thought, objective third person). The author is still telling a story about the characters, but the narrator tries to communicate emotion to the reader. If you’re aiming to write in limited/close third but are told you’re “telling” -- this is the style you’re slipping into most likely.

In Limited or Close Third Person POV (or direct thought), the author/narrator voice is still telling the story but they’re limited to one character at a time, and that character shares the storytelling role through internal dialogue and some internal sensations. We see internal rhetorical questions come into use. There’s more evoking of emotions and the reader gets to be inside the character’s head some of the time.

In contrast, there is no narrator/writer voice in deep point of view. The character isn’t telling a story, they’re living out the story and the reader is a fly on the wall inside the character’s head. The reader experiences the story vicariously through the character. It’s like a first-person shooter game viewpoint. There’s no psychic distance or gap between the reader and the character (hence why there’s no need for italics for direct thoughts in deep pov). This is a massive mindset shift in how story is told.

Become A True Artist

So, back to the main question – why don’t bestselling writers use deep point of view? First, I would argue they do. Overwhelmingly, deep POV is used in certain genres like romance, but in most genres most bestsellers are dipping into deep POV in a variety of different ways.

The key is to know what psychic distance is and how each POV style uses it to tell a story that keeps the reader turning pages. Each style serves a purpose and creates specific effects, so use them strategically.

Shifting Between Psychic Distance Styles

The blue text is limited/close third person, bolded is deep pov, and orange is objective or indirect point of view. This first one is written in first person, but it’s not all in deep point of view (a lot of people don’t understand that first person is not automatically deep pov).

Do you see how the different styles are blended together as best serves the story and the emotional arc of the chapter? Those last two sentences has the narrator/writer voice creeping in to bridge the gap for readers that (to me) feels a bit more distant than the opening sentences. (You might disagree with me about that. That’s fine.)

Let’s look at another example of the blending the styles:

Those two sentences in orange font are purely a narrator/writer voice stepping in to fill in the gap.

This objective narrator/writer voice is used sparingly but strategically. A few lines above, do you see how the deep POV really pulls the reader into the tensest moment in the chapter? Everything in this chapter has led to this impending conflict.

And just for contrast, here’s one written entirely in deep POV. Just head to the bestseller page on Amazon and click romance. Most of them are going to be in deep POV. Do you see how the narrator/writer voice is missing?

Even stories written entirely in deep POV will make use of the other psychic distance styles for expediency, in ways that serve the story. Rather than create some scenario in which the reader can intuit that Mariah is the point of view character’s daughter (which wouldn’t be wrong), Harlow just tells the reader who Mariah is, and moves back into deep POV.

Learn the rules, learn how to make these point of view styles work FOR YOU, and then break the rules! This is what bestsellers do very well, this use of psychic distance, so well that readers often don’t even notice. Deep point of view is difficult and doesn’t seem intuitive until you really understand this idea of psychic distance. You pair this with the techniques of deep pov aimed at removing psychic distance and creating immediacy, and the differences become very clear. Now you’re ready to use deep POV as you like in any style, because you know how to use each tool to create specific effects for readers.

Do you prefer to write in deep POV, limited/close third person, or some other style? What style do you most prefer to read in? Do you have any questions about writing in deep POV, or examples to share? Tell us about it down in the comments!

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About Lisa

Lisa Hall-Wilson

Lisa Hall-Wilson is a writing teacher and award-winning writer and author. She’s the author of Method Acting For Writers: Learn Deep Point Of View Using Emotional Layers. Her blog Beyond Basics For Writers explores all facets of the popular writing style deep point of view and offers practical tips for writers. 

She runs the free Facebook group Going Deeper With Emotions where she shares tips and videos on writing in deep point of view. 

22 comments on “Why Don’t Bestsellers Use Deep Point Of View?”

    1. Some feel deep POV ruins a story, strips away the mystery, is too intense. Since I love deep POV, I would argue none of that has to be true - but it’s not for everyone. Particularly, those who love the sweeping epics and literary genres that lean heavily on the narrator voice seem to dislike deep POV especially (from personal observation). Thankfully, there are books for every reader nearly.

      However, certain genres do lean quite heavily on deep POV.

      1. Oh, I have no problem with deep POV (it hasn't always been called that, but the technique has been around for a long time). It's an artistic choice, and like every choice, has its pluses and its minuses. My comment is simply disagreeing with the idea that most bestselling novels are written in deep POV. They aren't. Even the last romance novel I read (Beach Read) wasn't in deep POV.

  1. I really appreciate your point about how the POV can shift within a book, scene, or even within a passage. "Deep POV" is all the rage these days, but I find it exhausting when it's constant (that is, when I"m in the reader chair). So I suspect that the skillful, intentional use of deep POV is a sign of a mature writer. Sparing use might be most effective, at times of great intensity. What do you think?

    1. I think there are a lot of bestsellers using deep POV for their entire novel - in romance in particular. Some pick and choose the tools of deep POV that suit them. George RR Martin uses a very intimate POV at times but consistently uses dialogue tags - which is usually avoided in deep POV.

      Deep POV isn’t for every reader or for every story. But it’s more widely used than those who hate it want to admit. IMO

  2. Great post, as always, Lisa! I love deep POV and write contemporary and paranormal/fantasy romance. So now I'll dissect my scenes to see if I can identify the different levels of distance. I'd like to be more aware and intentional when I use deep POV.

    1. Barb, I struggle a lot with Deep POV, and Lisa's posts have helped me a lot with this. I still end up having to fix things up when I edit, but at least I'm getting closer to that intentionality you mention.

  3. My opinion is that deep pov requires a deeply educated mind to read as well as to write, and best-sellers reach out instead, at an easier level, to far more people than have or choose to use that capability in their leisure reading.

    But what makes those best-sellers a commercial success also ruins them for me. I don't enjoy reading the breathless thrillers or other entertainment - I can get that level on TV without putting in the effort, and with prettier graphics. Not everyone enjoys the classics. Not everyone has a huge background in omnivorous enjoyable reading that started when I was very young and no one realized I could read.

    I'm just as impatient with too-literary writing, for my taste, because I want wide stories where I can live with the characters a life I'll never have on my own, and when I make that level of commitment, I want the writer to be very good.

    I think we each reach our level of investment, possibly before we're even adults, and not many make the effort to keep developing.

    There are readers for most writers, and I'm still trying to find mine, but I love it when I do, and they review. It's humbling to have that effect.

    1. I'd say deep POV is mostly compatible with entertainments, like Romance fiction and spy thrillers (I do read these genres but I also agree- it's more fun to watch on tv and in the movies).

      1. On the contrary, IMNVHO, deep POV is completely incompatible with the genres you cite - because they are so unrealistic.

        The more realistic the deep POV, the more I can make my readers go on a realistic trip into which I must introduce a few tiny probable untruths (else I'd be writing biography).

        My 'What if?' must be subtle - there are plenty of the other kind for the majority of readers who prefer them. I aim to make you feel IN SPITE of yourself - because you have to believe what you are LIVING, and I hope to make you live it - with the deep POV.

        What I have read of those genres - and I read EVERYTHING (well, except Dan Brown) - no longer satisfies or moves me at all, though I recall it fondly from my youth.

        I can SEE the flaws when I read older thriller I loved then. The last time I tried an Alistair McLean, every single chapter was an 'I saw that coming a mile away - and so should the protagonist have seen it if he was doing his job.' So I can't read them any more. Too much experience, too old, too picky.

        But it does show me what to look for, and how not to repeat certain mistakes. And it makes my job as a writer both harder (I can't do that) and easier (I don't need to do that).

        With everything that's wrong with my body and my mind, if I didn't have that sense of developing improvement, I'd just give up writing. It's a lot of hard work, and I'm incredibly slow.

        1. I (not very humbly) disagree.

          Deep POV has nothing to do with realism. It is simply just a style- a kind of hyper-showing. It can be used for unrealistic fiction and more realistic fiction.

          Also, it cannot make you feel or understand a character anymore than traditional narrative fiction can. I would also add that the major drawback to deep POV is that an understanding of the greater world that surrounds the character is lost. So I'd say, the choice of deep POV (if your aim is to illuminate life) is a poor one (artistically speaking). There's a cost to all stylistic choices.

          Now if your point is that romance or thrillers don't strictly use deep POV and more often than not never use deep POV, I'd agree wholeheartedly.

          On a side note, I've been hunting for this mythical, fully deep POV novel for some time. I have yet to find it.

        2. I like the POV passion I'm seeing here in the comments. I always learn something when I have people weighing in from opposing sides. Thanks, Alicia and Greenbook829511120!

          1. My ultimate goal, Jenny, is to persuade intelligent readers to try my fiction. It is amazingly difficult - and I understand why, having been on the receiving end of 'read my book, please,' only to find I needed to back away slowly and find a very good something else to do right then.

            'Good' is relative, as tastes and opinions vary enormously across the reading spectrum. I'm just trying to locate the people who think as I do.

            Creating immersive experiences, not just storytelling, is what I aim for.

            1. Deep POV is a collection of tools that aim to create a specific effect. Whether or not you agree that those tools create that effect, or if that effect should be sought after, is personal opinion. These tools can be used on any story in any genre - they're neutral. Learn the effects the tools aim to create, and then use those tools as best fits your story. There are no rules about how much or how little you can use deep pov in any story. It's a tool - one of many in the writer's toolbox. Choose the right tool for the job.

              Deep POV works equally well on stories with plausible and implausible premises, because the strength of Deep POV is in viscerally, authentically, capturing emotions. Stephen King famously said - fiction is the truth inside the lie. Emotions (to me) seem fairly central to the human experience regardless of how fantastic a life you have or haven't lived, and so being able to capture emotions in such a way that the reader has an immersive experience in the story, an emotional connection to a character -- that's the ultimate goal.

              And many take my classes who struggle with expressing emotions in real life, they tend to intellectualize things. Many others feel deep pov "ruins" a story because they're uncomfortable with the tension, or the raw emotions expressed. It's not for every reader, or every writer - but that doesn't make it bad.

  4. Lisa - Thanks for the examples. I feel like the emotional impact is greater when the reader can get into the character's head. Writing or reading deep POV is certainly a personal choice. I appreciate your posts on WITS!

  5. Great Post! Helped so much and the best part "break all the rules" it just clicked for me. I'm such a rule follower I think that's been holding me back. I'm going forward fearless

  6. Hi Lisa, thanks for an interesting post! Personally I'm more of a storytelling kind of writer/reader, but I can see where the occasional drop of "deep" point of view has its place! Just wanted to add that your word processing program almost certainly has an option to switch off the automatic spelling/grammar underlining, which would make those extracts look much better...

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