Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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July 28, 2021

The 4 Important Layers of Deep Point of View

by Lisa Hall Wilson

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.

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?

What are the layers of deep POV?

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. These emotional triggers make them unable 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. For example, a person may feel ashamed as a result of becoming anxious or sad. In this case, anxiety would be the primary emotion while shame would be the secondary emotion. 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.

How characters experience these layers

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. (Example: "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. A common misunderstanding for newer writers is that these layers overlap and interconnect in deep point of view. These emotions and actions are not felt in isolation from 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

In this example, 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.

Do you have questions about these four layers? Are there other layers you would add? What other questions do you have about deep point of view? Please share them with us down in the comments section!

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About Lisa

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. 

Top Photo by Jeremy Zero on Unsplash

10 comments on “The 4 Important Layers of Deep Point of View”

  1. Hi Lisa,
    Thanks for the specific ways to write each layer of emotion. This can be murky and messy for me!

    Great post!

  2. Hi Lisa,
    This is a great reminder for me. I am working on including more body language to show emotion and enhance the scene.
    Wonderful post!

    1. Yes - emotions are felt by thre whole body. Theres a temptation to keep the emotions contained to the character’s thoughts - but by adding in more layers the reader is able to connect fully.

    1. Thanks!
      Donald Maass uses the spider’s web analogy in his book “The Emotional Craft Of Fiction” and I really loved the way it illustrates how every thought and action and emotion (expressed or repressed) is interconnected.

  3. The information here is insightful. I will make this a part of my list of things to remember. I always want to reader to feel my creative work.

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