Writers in the Storm

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January 7, 2022

Embracing the Mystery: Deep POV

by Lori Brown

Hypothesis: an idea or theory that is not proven but that leads to further study or discussion

merriam-webster.com

My tenuous relationship with Deep POV went like this:

Q: What's Deep POV?

A: I can't tell you, but I know it when I see it.

This worked well enough—until it didn't.  So I got busy trying to get to the bottom of it.  Nail it down. Carve it in stone. Cement it immovably amid the legendary constancy of the English language.

I'll wait till you stop laughing.

You can sort of follow the progress of this endeavor by the history of the titles I tried out:

  • A brief definition of Deep POV
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code
  • Deep POV: Cracking the Code. Maybe
  • Deep POV: Legend, or Myth? [wait, those are the same thing...]
  • Deep POV: Is it really a thing?

as well as some of the discarded verbiage I left behind along the way (see strikeouts).

Deep POV is all about eliminating reducing managing distance between the reader and the story, and immersing the reader in the story. I knew intuitively how to use Deep POV (see "I know it when I see it," above), but when one of my editing clients needed me to explain it, I realized I didn't have a clear enough understanding of it to define it universally, without resorting to customized examples every time. I wanted something that would travel well from one manuscript to another. Something I wouldn't have to re-create for each author or student I worked with.

What I found—and didn't find

The struggle is real: nearly every website I visited had a slightly—or sometimes not so slightly—different definition, and Deep POV has yet to be covered by the likes of The Chicago Manual of Style or merriam-webster.com.

So you can see my dilemma. Someone had to do it. (Oh, the chutzpah.) (In my defense, I had significant prodding from a writer and publisher whose idea this column was in the first place.)

So, clothed in nothing but sheer, naked hubris, I tackled this slippery eel of a question: What exactly is Deep POV?

Disclaimer

This is a work in progress. It speaks to a specific situation—and maybe to others. But I began where my client needed help—sussing out what constitutes Deep POV and how it relates to third-person limited POV, with a specific focus on internal dialogue.

After reading a lot of online definitions of Deep POV, I came to a realization: I was looking at it wrong. I was thinking of Deep POV in terms of internal dialogue alone.

Math and logic have a baby and name it Literature

The fog began to clear a little after that. Let the record show, hand to God, that I got there using math. (Don't run away yet.)

I took what I was thinking and turned it into an equation. (And you thought that if you became a writer, you'd never need to use algebra again.) Here was my first hypothesis:

  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV = Deep POV
  • third-person limited POV + Deep POV – Deep POV = Deep POV – Deep POV
    (Stay with me; we're just keeping both sides of the equation balanced.)
  • ∴ third-person limited POV = 0

Highly illogical. Thank you, Dr. Spock. My hypothesis was disproven.

So I tried this hypothesis instead:

  • third-person limited + inner dialogue = Deeper POV 

And the lights came on. I'd been crediting a literary device (internal dialogue) as the sole alchemy that magically turned one point of view into the gold of another, and mentally equating the two—internal dialogue and Deep POV—as essentially one thing. But it was adding the literary device of internal dialogue to an existing point of view that took the reader deeper into experiencing the story.

So, I had gotten this far in organizing my thoughts, most of which are obvious, but bear with me; I was fighting my way out of the deep underbrush here. I needed visuals.

  • Third-person limited* is a Point of View (POV).
  • Internal dialogue** is a literary device.
  • Using both in a story creates a deeper variant of third-person limited POV.

What I was actually looking at was the convergence of one point of view with a literary device that made it deeper, thicker, like cornstarch thickens broth and turns it into gravy.

So far, so good. BUT, for those of you holding your breath or yelling at your computer that I'm just wrong, wrong, WRONG, and I wouldn't blame you at this juncture, here it is:

My hypothesis was much too limited. I needed a new hypothesis—and a fresh perspective.

What if …

What if, instead of a specific destination you arrive at, a coordinate on a map you can GPS your way to, something you can plot on a graph, Deep POV is something fluid? Something that can move at will, penetrating its environment like a mist? And what if this mist drifts in and out of that environment, morphing through infinite degrees of intensity, from a thin veil to a heavy fog?

This is the new conclusion I came to: Deep POV is an enigma. Fluid and changeable, as hard to grasp as a fistful of fog, and just as hard to measure accurately…but you know it when you see it.

There are many varying degrees of Deep POV.

And you, the author, get to manage them.

Viewpoints and tenses and devices, oh my

I had been looking at only a narrow segment of Deep POV, one that utilizes internal dialogue, taking readers inside your characters' minds to live, as closely as possible, their experience. And it's a powerful device, the rules of which are better left for another day.

But it's not the only POV or literary device that can bring the reader closer, deeper into the story. Look at this short (and not exhaustive) list of things that can also do that:

  • First person can bring the reader into a story and add or remove distance, depending on what the story needs at any given point.
  • Present tense can establish an immediacy that brings the reader deeper into the character's experience.
  • The narrator in third-person limited POV brings a level of closeness as the narrator paraphrases a character's thoughts.
  • Visceral responses, subtext of varying kinds, body language can all enhance closeness for the reader.

All these things and more create an ambience, a mood, an attitude. I am no longer even sure that Deep POV is best described as a POV.

I am increasingly convinced that Deep POV is more a state of mind. Multiple devices can bring readers closer to what a character is thinking, feeling, experiencing, and thus bring the reader deeper into the story—at a level that you, the author, can manipulate with increasing skill as you use it. You can bring the reader only as far into the story as you want them to be, at any point in your story, as it serves your purpose.

Lewis and Clark did not find a rock-solid definition of Deep POV, and neither did I

We humans love our certainties. They give us absolutes we can cling to, boundaries that are well-defined, the perceived comfort of a solid foundation to stand on and know that it won't change or give way. They feel safe. But life so often isn't like that. The world—and our writing—opens up when we embrace mystery. While some rules—okay, lots of rules (I'm looking at you, Chicago Manual of Style)—are necessary to make writing readable and comprehensible, some things are open to broad interpretation. And we should be delighted to have that freedom, to develop and use our intuition and imagination, and to discover new ways of managing closeness in our work.

You will find that some things you try won't work. Others will delight you. And yes, there are guidelines for making Deep POV work correctly—but not enough room in this column to go there. The more you work with it, the sharper that skill will become. And your writing will be the better for it.

My final hypothesis?

When we embrace the mystery that is Deep POV, exploring its depths and testing its limits, we expand our horizons, deepen our writing's dimensions, and create for our readers an adventure worth getting lost in.

You can test this hypothesis every time you write.

The proof is up to you.

How have you incorporated/managed closeness in your writing? Please share in the comments below.

*third-person limited POV: a.k.a. close third POV

**internal dialogue: a.k.a. inner monologue, inner dialogue, inner thought, inner voice, internal discourse, unspoken discourse, internal monologue,  and maybe more. Small wonder grammar sends people screaming out into the night.

* * * * * *

About Lori

Lori Brown

Lori has been a professional editor for over twenty years. She firmly believes that good writing can—and does—change the world, and that good editing and good writing are inseparable. She is a fierce defender of the Oxford comma and is adamant about preserving an author's voice and intent. 

Lori's work and life run on intuition (and CMOS) and the conviction that artists are our most influential prophets. She conducts editing workshops for Lawson Writers Academy and is the owner and CEO of Grammarwitch LLC, where she edits books and offers book coaching.

Connect with Lori on her website: Grammarwitchllc.com

30 comments on “Embracing the Mystery: Deep POV”

  1. I've always regarded deep POV (my absolute favorite to read and write) as being inside the POV character's head. I followed Suzanne Brockmann's advice when I started writing, and stuck with it.

    1. Thanks for letting me write with you! As for staying deep, I imagine it might be useful in a very specific situation, but I think it would be a very wild, intense ride. I suspect most stories need the relief of a bit more distance interwoven with the deep.

      I will check out Lisa Hall-Wilson's articles. Thanks, Jenny!

  2. I want readers to experience Pride's Children (there's your hubris, front and center) as if they were living it from right behind the eyeballs.

    I learned a lot from Orson Scott Card's Character and POV on how to do it: you move the camera on the rails smoothly from an almost omniscient external distance (but still third person from the character's pov) to the most intimate you can get, direct internal monologue, which I distinguish by putting it in first person and italics. In between you have INdirect internal monologue, third person, which fills in the space.

    After a while it becomes quite natural to tell a story from the multiple third pov of three very different characters.

    I reserve the deepest internal monologue for a limited number of important relevant thoughts, and the alternation lets me tell the story from the pov of the character most affected.

    And, of course, none of this should show.

    It's a little tricky - most scenes require a switch for author AND reader to another of the three povs - but it means the story comes from the moments in the characters lives that matter most.

    I like your description: I'll know it when I see it. But when you're writing a trilogy that will end up as long as GWTW, the heuristics keep you from pulling your hair out - from plotting through the final polish: when it's done, I no longer read it, but somehow feel it's real.

    1. I like the Orson Scott Card description of moving a camera along the rails to achieve degrees of closeness. And I like the clues of first person (essential in internal dialogue) and italics, one of the simplest tools to signal internal dialogue and avoid confusion.

      Agreed: none of this should show.

      It does require a switch in perspective for the reader, but it can be done well enough to become second nature--and it's worth the work. Thanks for sharing your methods!

  3. Deep POV, it seemed so simple. I was also certain it was the right POV for me. I became lost in internal dialogue when using 1st and rambled when using Distant 3rd. So, I tried it in 2015. My brain broke. Simple, I discovered, was my inability to write in Deep 3rd. Still, I remained convinced and dug in. I delved into a lot of explanations, taking tidbits from one after the other, some right here. In the end, the one that worked best for me was a short guide written by Marcy Kennedy.

    At some point (I believe it was in 2019) it clicked into place. I'd look back at older attempts to write in Deep 3rd and flinch. What, I wondered, was wrong with me then that I couldn't master the POV? I still stumble from time to time, but now find the problems jump right out at me.

    The thing is, I've read other examples of Deep POV and they all differ, and all differ from mine. Similar to what you've said here, my brain registers those differences, but it's difficult to pinpoint what they are. It used to cause me great stress, but then I concluded that maybe, just maybe, there are many brands of Deep POV. Maybe none of them are exactly right, but maybe none of them are exactly wrong. Maybe each places stress on a different aspect of the POV that fits best with that particular writer.

    Does it sound like I know what I'm talking about? Believe me, I don't think I do, but then, I'm not sure about that either. What I AM sure about is that I'm comfortable with the brand of Deep POV I use and am thrilled that it's allowed me to be prolific.

    1. "I concluded that maybe, just maybe, there are many brands of Deep POV. Maybe none of them are exactly right, but maybe none of them are exactly wrong. Maybe each places stress on a different aspect of the POV that fits best with that particular writer.

      "Does it sound like I know what I'm talking about?"

      Actually, it does. It sounds exactly like the experience of a diligent writer who has struggled with this issue--and embraced a bit of mystery. Accepted that there could be many ways of looking at something. Wandered around the behemoth and come to the conclusion that there is more to this than we originally imagined--so we need to imagine some more.

      I'm glad you've found the perspective that works for you. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Thank you for opening up this discussion, Lori! I love that there are so many different perspectives and teachers of a topic like this, something so fundamental to our craft. It shows our creativity in that we each find a different approach to be helpful, as we each wrestle with the creative use of our tools.

    I love your approach to writing fundamentals, because you show how writers can use a tool in many powerful ways, and you help me to approach my tools with wisdom and empowerment!

  5. I think the term Point of View emphasizes the visual and cognitive experience of the narrator at the expense of the other senses. Lori's point about visceral responses, subtexts, body language, (intuition), etc., is key to forming a closer connection for readers.

    1. It absolutely opens the possibility of greater connection to expand awareness through all the senses, and intuition always brings a deeper level to any situation. Thanks for your input, Mo!

    1. Hi, Eldred. I followed the link to your WITS article of two years ago and it was a lot like hearing myself talking to my authors. Avoiding info dumps and getting that information across more organically, often through conversation. Environmental interaction and body language. Making each character's voice unique and easy to identify. It's nice to know I'm also not the only one who didn't find a solid definition and who followed my intuition to an understanding I could work with. Thanks for posting!

  6. I, too, love deep POV. I'm still honing this art form in my stories. I know it right away when I see it in other author's stories. I tried to define it for an author friend recently and like you say, Lori, the right words became mist and floated away. I'll refer her to this blog post.

  7. In some circles, "myth" is defined not as something that isn't true, but rather as a mystery sufficiently deep that words and rational thought fail to plumb its depths. Example of a myth: "Elvis is alive."

    Exploring deep POV is deep in mythic waters. It's still beneficial to explore it in detail, as happened here, though. Thank you.

    A nit: We all know that Dr. Spock and Mr. Spock are two separate people, yes?

    1. Aauughhh! You are absolutely correct. It should be MR. Spock. I wonder if I can edit that now...oy. Probably not.

      Thank you for your kind, thoughtful, and eloquent comments--the definition of myth is spot on--and for pointing out my mistake, Bill. Editor's nightmare. But so much easier to bear when it's done as gently as this was. Thanks again.

  8. My go-to POV is 1st person, but my latest project demands 3rd limited. Your article came along at just the right time. Thank you for the solid advice.

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