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Sunday, November 06, 2005

Deep Point of View

This article is a collection of my Deep Point of View blog post series.

The point of going deeper in your limited third person point of view is to stick the reader in your character’s skin. This will often result in a more powerful emotional experience for your reader.

There are some tips to follow that pull the reader deeper into the character’s point of view. Often a judicious word choice does the trick for you without changing the text.

These things will work to pull the reader into the story world and experience the story through the character’s eyes, in the character’s body. It usually gives more intensity to the reading flow.

Eliminate emotion words.

Many times, when a writer names an emotion, it distances the reader from the character. For example:

Anxiety trembled in her stomach.

Anger coursed through her.

She shivered as fear tiptoed down her spine.


It’s not that it’s wrong to name the emotion—in fact, sometimes it makes the sentence more powerful—but many times, when you rewrite the sentence without naming the emotion, the vision evoked in the reader’s mind is more emotionally impactful.

Ultimately, you want the reader to feel the emotion with the character, and readers don’t often feel the emotion when they read the words anxiety, anger, fear, etc.

They feel the emotion when they’re in the character’s body and head, feeling the physical sensations, acting with the character, thinking their thoughts, speaking their words.

An electric mixer in her stomach scrambled her insides.

Her body went rigid and her clawed hands trembled, a thread away from ripping the smile off his face.

A ghostly fingertip drew down her spine, freezing her shoulder blades together.


As with anything, moderation is the key—if the sentence flows better and is more powerful by naming the emotion, there’s no rule that says you can’t do it.

Eliminate “telling” verbs.

By “telling” verbs, I mean phrases like “he wondered,” “she realized,” “he saw,” “she felt,” etc.

He wondered if he’d ever return to her.

She realized he wasn’t the man she thought he was.

He decided to follow her.

She felt cold.


While it’s not wrong to use them—and again, sometimes using them brings a more powerful flow to a sentence—oftentimes, eliminating them draws the reader deeper into the character’s point of view.

“Telling” verbs tend to distance the reader from the character, and if you’re striving to stick the reader in the character’s skin, you want to be judicious with your words and ensure a tight point of view.

Would he ever return to her? (Here, by eliminating “he wondered,” we’re sticking the reader directly in his head and thinking his thoughts with him.)

He wasn’t the man she thought he was. (This thought can be followed up with an emotional reaction to her realization, which will draw the reader deeper into her experience.)

He turned around and followed her. (This combines action with decision, which draws the reader along because something is happening. Action will always quicken the pace and create anticipation.)

Cold. Her feet had disappeared. Her fingers wouldn’t move. The shivering had taken over her entire body. (Here, we expand on the description of cold and help the reader actually feel the character’s physical sensations.)

Show immediate emotional reactions in physical, thought, dialogue, action.

This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but often a character’s reaction to something usually follows this order:

(1) physical (gut or involuntary) reaction
(2) thought
(3) dialogue
(4) purposeful action

If you write a character’s reaction in this order, it will usually give a stronger visual picture in your reader’s mind, and the reader herself will almost feel the reactions with your character.

You don't have to use all four reactions. Go with the flow of the scene. Sometimes I only use one or two (like physical and thought, or thought and dialogue, etc.), whatever "feels" right to me when I write the scene.

One thing to remember--make sure you use vivid imagery for your reader.

Don't have your heroine's gut clench in dread at the thought of returning home. Instead:

Sam imagined the inside of her own house, just two doors down, and felt a shadow press its way into her soul.

--Surrender Bay by Denise Hunter


Don't just have the heroine think, I'm getting drunker, and this guy I picked up is looking better and better. Instead:

What do they say about ugly girls getting progressively better looking with each drink a guy downs? Well, it goes both ways. Sometime during the two hours since I strutted into the biker bar, this guy has gone from one step above Gomer Pyle to only a dozen steps below Antonio Banderas.

--Splitting Harriet by Tamara Leigh


Look at your own character's emotional reactions. Are they in the right order? Are they vivid?

Rewrite thoughts to be more immediate.

Many times, meandering thoughts are “telling” the reader information purely for the sake of the story.

Sarah wondered why he wanted to see her. She was only the housemaid, not a member of the family, and Lord Griffith hated her.

Show the reader the character’s thoughts, as if the reader is directly in the character’s head. The goal is for the reader to experience the character’s emotions right along with her.

Sarah wouldn’t be likely to actually say to herself, “I’m only Josephine’s housemaid, not a member of the family, and Mr. Griffith hates me.” She knows all that already so she wouldn’t tell it to herself.

But she’d emotionally react to her knowledge of those facts, and her emotional reaction will draw the reader into her emotions, too.

Why would Lord Griffith want her, of all people? To further humiliate the housemaid? Her gut involuntarily clenched at the fleeting vision of his spit flying in her face, his gaze blacker than the coat of his prize-winning horse.

Keep this mindset—don’t make it easy for your reader. A “telling” thought like the original example hands the reader the information on a silver platter. Instead, make the reader work to discover clues about the characters.

Describe things as your point of view character would describe them.

When you’re in deep point of view, think of your character’s personality and life experiences. The language of the narrative—even though it’s in third person—would still closely reflect the character’s own word choices.

As Risa entered the kitchen doorway, a flying piece of zucchini pinged her in the forehead. “Mom! Your chopping is going everywhere.”

Mrs. Takahashi paused the staccato action with the hefty Chinese cleaver mid-dice. “So, Satz offered to go to church?”


Risa wouldn’t describe her own mother as Mrs. Takahashi (unless they had a different sort of relationship and she was used to referring to her mother as Mrs. Takahashi). She’d be more likely to think of her as Mom or her mother or her mom.

As Risa entered the kitchen doorway, a flying piece of zucchini pinged her in the forehead. “Mom! Your chopping is going everywhere.”

Her mother paused the staccato action with the hefty Chinese cleaver mid-dice. “So, Satz offered to go to church?”


An easy way to think of this is to write third person as if you’re writing first person. The language, grammar, thoughts, everything would be from the viewpoint character.

Describe things as your point of view character would describe them (continued).

Word choice, descriptions, and grammar styles should differ from character to character as you switch point of views in your story.

Eat and leave. That’s all she had to do.

If Grandma didn’t kill her first for being late.

Lex Sakai raced through the open doorway to the Chinese restaurant and was immediately immersed in conversation, babies’ wails, clashing perfumes, and stale sesame oil. She tripped over the threshold and almost turned her ankle. Stupid pumps. Man, she hated wearing heels.


The first three sentences and last two sentences especially reflect Lex’s own viewpoint—her thoughts, her choice of words, casual grammatical structure. The reader becomes Lex because they’re absorbing her thought patterns and style of language.

The description of the Chinese restaurant also reflects Lex’s life experiences—she’s used to Chinese restaurants, to Asian-style parties like the one she’s late for. If it were a different person, the description would be markedly different:

Andrea O’Malley paused on the threshold of the Chinese restaurant. She wasn’t sure if she liked the exotic smells that teased her nose—spices she couldn’t name, as well as nutty sesame oil, salty-sweet oyster sauce, pungent soy sauce. She patted her French twist, which didn’t need fiddling with. She couldn’t help it—she was a golden-haired alien in the midst of these black-haired party guests. At least she hadn’t dressed inappropriately—the other guests stood talking in clusters, the women in short silk dresses like her own.


When you write a scene, become your character.

This is a tip I got from author Brandilyn Collins in her book, Getting Into Character. She talks about “emotion memory,” and how you can use your own emotional experience to write the character’s emotional experience.

For example, even if you’ve never been hunted down by a werewolf, you can probably remember a time when you were frightened. You use the pure emotional experience—even if it was from something as silly as a spider—to write your character’s fear as she’s being hunted down by a werewolf.

When you write in deep point of view, insert yourself in your character’s skin. You’re no longer yourself—you’re the character, with all her flaws, strengths, hang-ups, and victories.

You are Airhead Annie as she runs down a dark abandoned alley with that strange furry guy on her tail. He really needs a bath, he’s got leaves matted all over his head. And this alley smells like her younger brother’s nasty bathroom. Oops, avoid that pile of vomit, she really can’t ruin these $500 shoes. My goodness, this running is making her heart pound and the balls of her feet feel like somebody shoved a nail through her toes.

You become the character—you think the types of thoughts she’d think (brother’s smelly bathroom), care about the things she’d care about (shoes), notice the things she’d notice (strange furry guy), feel the things she’d physically feel (pounding heart, sore feet, and decided lack of fear).

Some writers will use certain music scores or scents to “trigger” their minds into becoming their characters. MaryLu Tyndall played the soundtrack for Pirates of the Caribbean when she was writing her Legacy of the King’s Pirates series so that she could become her pirate heroes.

I wrote a kickboxing scene where Erika is fighting her friend, a huge guy named Larry. I’m into aromatherapy, so I used citrus and patchouli (separately, not together) in my diffuser. I also put on high-energy music as I wrote this:

Erika swung her own roundhouse.

Larry stepped into her and slammed his elbow into her face.

Black pain. Erika’s shoulders impacted the floor, then her back slapped the mat. Her spine creaked. White flashes swam behind her closed eyelids while a jackhammer pounded her forehead. A vise squeezed her sinuses shut, but it didn’t block the dusty, moldy smell of the ground. She cracked her eyes open. The dim ceiling swam above her like a flopping tent flap.


It was kind of funny, because when I was writing this kickboxing scene, I walked around more aggressively as if I actually know how to kickbox and beat up big brawny guys like Larry. I had almost convinced myself that I was Erika.

You need to do the same when you write your viewpoint character. Be the character.

Don’t describe things/people/settings—instead, experience them through your viewpoint character.

Many good writers will include nice sentences of colorful description of a person, a setting, an object, etc. While they have creative use of language or sentence cadence, it’s still just description.

There’s limited emotional involvement since the description could be coming from another person in the room, not necessarily your viewpoint character.

If you’re going to describe something, give your character’s emotional reaction to the description. Several things will happen:

(a) The description become more interesting because it will be from your viewpoint character’s eyes—deeper Point of View.

(b) The language of the description will change to become that of your viewpoint character (versus your own author voice, or using words, language, grammar that your viewpoint character wouldn’t use)—again, deeper Point of View.

(c) The reader becomes more involved in the description because it will have a more emotional element—a result of deeper Point of View.

The lovely thing about using examples from my own writing is that I can do before and after shots. Here’s an excerpt from the original version of my manuscript, The Corinthian Rules (which got completely rewritten into Only Uni):

“All right, you lovely single ladies, come on up for the bouquet toss.”

Rats. She should have sneaked off to the restroom earlier.

Trish Sato ducked to hide from the sweeping gaze of the Master of Ceremonies, her skeletal Uncle Charley. He stood at the front of the large banquet room in his rumpled black tuxedo, his wisps of wiry grey hair floating several inches above his near-bald head. Light from the overhead fluorescent fixtures glared on his oversized glasses as he swung his head back and forth, seeking innocent maidens to capture.


(Not the most original of descriptions, I’m rather embarrassed at how cliché much of it is. But hey, I wrote it 5 years ago.)

You’ll notice a small bit of emotional involvement in the description, because Uncle Charley is shown as “seeking innocent maidens to capture,” and only a single woman like Trish would think of him that way—her mother or aunties certainly wouldn’t think that.

However, the emotion there is minimal at best.

Here’s the rewrite for a short story I’m working on (I’ll be offering the new, revised short story as a freebie for my newsletter subscribers, which is why I’m reviving this monstrosity):

Rats. She should have sneaked off to the restroom earlier.

“All right, you lovely single ladies, come on up for the bouquet toss.”

Trish Sakai dropped her head to hide behind Aunt Amber’s permed curls, nearly dunking her chin in her rice bowl. Had Uncle Charley seen her? Hopefully he couldn’t see much of anything through his oversized glasses and the glare from his near-bald head.

She peeked around Aunt Amber, risking a quick glance at the front of the large banquet room. The skeletal Master of Ceremonies hovered in his rumpled black tuxedo, so she ducked back before he saw her. Why hadn’t someone stopped him from those last few shots of sake? Then he wouldn’t be so aggressive about the bouquet toss now. He swung his head back and forth, seeking innocent maidens to capture.


You’ll notice more action from Trish in the rewrite. You’ll also notice more of her emotional reactions (primarily through her thoughts) to the description sentences.

Uncle Charley doesn’t merely have oversized glasses and a near-bald head—in the rewrite, she’s hoping it impairs his vision. Also, in the rewrite Uncle Charley’s rumpled black tuxedo is explained with too many drinks, and that fact causes Trish anxiety because it’s made Uncle Charley more gregarious than he normally is.

Go through your own manuscript and look for descriptions. Are they simply descriptions, or do they spring from the viewpoint character’s eyes and thoughts?

Utilize Motivation-Reaction Units

Motivation-Reaction Units are a terrific tool for showing the character’s emotional reactions and deepening Point of View.

The concept is that every action has a reaction, every cause has an effect. You write one sentence that’s the action, and another that’s the reaction.

For example:

Andie tapped her foot with the beat, until the Beach Boys sang the praises of Rincon Point. Chad’s favorite surf spot. (cause)

Her eyes began to burn. (effect)

--from A Promise to Remember by Kathryn Cushman


“I’m going to kill her.” (cause)

Joan closed her eyes. Patience. I need patience. “Hi, Mom. What has Gram done?” (effect)

--from Stuck in the Middle by Virginia Smith


The Reaction sentences are a great way for you to show the character’s emotional response to the Action. By showing an action and then an emotional reaction, you’re driving the reader deeper into the character’s Point of View—they’re becoming the character, experiencing the character’s emotions moment by moment with them.

Brush up again on Motivation-Reaction Units from Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. Some people find that book hard to read, so I can also suggest Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham—he talks about MR Units, but with a different writing style.

I also wrote an article giving the general gist of it:
http://storysensei.blogspot.com/2005/08/smallest-picture-motivation-reaction.html

Randy Ingermanson also wrote an article on it:
http://advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

Sometimes a scene will seem flat because the action doesn’t have the character’s emotional reactions. An action without a response by the viewpoint character loses its punch.

Look through your manuscript for your action/cause sentences. Do you have an emotional reaction sentence after it?

Go deep in revisions, not first drafts.

This will vary from writer to writer, but in general, it’s usually best to deepen point of view in your revisions. In your first draft, just slap those words down on the page and don’t worry about point of view at all.

For most writers, fixing bland POV is easier than coming up with perfect, deep POV the first time. The reason it’s easier to fix POV in revisions rather than first drafts has to do with right and left brain writing.

Right brain writing is pure creativity, left brain writing is analytical and revisions. For most people, your left brain is the side criticizing everything you lay down on the page, which can hamper your daily page count.

Just lay it down and come back to revise it later. You might even be surprised at the kinds of things you come up with.

Revising to deepen point of view is actually easier than it might seem. Once you know what you want to accomplish in the scene, what emotions you want to evoke, then tweaking the language to do that often isn’t difficult.

This is not true for everyone, and some brilliant writers edit (left brain) as they write their first draft. However, in general, people do best when they concentrate on immersing themselves in right brain creativity for that first draft, and then calling on their left brain analytical abilities for revisions.

Practice.

The more you write in deep point of view, the better you become at it. You also come to understand which character’s point of view is best for each scene. You sometimes can decide if you want to draw back and distance the reader from the character rather than doing deep POV.

Try it in first person.

My own philosophy is that a good third person is just like a good first person with different pronouns. I’ll sometimes write a scene in first person in order to get into the character’s skin, then change it to third person later.

The key to this (and any other first person writing) is not to lapse into “telling” the reader any backstory or emotions, but showing the reader (see my post on First Person POV, part 2)

Try a revision exercise.

With deep point of view, revision is your friend. Try this exercise on a selected scene from your manuscript:

Do one revision, then set the work aside for a week or so.

Then go back for another revision, another week in the closet.

Then another revision.

After each “rest period,” you’ll start to see other ways to deepen the character’s point of view in the scene you’re revising. With each pass, the scene will become closer to the character, deeper in the character’s point of view.

Keep working at it.

After a while, you’ll start writing in deep point of view in your rough draft of the manuscript—the techniques will become second nature to you. There will always be more refining you can do in revisions, but the writing will eventually become easier and less revision-intensive.

Update January 2012: For those of you interested, I also compiled a more extensive Deep Point of View worksheet available for download.

7 comments:

  1. What a great article! I'm so glad I found this blog! You offer awesome advice (though I don't like to read full books on writing the short articles are just what I need!)

    I really like how you go into the examples and techniques in such a simple and straightforward way. Thank you so much for writing this helpful blog!

    Claire

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks, Claire! I'm glad it's helpful!
    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  3. Thanks! You're very welcome, Joylene!
    Camy

    ReplyDelete
  4. I didn't realize it was called "deep POV" but I definitely use an entire round of edits for this alone. It's funny cuz I'm in the middle of rewriting a story I wrote three years ago and I'm noticing all the areas described with emotion and such. AMazing how much we grow year after year!
    Nice to meet you, btw. :)

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks Barbara!

    Thanks PK! Yes, I noticed how much my writing changes even after a year!

    ReplyDelete

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