Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Up Close and Personal

Some stories put distance between you and the characters. Perhaps you never learn the main character's name, or the character's thoughts are never revealed. Other stories pull you strongly into the world and viewpoint of a character. Whether an author lets you view characters up close and personal or only from a distance is a choice, with no right or wrong. However, close distance—sometimes called "deep point of view" (deep POV)—can make readers like the story better because they personally experience events and emotions with the characters.

Deep POV is distinct from whether the story is told from first-person POV (each scene told only from the viewpoint of "I"), second-person POV (each scene told only from the viewpoint of "you"), third-person POV (each scene told only from the viewpoint of he, she, or it), or omniscient POV (third-person POV, but with viewpoints of multiple characters within the same scene). Although some authors view deep POV as a variety of third-person POV, it can be used with first-person or second-person POV as well.

Deep POV took me a long time to understand, and I still find it difficult to execute. At its essence, however, deep POV overlaps with that most basic rule of writing: Show, don't tell.

Rather than tell you any more about deep POV, I'll show you some example sentences and how they can be changed to reduce the distance between reader and character.

Mary wondered whether the cat was still in the house.
Distancing words: "Mary wondered whether," "the cat"

New sentence: Was Puff still in the house?

Mary could see Puff leaping in the air to catch a cricket.
Distancing words: "Mary could see"
New sentence: Puff leapt in the air and caught a cricket.

In the above two examples, we are in Mary's POV, so there's no reason to mention that Mary saw, smelled, tasted, heard, touched, thought, decided, or wondered something. Doing so only reminds readers that they are not truly experiencing what Mary experiences.

John felt as though he couldn't breathe.
Distancing words: "John felt as though"
New sentence: John couldn't breathe.

John thought he might throw up.
Distancing words: "John thought he might"
New sentence: John's stomach roiled.

John felt sad.
Distancing words: "John felt"
New sentence: Tears welled in John's eyes. OR Grief bowed John's shoulders. OR John picked up the phone to call Mary, then set it down and sought the comfort of his easy chair instead.

In these examples, the author tells us that John experiences an emotion or sensation. The revisions are more intimate: We see John's experience. In the suggested revisions for the third example, we see his response to his emotion, which also deepens characterization.

One could write a book on deep POV. (I'm surprised no one has.) I can't do the subject justice in one blog post. But I can list some warning signs that you aren't in deep POV.

✥ If you imagine your scenes as if you're watching a movie, you may be too far away. Put yourself inside the POV character, looking out of their eyeballs. The deeper you can burrow into their mind and body, the easier it will be to write from the character's perspective.

✥ You name emotions such as anxiety, anger, joy, or fear. For intimacy, show how the character responds physiologically or acts in response to the emotion without naming the emotion itself. Some writers recommend showing the physical reaction to an event first, then the character's thought about the event, and finally the action the character takes.

✥ You use "telling clauses" such as "he felt," "I heard," or "she saw." Instead, dispense with such introductions and show what happened instead.

✥ You provide information the POV character already knows and would not think about, such as her hair color or how to ride a horse or how mail is delivered in her time period.

✥ Characters' thoughts or dialogue reflect your perspective or knowledge. For example, a person from the Midwest sees a ship for the first time and describes it using the correct nautical terms. Or, a teenager thinks about his mother as "Jane Smith" instead of as "Mom." Or an average person knows the chemical composition of their prescription drugs.

✥ Characters' thoughts are in your authorial voice instead of in the voice they use for talking.

✥ Description stands on its own. When possible, provide description through your characters' physical and emotional interaction with their environment. For example, "Deanna's hair was the same bright copper that Mother's had been. John closed his eyes. She had been buried with a baby-smooth skull, courtesy of chemotherapy."

Can you think of other clues that an author may be unknowingly distancing the reader?

The Novel Spaces blog has some exciting changes coming soon. Our posting schedule will change as a result. I do not know when I'll post next, but the topic will be avoiding POV mistakes. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you enjoy the new and improved Novel Spaces blog.

—Shauna Roberts


Charles Gramlich said...

I'm actually not sure deep POV works in long works. I think sometimes you need a little distancing. and it also provides much less opportunity for the kind of descriptive writing and the poetical flourishes that I love.

Ron Scheer said...

As a reader, close POV works for me in short forms like flash fiction. Where word count and economy are critical.

But I'm no fan of first-person narrative. It induces claustrophobia, as if I'm being held hostage with someone who won't stop talking. In the wrong hands, close POV is too much like that.

Appreciate what you're doing here, but white text across a dark background is not easy to read online.

Shauna Roberts said...

CHARLES, several writers do use deep POV for much of their novels (alternating with more distancing) and it does work in the right hands. Romance writers and suspense writers seem to use it the most from what I've seen, perhaps because really getting into characters' emotions is so critical in those genres. Gritty detective novels too, probably to sustain the characters' strong voices. SF writers seems to prefer to have a lot of distance between readers and characters. Like you, I enjoy description, but that can be done with deep POV. If I hadn't been in such a hurry to get this post done before I left town, I would have looked for some real-book examples. Sorry.

RON, you're right. close POV has many of the same advantages and disadvantages of first-person narrative, which I do like. I have a lot of trouble reading our blog's text, too. I'm glad you waded through it anyway. I'll suggest to the designer that a different design be used so us older folks can read the text more easily.

KeVin K. said...

In short fiction I often use first person, particularly when the key is the viewpoint character's perception of events.

In longer fiction -- and in many stories where I do not use first person -- I use third person and vary how deeply I'm into the POV. The choices about how deeply I am imbedded when and with whom -- which are often completely unconscious -- are driven by the needs of the story.

I intensely dislike omniscient point of view and intentionally use it only when writing summaries. When I find it creeping into my writing, I recognize it as a klaxon warning me I have not thought the story I think I’m telling through.