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Narration and viewpoint are two complex but important aspects of writing craft. Showing your reader the world through your characters’ eyes builds immersion. Learn how to write deep POV with a definition, plus tips and examples that illustrate why this is an effective option for bringing readers closer to your characters:
What is deep POV? A definition
POV (point of view) is a term that may be very familiar to you already. It is the way narrative is written (using personal pronouns, subject matter and more) to suggest a particular viewpoint. We’ve written about different types of POV here.
Marcy Kennedy defines deep POV (also known as intimate limited third person) in her helpful guide, Deep Point of View:
It refers to the most intimate, closest writing style, where the reader experiences the story as if they were inside of the character – feeling what the character feels, experiencing what they experience, and hearing what they think – without any distance between them. It’s emotionally intense and the author must stay completely invisible.
Marcy Kennedy, ‘Defining Deep POV’, Deep Point of View.
That last sentence of Kennedy’s is important, as this sets deep POV apart from ordinary third-person narration, where the narrator may be uninvolved themselves in the story’s events and may comment or pass judgement.
In deep POV, as readers we’re inside characters’ heads as their experiences unfold, seeing through their eyes. There is minimum filtering distance between us.
Let’s simplify this useful POV with concrete tips and related examples:
How to write deep POV: A simple checklist
- Eliminate filter words
- Colour narration with values or judgments
- Fit language to persona
- Limit narratorial knowledge
- Make your hand invisible
- Build rich interior life
- Avoid interal dialogue overkill
- Format deep POV correctly
Now let’s unpack these ideas about creating deep POV further:
1. Eliminate filter words
Deep POV helps you eliminate excessive telling. Why? Because to write from a character’s deep perspective, you can’t have ‘telling’ phrases such as ‘she/he/they felt/saw/thought that…’.
To illustrate, let’s compare these two examples. The first contains filter words (words that filter the action via a third party’s ‘outside’, report-like perspective). The second is deep POV in action:
1) Peter thought how intimidating the piano exam would be, with five faculty members sitting in a row. He remembered in piano studio the day before his professor had reminded them all to check which way to turn the height adjustment knobs on the piano stool before, so they didn’t look like amateurs twiddling and twiddling and getting nowhere. Professor Davids thought there was a good chance some would forget.
2) Five faculty members! And all of them sitting in a row. What had Prof. Davids said in piano studio? The usual about remembering which way the piano stool knobs turned. How they couldn’t look like amateurs twiddling and blah, blah, blah. Why had Davids told them that anyway, to make them more nervous than he already was?
Example 1 above uses filter words which suggest the narrator is not Peter himself but rather an observer, looking in from outside.
In Example 2, we gave an example of deep POV. It shows some key aspects of this viewpoint:
- There is no telling the reader ‘that’ Peter felt/thought this or that. Peter’s anxiety and alarm is in the text itself which reads as close to his own fleeting thoughts and concerns.
- There is a sense of persona and voice in narration. For example, Peter’s ‘and blah, blah, blah’ suggests that he finds his professor’s lecture boring or frustrating. The exclamation mark in ‘Five faculty members!’ conveys Peter’s alarm.
- There is no head-hopping. Kennedy calls this ‘passing the baton’. In the first example, we read exactly what the music professor is thinking. In the second, we are firmly within Peter’s POV – he can only guess what his professor’s motivation for cautioning them was. Neither Peter nor the reader can access this non- viewpoint character’s thoughts.
Deep POV exercise:
Find a passage written in third-person POV that contains at least one instance of ‘he/she/they thought that…’ or similar use of filter words.
Rewrite the passage in deep POV, bringing the narration inside the characters in the scene.
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2. Colour narration with values or judgments
One of the advantages of writing a narrator using deep POV is the scope this offers for showing who your narrator is.
Your character-narrators may reveal their personal values or judgments in the things they observe.
Kennedy lists some of the core features of deep POV in her manual:
1. Limited knowledge
2. Inside-out perspective
3. Interior life
Kennedy, Deep Point of View
This fifth element of deep POV, immediacy, is a particular benefit of imbuing your narration with opinions, values and judgments.
Consider this example, from Virginia Woolf’s seminal Mrs Dalloway (1925). The titular Mrs Dalloway, Clarissa, is heading out to buy flowers for a party in post-First World War London:
What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (1925), p. 1.
Although the narration is not truly in deep POV throughout (Woolf passes POV to other characters Clarissa encounters, in narration that is often called ‘stream of consciousness’ style), the above extract is typical of it. It is unmistakably Clarissa’s voice and her moment to moment associations we read.
There is tone of positivity and delight here that conveys the value Clarissa attaches to home and the small pleasures – sights, sounds – within her environment. We get a keen sense of what a character values with this closeness to their thoughts in narration.
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3. Fit language to persona
One of the defining features of deep POV Kennedy describes – an emphasis on interior life – is key to writing deep POV well.
When we read intimate limited third person, narration is built around a character’s personality, age, interests, experiences and other things that all make up a person’s perspective, their persona.
Deep POV fills narration with details that tell us who the narrator is, where they’ve come from.
Barbara Kingsolver uses deep POV masterfully in The Poisonwood Bible, where she creates the differing viewpoints of the Price family, missionaries from the USA who move to what was formerly the Belgian Congo (before independence in 1960).
Here, for example, we have the child narrator Ruth May. Notice how Kingsolver creates the sense of a western, young white girl’s point of view in an ‘other’ environment, the ignorance of both her age and her relative privilege:
The children are named Tumba, Bangwa, Mazusi, Nsimba, and those things. One of them comes in our yard the most and I don’t know his name at all. He’s near about big, like my sisters, but doesn’t wear a thing on God’s green earth but an old gray shirt without any buttons and baggy gray underpants.
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Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), p. 58
What is clear from Ruth May’s narration is the first element of deep POV Kennedy lists: ‘limited knowledge’. In the same chapter, Ruth May assumes children she sees with signs of malnutrition are fat, when malnourishment is in fact the reason for their physical appearance.
What this intelligent use of deep POV shows is the limits of a western gaze (or any inherited, closed framework) for understanding, seeing, interpreting the truths of others.
4. Limit narratorial knowledge
As we see in the above deep POV example by Barbara Kingsolver, suggesting the limits of what your narrator knows is a revealing way to illustrate the range and extent of their perspective, their experience.
Ruth May interprets the African lives around her via her limited understanding – of what specific bodily signs mean, or what clothing items people ‘should’ wear.
Deep POV thus is capable of showing your reader your character’s wisdoms as well as their blind spots first-hand.
Every interaction with others gains potential for misreading, misinterpretation and suspense.
Using limited narratorial knowledge for narrative suspense
For example, you could create narrative suspense in a story with two deep points of view by having two characters misread each other’s motivations or intentions:
He’d pulled some wild crap in the lead-up to their big day, but this was the last straw. Not a fancy, eco-friendly glass or steel straw. A cheap plastic straw. Cheap! That’s what it was. To be forty-five minutes late to his own wedding. After she’d told him only the night before about that time an ex had kept her waiting an hour for a date and the whole wait staff had applauded when he’d walked in.
How was it possible traffic was this bad, that day of all days? He saw her standing there fidgeting, eventually running from the venue, her parents exchange knowing, disappointed glances (her dad had never taken a shine, after all – how that first handshake had crushed his fingers – some vice-like grip, ‘pops’ had). Damn it! He wanted to punch the driver’s seat. Trapped.
In an example such as this, having two deep POVs on either side of a scene break shows the limits of what each characters knows about what the other is thinking, feeling. This gives the reader the pleasure of dramatic irony, of knowing something one of the characters does not.
5. Make your hand invisible
In writing craft, we use the shorthand of ‘the author’s hand’ to describe the presence or visibility of the author at work behind the words.
In deep POV, your hand should be invisible. You want your viewpoint narration to read as though it is the unfolding perspective of your character, with no puppetmaster’s coat peeping out from behind the story’s curtain.
Finishing a book with total reader immersion is challenging. Yet here are things that reveal the author’s hand to avoid:
- Overcomplicated dialogue tags: The more weird and wonderful dialogue tags get (‘verified’, ‘returned’, ‘rejoined’ etc.) the more we become aware an author is searching for words to describe characters’ speech. Simple tags such as ‘said’ draw less attention to the ‘writtenness’ of the text
- Intrusive narration: It reads strangely when we’ve been reading smoothly in deep POV and we suddenly have the author’s viewpoint intruding (e.g. ‘You see, reader, she was making a grave mistake.’) Don’t break the illusion that the narration is spilling from your viewpoint narrator’s consciousness
6. Build rich interior life
One of the strengths of deep POV is that it enables us to give characters a rich inner world. Because we ‘become’ the character while writing their narration, we may include interesting chains of association. We may include elements of characters’ backgrounds, upbringings and more.
When you finish story drafts and do a complete read through, check that your characters’ inner worlds are full and rich, not flat.
Returning to Ruth May in Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, the child narrator, coming from a family of American missionaries, mixes religious references with children’s fables and southern idiom. For example:
I sat real still on the floor and peeled my one banana like Saint Matthew would if he was a real monkey and not gone, and I heard them talking about the woman that got burned up. The roofs burn up because they are all made out of sticks and hay like the Three Little Pigs.
Barbara Kingsolver, The Poisonwood Bible, p. 59.
In this example of deep POV, we see clearly the field of reference Ruth May has at her disposal; the signs and symbols that shape the way she understands and makes sense of her world.
This creates a deeply compelling, authentic sense of character and voice. Build your own deep POV narrator’s inner life by using:
- Learned idiom and expressions (e.g. Ruth May’s distinctly American use of the word ‘real’ to mean ‘very’)
- Personal fields of reference (what books has your character read? What films do they love? Does religion play a role in their life? Where do they draw analogies or comparisons (similes and metaphors) from?)
7. Avoid internal dialogue overkill
When writing deep POV, there is often the temptation to send internal dialogue into overdrive. To give your reader an endless stream of your narrator’s every thought.
Kennedy calls internal dialogue one of ‘the most dangerous’ aspects of deep POV because thinking this is what creates close, intimate narration can lead us to include too many of our characters’ thoughts in a story.
So before you include ‘she wonders this’ or ‘it seems that’ or I wonder whether… ask yourself if it is:
- Relevant: Is the thought relevant to the present scene or action or what may happen next?
- Interesting: Of all the possible thoughts or actions in the present scene, is this a particularly interesting one?
- Necessary: Does this line of internal dialogue tell us something new, something more about the character?
Kennedy wisely cautions that excessive internal dialogue may diminish pacing:
Books writen in deep POV usually will include more internal dialogue than a book written in a more distant POV, but that internal dialogue still needs to be seamlessly woven in with action, description and dialogue. We shouldn’t allow our stories to stall out by dropping in giant chunks of internal dialogue.
Marcy Kennedy, Deep Point of View, p. 11.
8. Format deep POV correctly
A final word on deep POV concerns formatting.
If you are writing in this POV effectively, you likely won’t need to worry about much special formatting.
However, when you are writing in third-person and you want to include your character’s immediate thoughts (for example, an in-the-moment reaction within a past tense, third-person scene), remember to italicize these thoughts if they change the tense and/or person.
I wonder why that woman got all burned up. Ruth May carried on peeling her banana, picturing houses made of hay and a big bad wolf snorting fire coming to blow (or burn) them all down.
Clarifying the difference between a first-person thought and the surrounding third-person narration signals that the narration has slipped into the character’s immediate, in the moment thoughts (and that pronoun changes mid-paragraph are not in error).
Do you have any questions about POV, and deep POV in particular? Share them in the comments and subscribe to Now Novel for monthly webinars on POV, character development and more and tools to finish your story outline online.