Monday, January 24, 2011

Subjective Point of View: expressing judgment with adverbs and verbs

I've been tracking a number of discussion threads recently about point of view and narrative distance. I've seen advice in several contexts that essentially says, "in order to get close to the perspective of your third person point of view character, remove filter words like thought, saw, heard, felt, wondered, etc."

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.

This is very good advice. Removing the filter word takes the actual event and promotes it up from a subordinate clause to the main one, thus giving it more immediacy. However, it's good to be careful in your execution, because one of the functions of these filter words is to create a link between the character and a particular observation (because with the filter word, your character is the subject of the sentence).

If you remove filter words, your sentences won't have the distance that the filter words created, but neither will they necessarily have any markers directly connecting them to your pov character (since the pronouns are gone). If you have already created a really strong sense of intimacy in point of view (through voice or other means), this can work just fine. If your point of view is already less intimate, though, you may find you're losing a sense of connection to the character - falling into a more "neutral-description" mode suggestive of an independent narrator.

Fortunately, there are some great grammatical tools available for creating a connection between your character and his/her perceptions: evidential adverbs (1, 2), and modal verbs. These are fantastic for a writer striving to achieve subjective point of view, because they express the character's judgment of events.

Let's get specific.

Evidential adverbs are adverbs that express certainty or uncertainty. They include such adverbs as: obviously, clearly, evidently, surely, no doubt, of course, naturally, probably, likely, etc. I'm sure you can think of more than I can list here. There are lots of them!

Modal verbs are auxiliary verbs that change the meaning of the verbs they sit next to, in a very particular way. The nine modal verbs and their definitions are below (this list comes from a terrific article that you may want to read in depth at Bright Hub):
  • can – ability, permission, possibility, request
  • could – ability, permission, possibility, request, suggestion
  • may – permission, probability, request
  • might – possibility, probability, suggestion
  • must – deduction, necessity, obligation, prohibition
  • shall – decision, future, offer, question, suggestion
  • should – advice, necessity, prediction, recommendation
  • will – decision, future, intention, offer, prediction, promise, suggestion
  • would – conditional, habit, invitation, permission, preference, request, question, suggestion
There are also expressions, like have to and it's impossible to, etc. which serve this purpose.

Both the adverbs and the modal verbs are doing something - by their very nature - that we want to do: drawing a reference back to someone who chooses them. Thus, even without the subject pronoun present, the modals give us a sense that the character is still there. If he/she were not there, it would be grammatically nonsensical for these words to appear. Very good news for us.

Of course, if we are to use evidentials and modals properly, it means we have to know what our characters think and feel about what is happening - but to my mind, that is never a bad thing! I'll return to the above examples, and then add a couple of adverb/verb judgments:

With filter:
He saw her enter the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
Without filter:
She entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
With adverb #1:
She entered the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink.
(This person evaluates the look of her garment as she enters. Note that "look like" can be independently evaluated; "obviously" is necessarily subjective)
With adverb #2:
Of course she entered the room wearing a stole that looked like real mink.
(This person evaluates the predictability of her action as she enters.)
With adverbs and modal verb #1:
Of course she had to enter the room wearing a stole that was obviously real mink. (This person isn't happy about her entry and thinks the stole is pure show-offishness on her part)
With adverbs and modal verb #2:
She must have entered the room - the smell of her mink stole was unmistakable. (This person is deducing that she has entered the room and commenting on how the deduction was made.)

I hope this gives you some ideas about what you might be able to do to make your point of view feel more subjective and closer to your character. When you use modal verbs and adverbs, you're not always saying precisely the same thing that you might be without them - but very often, what you can say becomes more interesting (and your character just might, too!)

Play around with this, and experiment. You could discover some fascinating subjective results.


  1. Awesome post. I linking it right now! I love when you break stuff down like this.

  2. This is a very helpful post - thank you!

  3. I actually first learned about filter words in close third person from Janice and I really appreciate what you've added here. Between the two of you I'm sure you've helped improve a lot of writers!
    - Sophia.

  4. Thanks, Janice, and thanks for the link!

    Andrea, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found my post helpful!

    Roberta, thank you, and thanks for the tweet!

    Sophia, in fact, I got the idea for this post in part because of Janice's discussion of filter words! Thanks for your kind comment.

  5. I love this blog. You always have such an awesome way of explaining things.

    Because of that, I gave you an award.


  6. Wow, thanks so much, Misha! I'll check it out.

    Thank you for coming by and commenting, Deborah!

  7. Thank you. You explain that so clearly.

  8. Jtwebster books, thank *you*. I appreciate you commenting.

  9. Ooh, such a helpful post, thank you!

  10. I came over here from Janice Hardy's blog, and NEAT! I'm glad I did. Helpful post, thanks. Ah, the subtleties of language!

  11. Welcome, Girl Friday and Carol Riggs! Thank you for coming by and commenting.

  12. I also found you through Janice's blog and love this post. I'm going to link to it tomorrow and am becoming a follower right now. Thanks!

  13. Welcome, Kristi! Thanks for coming by and commenting, and thanks for the follow!

  14. A wonderfully clear explanation. I was wondering where you were going with it for a bit, but I love the way you showed how different types of words and word placement make the meaning. I'm snagging this one for my interesting links. At this rate, you're becoming a regular there :).

  15. Thanks for coming by, Margaret. It's kind of you to pass on the link.

  16. Just found your blog and already I'm loving it! Wonderful post about how slight modulations in word choice can deeply affect the meaning.

    Definitely adding your blog to my must-read list.

  17. Wow. What a succinct but thorough explanation. Excellent advice.

    This reader is now, of course, following your blog.

    See what I did there?

    Nice to meet you!

  18. Welcome, Matthew - I see you're already experimenting with the technique! Thank you for coming to visit, and commenting, and following.

  19. Much to learn here. Love this post.


  20. This has helped me smooth out the rough edges I had when I took out filter words (she saw, she felt), which I did this past summer. It seemed to leave sentences 'naked' and I couldn't figure out why, and you nailed it. Just adding the word "thankfully" to the beginning of one sentence made all the difference! It pulled it back into the flow...

  21. Angela, I'm so glad it was helpful. Thanks for your comment!

  22. Thank you for explaining this. I write a lot in first person, and sometimes it's difficult determining where to draw the line of seeing the scene through the main character's eyes or simply having the scene unfold. This helps a lot with that distinction.

  23. Kristina, thanks! I'm glad it was helpful to you.

  24. I love the distinctions that you are making in all your points. The subtleties of language go far beyond arbitrary rules that are so commonly thrown around. This is very common with writers critiquing each other's work especially. If you're rushing to get through the pages, it's easy to look at a "she heard" or "she felt" or a "could" and throw up a red flag, but it's critical to look at the word in context of the sentences and scene around it.

    Thanks for an important reminder!


    1. Thanks, Martina! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  25. Wow. Just... wow. Brilliant. These are both subtle and powerful tools. Awesome post!