Monday, November 14, 2011

A checklist for deep POV (in 1st or 3rd person!)

Have you ever wondered what "deep point of view" is, or thought you might like to try to achieve it?  Essentially, deep point of view means feeling "close" to the narrator in a story. It's a question of narrative distance: instead of being a distant storyteller aware of the story being told, the deep narrator feels as close to the protagonist and her/his instinct and gut reactions as possible. Since I've always loved feeling like I am experiencing the story in a visceral way alongside my protagonists, I've spent a number of years developing techniques for deep POV, trying to push closer and closer. The first article I ever wrote on point of view appeared in 2006 for the Internet Review of Science Fiction: "Point of View: Reading Beyond the I's." Since I've seen people discussing the question of deep POV again lately, I thought I'd put together a checklist of things you can do in order to create it.

I think the most important thing to keep in mind as you enter the task of creating deep POV is this: deep point of view is not created by personal pronouns. It has almost nothing to do with whether you are using first person or third person - you can make third person feel close or first person feel distant if you really try. Any text contains lots and lots of different opportunities to get closer or further away from your narrating character, and the more "close" opportunities you take, the closer your narrator will feel. The list below will give you a sense of where to look for these opportunities. Please do keep in mind that none of these are "rules," and you do not have to do all of them.

I'm going to go through each point of the checklist in detail first, and then repeat it at the end as a summary so you can run through it more easily. (So if you want to get the overview first, you can skip down to the end now and then come back.)

Here we go:

1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
Personal pronouns are the ones people always ask about first when they talk about point of view. Usually they're either "I" (first person) or "he" or "she" (third person) but sometimes can be "you" (second person). Just because you've chosen one or the other of them does not mean that every sentence, or even every other sentence, should start with one. As a guideline for where you should use these pronouns and where you should not use them, think about dividing your character's narrative into action, perception, and judgment. Action sentences are the ones where your character is doing something, and those are the ones which will use personal pronouns. Perception sentences are the ones where your character is remarking on something that he/she perceives (sees, hears, smells, feels, etc.), and those should not use personal pronouns. Judgment sentences are the ones where your character is expressing an opinion about something that's happening, and those shouldn't usually use personal pronouns either. Chances are, if you're using personal pronouns for perception or judgment, then you're filtering.

2. avoid filtering
Filtering means putting extra words into your sentence that remove the reader from the experience of the character. When you go through your life you probably don't think distantly about what you're perceiving. You hear a car horn and you don't think, "I'm hearing a car horn." You think, "Hey, that's a car horn!" The filtering words in this case are "I'm hearing." Anything that describes the narrator's thought or mode of perception "I heard," "I saw," "I felt," etc. should be considered a filter between the reader and the character's experience. Expressing opinions is similar. You don't think to yourself, "I think that slime is disgusting." You think, "Eww, that's disgusting!" In a way, by writing down "I thought," or other filter words, you're reminding readers of the character's presence, drawing attention to the fact that he/she is a character in a book they're reading. If you do this as little as possible, your point of view will feel deeper.  

3. use internalization
I'm going to pick up here on what I said in #2 above about what one thinks to oneself. Your character is going through the story, acting on the basis of what happens to him or her. In deep point of view you're trying to create the sensation that your reader is deep in the character's head, and that means listening directly to the character's thoughts - most often, right as they are having them. If you try to think of everything in deep point of view as internal in some way, then all description becomes perception. I'll come back to this below, because I'll be looking at a lot of tools to make description feel internal. My point here is that only what the character perceives should be described. Then, once something has been perceived (the character sees a rose; the character gets stabbed, etc.), then the character will have an emotional reaction, possibly one which evokes memories of backstory. After that, the character will form a motivation to respond and then he/she will respond.

Now I'm going to move into some more detailed techniques that involve specific grammar, and will contribute to the success of the first three above.

4. use deixis, or pointing words
When you move through life, you spend a lot of time pointing, both physically and verbally. Which one do you want? That one. Whose is that? Mine. Your character should be doing this, too. The trick to remember as a writer is that all pointing words indicate a "center" where the speaker is standing. Remember when the teacher called your name in class? You answered, "Here!" The word "here" points to the center; it points to yourself. In your narrative, the pointing words should all indicate your point of view character as the center. It's not actually very hard to make pointing words point to the character as the center in the case of dialogue, but it's much harder to remember to pay attention to the pointing words in general narrative. Every time you write "the night before" instead of "last night," you're taking a step away from your character's deep perspective. It's very easy to make pointing words in narrative point to you, as author, without even thinking about it. But in deep point of view, you don't want anything pointing outside the character. That character isn't aware that he/she is in a story, and thus you don't want author-centered pointing to remind readers that the author is still there. Here's a list of some kinds of pointing words that you can look out for (it's not an exhaustive list, so make sure to keep your eye out!).
  • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
Example: "This was what he'd been looking for." 
  • adverbs here and there (especially here)
Example: "He walked into the lab. Here was where it had all happened."
  • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night
 Example: "Last night it had seemed only a memory, but now it loomed ahead of him."
  • verbs come, go
 Example: "The thing was coming closer."

5. use syntax
This one is directly related to the question of the character's action as I mentioned above. A character's action is anything from "He held perfectly still" to "She grabbed the knife and dived over the edge of the platform." I like to think of it as things the point of view character does which involve intent. Even things like "She looked at him" and "He didn't move" can be deliberate actions on the part of the protagonist. Mind you, they could be external too - they are open to either interpretation - but if everything around them is indicating an internal point of view, then these will be read as internal as well. The guidelines below basically are saying that you want to indicate that your deep point of view character is in charge of her/his own action by placing her/him in the subject position of the main clause of the sentence as much as possible.
  • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
Example: "She reached for him." "They walked together into her room."
  • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
Example: "He reached for her." (if used too much, can sound like "he" is the protagonist)
  • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
Example: "As she walked in, the door swung shut." (puts emphasis on the door's action)
  • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
Example: "It was ridiculous to think anyone would actually follow him."
I'm going to explain this one a little bit. Notice that my protagonist, "she" is not present in this sentence. That's because we're not looking at an action sentence. This is a judgment sentence, and thus, if I said "She thought it was ridiculous..." then putting her as the subject would create filtering, not a sense of action. We often use the empty "It is"/"It was" with judgmental adjectives to think about situations in our experience, so I encourage you to do this for deep POV.
  • use bare verb+preposition combinations
Example: "He walked up."
This one is related to my point above about not putting the protagonist in object position. If I wrote out the whole situation, "He walked up to her," then she would appear in a non-subject position. If I leave "to her" off, then I find it seems more like what someone would think internally.

One last note of caution on syntax: when I say to avoid something, I'm not telling you you can't put your protagonist in these syntactic positions. I'm only trying to say that the effect will be different if you do: the emphasis will seem to rest somewhere other than on the protagonist's intent to act. Sometimes this is what people are actually referring to when they say to avoid "passive" constructions. However, if that different effect is what you want (for example, if you want the protagonist to be perceived as victimized) then no problem.
6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations
In deep point of view, what you're describing isn't what you're describing. It's what your character is perceiving, noticing, and judging. Anything your character doesn't perceive shouldn't even make it into the description (I'll come back to this in a second). Whenever you describe a scene or an object, think through how your character perceives it. Describing something as "red" feels very different from describing it as "dirty red" or "sparkling red." Saying someone moves "reluctantly" is a judgment by the person perceiving it. Maybe that person is only moving slowly for some other reason. A character will compare something he/she sees to familiar things - so what is familiar? If you say her hair is like silk, presumably you know what silk is like. If your character compares something to silk but is too poor ever to have encountered it, you're looking at author point of view, not character point of view. I have a longer article about this, here


7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
Whenever you can, it's important to create a sense of internal judgment - even in contexts where you wouldn't ordinarily expect to find it. Modal verbs and evidential adverbs can help you do this. I have a longer article about this, here, but here are some examples of how to use these.
  • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
These are the modal verbs, and each of them says something about the speaker's evaluation of the situation - likelihood, possibility, probability, will to accomplish something, etc. All of these are very subjective, and thus add a sense of internal evaluation to what is being said. For example, instead of writing "The ninja kicked him, but he quickly recovered from the blow," you could say, "The guy might be a ninja, but he couldn't kick hard enough to keep him down for long." And that brings me to...
  • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
These adverbs indicate the protagonist's judgment of the sentence or proposition that follows, how likely or expected it is, and what they think of the source of the information. In fact, you'll hear a lot out there about how you should be avoiding adverbs altogether, but they can be extremely useful. In this article alone I've mentioned them now three times! Adverbs expressing time, adverbs expressing judgment of actions in description, and adverbs expressing the protagonist's judgment of information are all extremely helpful to creating deep point of view.

8. use articles "a" and "the"
I just wrote an article about this one last week, but I'm going to add to it here. "The" indicates known information. It is especially useful in indicating places or things that your protagonist is already familiar with. As such it's really useful when you want to create a sense of internal point of view, because you can use it to reflect your character's internal knowledge. Be careful not to use it to reflect your own (the author's) knowledge rather than the character's. "A" indicates new information. As such it's a really critical tool because "a" is the primary indicator of noticing. If your character uses "a" with something, that means he/she has noticed that thing. Watch out for this, especially if you're trying to get a message to your reader without having your character get the same message. For example, your character can walk into a room where there's a really important key (a clue, or something needed to advance the plot), and just see it as "a room full of junk" (in which case the reader won't know the key is there) or "a room full of junk like old books, keys, and stationery" (here the reader might be able to pick up that the key is there, especially if some other hint has caused them to look for it). Here's the trick: the minute the character says she sees a key, that means she's noticed it. It's then up to the author to decide whether to show how the character responds - whether she looks by without thinking it's important, or whether she goes, "hey, that's the key I was looking for!" 

9. use voice
Voice is a topic about which whole reams of information can be (and have been) written. What I'll say here is that if you're striving for a deep point of view that directly relates the inner thoughts of your protagonist, then those thoughts should reflect the way that character actually expresses him/herself. If this is a person who speaks a dialect, then the dialect should influence the internalization as well as the character's dialogue (though the internalization doesn't have to be quite as extreme as the dialogue). If this is a non-native speaker of English, find a way for the narrative and internalization to reflect that (as well as the person's level of proficiency in English, and level of education, so they don't sound needlessly stupid). If this is a person who swears, then that should show up in internalization. Whenever you can, consider whether your character's reaction would be worth expressing with direct thought exclamations. These are things like taking "He wondered if he could..." and turning it into "Could he...?", or taking "He wished..." and turning it into "If only...", or taking "She didn't want to..." and turning it into "No way would she..." or even "Damned if she was going to..." These can of course be overused, but they certainly will deepen the reader's sense of your point of view.


So, now that we've discussed everything in detail, here is the summary checklist:


1. avoid overuse of personal pronouns
  • Personal pronouns are for action with intent.
  • Try to avoid them for perception and judgment.
2. avoid filtering

3. use internalization
  • all description becomes perception.
4. use deixis, or pointing words
  • demonstratives this and that (especially this)
  • adverbs here and there (especially here)
  • adverbs now, soon, today, tomorrow, last night 
  • verbs come, go
5. use syntax
  • place the protagonist (or the protagonist's group) in subject position
  • avoid placing the protagonist in object or other syntactic position
  • avoid placing the protagonist in a subordinate clause for action
  • use empty subject constructions to convey judgment
  • use bare verb+preposition combinations
6. use adjectives, adverbs, and similes with judgmental connotations

7. use evidential adverbs and modal verbs
  • can, could, may, might, must, shall, should, will, would, have to
  • apparently, evidently, of course, clearly, surely, no doubt, naturally, likely, etc.
8. use articles "a" and "the"

  • "The" indicates known information.  
  • "a" is the primary indicator of noticing
9. use voice
  • dialect
  • profanity/swearing style
  • "direct thought" exclamations (if only, no way, damned if)
I hope you find it helpful in your own writing and editing.

43 comments:

  1. Awesome!
    Just the ideal checklist, when you think a scene is OK, but not good enough, and you don't know how and where to refine it!

    Thanks a lot!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're welcome, Vega. Thanks for the comment!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow. I printed that out. This is something I'm working on - so helpful to have it laid out like this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Heather, I'm honored. I'm so glad you liked the post - good luck with your writing!

    ReplyDelete
  5. It's an awesome advice, and an excellent checklist for editing. I especially liked the "felt, thought" and co. because I'm so guilty of using those. :)

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thanks, Andrea. I used to use those too, and many still do. They're right for some, but at a certain point I realized that wasn't how I wanted to write.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Amazing List! Thanks, I am putting this on my wall

    ReplyDelete
  8. Good advice here. The "He wondered if . . . " one is a special pet peeve.

    Of course, as with all rules, we want to be careful not to overapply them. Much as I dislike filter words and phrases, sometimes they're necessary to convey a shade of meaning that just putting the thought directly in the narration (my default mode) can't get across.

    ReplyDelete
  9. This is true, Jordan. I've tried to indicate in the article that these can be applied to varying degrees. Anything can be overdone. One filter construction I tend to use anyway is "He realized that..." Sometimes the personality of the character fits with "Wait a minute...the butler was the *real* culprit!" and sometimes it just doesn't. :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. What an AWESOME run-down! I love aiming for a really deep POV and this list will be extremely helpful. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  11. I love how you differentiated between action, judgment, and perception as far as using personal pronouns. Great tip!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Thanks, Jami! Thanks so much for the comment.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Fantastic tips that I will certainly keep in mind the next time I write. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  14. You're welcome, S.F. Roney. Thanks for the comment!

    ReplyDelete
  15. I have yet to see such a great, detailed article on deep POV! And I look! Thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
  16. Angelaquaries, thanks for coming by. I'm glad you liked it.

    ReplyDelete
  17. This thrilled me to no end. It's so well thought out and well explained.

    I'm going to keep this around. In honing craft, it's easy to find learning resources on how to avoid the Don'ts of writing, but rarely do you find such an in-depth outline of Do's.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Ezra, thanks so much! The lack of "Do's" is one of the reasons I wrote this. A lot of it comes out of my linguistic studies of Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis. The rest comes from applying those to writing as I got better at it.

    ReplyDelete
  19. What a fantastic post!! I love the deeper POV and this will certainly help me in identifying where I've gone astray. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  20. Such a comprehensive list, thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  21. You're welcome. So kind of you to comment!

    ReplyDelete
  22. This was so helpful. I love the way you explained with examples. I will definitely refer to this often. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  23. You're welcome. Thanks for the comment!

    ReplyDelete
  24. Juliette, thank you for taking the time to post such a helpful article - especially with the specific examples.

    ReplyDelete
  25. You're welcome, Eliza. Thanks for coming by!

    ReplyDelete
  26. Yes, excellent post. Already saved it along with the other articles you provided. Very helpful. Thank you.
    Maryanna

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Maryanna! Thank you for your comment.

      Delete
  27. GREAT article, Juliette. Lots and lots of detailed info worth referring to again and again. Thank you so much!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Birgitte! That means a lot. :)

      Delete
  28. With technical stuff, I'm a slow learner. This was very helpful, but would have been more helpful if there had been more examples not only of "do this" but also of "not that," side by side, all the way down the article.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you did find it helpful, if not optimal.

    ReplyDelete
  30. This article was like an Ah-Ha moment for me. Seriously. I whipped through a few paragraphs and edited them with your checklist in hand and the result was like night and day! Can't thank you enough for putting it all together in one place.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. cavinggirl, I'm so pleased that it worked for you! Thanks so much for your comment.

      Delete
  31. How am I just discovering your blog. This post is incredibly thorough! I love that you are delving into subtleties that we rarely see discussed in blog posts. Powerful writing is about effect on the reader more than about individual words, and this is a great list of techniques to achieve specific effects.

    Thank you so much for sharing!

    Martina

    ReplyDelete
  32. I'm glad to see you here, Martina! I've seen a lot of rather vague advice out there, and since I have a background in discourse analysis, I'm trying to bring that to bear and to be specific. Thanks for your comment!

    ReplyDelete
  33. Great list! Really gets you thinking about whether you're doing this properly in your writing. Thanks a million for this!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome! Thanks for commenting!

      Delete
  34. This is one of the most helpful articles I have read. I can't wait to begin editing my story, and writing in a more deep POV. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete
  35. Just had this shared with me on FB - what an outstanding guide! Oh how I wish I had this when I started.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm so glad it is helping, though! Thanks for coming by.

      Delete