Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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

It's been a year since I first posted my most successful post ever! So today we're revisiting it. I love POV!

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.

26 comments:

  1. What an interesting post! You bring up many good points about point of view that I think will give many people food for thought. I'm not surprised that this was one of your most successful posts.

    Jai

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  2. This is the best article I've seen on POV writing - and it's turned my dislike of deep POV to love - I am writing 1st person and thought I could not or did not do deep POV here - but I already am! I am now going to use your tips to take it further - thanks again - I have recommended your article to my various writing groups including RWA's Romantic Suspense national group.

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    1. Judi, thanks for your comment! I'm so glad you found my article inspiring, and I really appreciate you sharing it with your writing groups. I hope you'll stop by again and suggest more topics for discussion!

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    2. I have one -I drive my editor crazy, so she says, with my use of parenthetical sentences - which she says are okay to use once in a while but I use A LOT! Please explain their use in a blog - I would love to hear what you have to say as I am very fond of them. thanks again - I continue to study this page - working to put deep POV into the last 2/3 of my WIP 1st person.

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    3. Judi, in order to be most helpful to you, I think it would help me if I could see what you are accomplishing by using the parenthetical phrases. If you are interested, could you give me a short example (maybe up to 500 words) and I'd comment on it directly? I don't use parenthetical sentences myself, but my guess is that I probably use other methods to accomplish similar functions in my writing. Let me know if you're interested. :)

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  3. Nice, useful article with some great tips. I write in limited third and always try to frame things in character voice and perspective. I did have a question about inserting judgments, though, as I've had issues with it.

    For example if I write, "She moved away reluctantly" about my non pov character to mean that my pov character thinks "she" is reluctant (whether or nor she is), my critiquer thinks I'm actually in the non pov character's head (instead of projecting my pov character's assessment of the non pov character's motives).

    The suggestions I've received on how to fix this issue are either to use a filter (which I don't want to do) or to describe what reluctant moving looks like (aka, she moved away slowly, with a quick glance over her shoulder). I've gone with the latter approach, but it loses that special sense of "judgement" you describe. I do have a character in the novel I'm writing who tends to project/judge motives a lot (and sometimes be wrong too, but that's another story), and I'd like to be able to show the reader that.

    So any suggestions of how to do this without making the reader think I'm sneaking a peek into the internal state of the non pov character rather than projecting my pov character's judgment in an unfiltered way?

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    1. E.L. Wagner, thanks for commenting. The quick answer to your question is that different rules apply for showing a character's judgment of another character. You can, and indeed you often should, provide a sense of how the pov character is drawing a conclusion by deduction. It's perfectly all right to say "she seemed reluctant," if this is the pov character's assessment of a secondary character's action. Often you can say something like "the way she glanced back as she left made her seem reluctant." Let me see if I can address this in a longer article for you.

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    2. Thanks!

      This is a really cool site and I think it's the most comprehensive one I've found on writing in deep pov. I think there is much here that is useful, even for people who just want to integrate of its techniques into more traditional third person narrative to make the protagonist's pov feel more vital and alive.

      I had a thought about another potential issue I've encountered when minimizing filters--replacing a filtered line like "He wondered where he'd seen her before" with the direct question "Where had he seen her before?"

      One reader specifically said he dislikes those kind of rhetorical questions in narrative because, in his opinion, people rarely ask themselves questions like that. So I've tried to use this less (not eliminate it entirely), and when possible use statements like "He'd seen her before. Somewhere." or something like that.

      Not sure how much of the resistance I get from critiquers on some of these techniques is down to my still struggling to get it right and how much is due to some readers really just being used to a more distant/formal version of limited third.

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    3. I think rhetorical questions are a relatively new style, or possibly they appeared earlier but with less frequency. I think more people ask themselves questions than your reader might think. However, there are tons of ways to get around them. Yours is one way. You could also say things like "Something was familiar about her..." or "She seemed so familiar..." etc. You might find it valuable to read some works that use very close point of view. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games uses both close point of view and present tense narration. My own stories use close point of view, but the tense I use depends on whose point of view I'm using. "Cold Words" is first person present tense. "The Eminence's Match" is close third person.

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    4. Just got an Analog anthology with your story "Cold Words" in it. I really liked it. The present tense really worked for the story. Couldn't get "bite bite" and "bel-belly" out of my head for a few days after I read it, either. Of course, may be because I have three dogs. Couldn't help thinking it was how their language might work, if they could talk ;)

      I'll have to read the stories you have up on the blog.

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    5. Wow, I'm glad you liked it! I'm actually planning a sequel and looking forward to getting the bite-bite and bel-belly back into my *own* head. :) Thanks so much for the comment.

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  4. Thanks for the suggestions :) Definitely good ideas.

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  5. What a fantastic post!! So glad I stumbled across it. Thanks so much.

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    1. Thank you, Catherine! I'm glad you found it helpful.

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    2. Told all my writer friends down this way too (Australia and New Zealand)

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    3. Thank you! (Or should I say "ta"?) :)

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    4. ha ha just noticed your reply. Ta is good - or 'cheers mate/bro' depending on Aussie or NZder you're talking to. I noticed your reply because I'm passing this post on once more to another Aussie writer ;)

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    2. This post was passed to me from the leader of my fiction writers group. Thank you very much for sharing this comprehensive view of POV. It's the best I've seen, and I will keep it to read many more times.

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    3. Thanks, Joe! I'm glad you found it so useful.

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  7. Thank you for a great, clear, concise article.

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    1. You're welcome! I'm glad you found it helpful.

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