Wednesday, December 9, 2009

This was posted on J's site, but I need to record it

Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes in fiction-writing. Deep POV is now trendy, and it’s appropriate for many types of stories, and also for our highly interactive culture. However, it’s only one of several POV approaches, and it’s not right for every genre, every book, and every author.

First, I should quickly define deep point of view. (I go into this in much greater depth in my book, The Power of Point of View.) Deep POV is a variety of single POV, where an entire scene (or chapter, or book) is told through the perspective (or point of view) of one of the characters in the scene. Deep POV takes this further—the narration is done not just in the perspective but in the voice of the POV character. It’s meant to establish almost no distance between the narrator and the reader—rather like a first-person feel with third-person pronouns. Here’s an example:

Allie thought Saturday was never going to come. All day Friday she kept waiting for school to be over, but it was taking forever. Every time Allie looked at the watch her daddy had bought her for Christmas, the numbers had barely changed at all. She thought maybe the battery wasn’t so good anymore, but if it wasn’t, then the clocks at school weren’t working either, ’cause when her teacher dismissed them for lunch, it was the exact time on Allie’s watch that it was s’posed to be. (Tara Taylor Quinn, Jacob’s Girls.)

The character is a child, and so the deep-POV narration uses the diction and sentence construction of a child. This lets the reader get an intense experience of who this person is and how she thinks.

Very useful. However, there are two points I want to make:

  1. Most writers who think they’re doing deep POV aren’t. They are doing single POV and confining the narration to one character’s thoughts and perceptions (and that’s FINE). But they are writing more in their own voice. There’s nothing wrong with that (single POV is by far the most common and accepted POV approach). What’s wrong is the writers who say they’re doing deep POV because they’re following a list of rules they got from somewhere, like “In deep POV, you never use the character’s name, and you never use ’she thought’.” Deep POV is not about rules. It’s about being so into the character that you feel with her body, think with her mind, and write with her voice. It’s writing from inside the character, and those rules imposed from the outside? Worse than useless.
  2. Deep POV is not right for every story.

And since (2) is what I’m supposed to address in this blog post, let me get going on that.

A) Deep POV is not right for every author.

I’ve concluded that most of us have a natural POV approach, one that feels comfortable and right for us. And we can learn to write in other POVs, but when we’re writing most naturally, we’re probably going to write in our natural POV, and that’s going to sound most authentic. I’m not saying you should only write in your natural POV (my natural is single-third POV, but I’ve been writing a lot of first-person and enjoying it). But you shouldn’t feel you have to force yourself to write deep POV if every word feels wrong.

Why might it feel wrong? Well, if you’ve spent a lot of time working on your own voice, making it beautiful and evocative, you might not want to cede control of your prose style to a character. I’m an English teacher, and I spend way too much time every semester helping students distinguish sentences from fragments and comma splices. Every time I write in deep POV, I find myself echoing the character (as I should in deep POV), who is invariably uncaring of grammar, not to mention easily distracted. So half his sentences are actually fragments, and half of hers are run-ons. That might be quite effective. But what if one of my students would brandish a highlighted page of Tony’s POV and yell, “Fragments all over the place!” (Well, actually, if one of my students could so effectively identify fragments, I’d give him an A right away. :) )

Many writers are proud of their voice, and rightly so. You can be poetic and evocative in deep POV—even an illiterate character can think in lovely if broken prose—but it’s not, at base, YOUR voice (if it is your voice, you’re not really doing deep POV). It’s not supposed to be. And if you want to write in your own voice, if you think the reader will get more from “hearing” you, well, why not? The whole point of writing is to create an experience for the reader, and creating an interesting or lovely experience is a valid aim.

POV approach also connects to your worldview. Now no one else agrees with me on this, so take it with a grain of salt. But I think your natural POV might reflect your understanding of reality. Hey, give me a chance! Let’s say that you think that there is an absolute reality, but it’s not necessarily knowable by most of us. That worldview is the one expressed by omniscient POV—the “godlike narrator” knows everything, within and without the characters, and knows more than all the characters together.

But maybe you think there’s no absolute reality, and that the only way to get close to knowing reality is to juxtapose the accounts of several people, a collage-like effect that is very similar to multiple POV. Now we single-POV types, we don’t know if there’s an absolute reality, and in fact, we don’t much care. We’re mostly concerned with the inner reality of characters, what they think and notice and value.

Well, you know, if you have one of those worldviews, your story choice and your POV choice will probably reflect that. And that’s good. It takes all kinds. That’s why we have several POV approaches, several genres, and many writers. There isn’t just one worldview out there, so there shouldn’t be only one POV approach. And you should at least start with the one that lets you express your worldview and voice, and—you didn’t really think I was going to say, “Anything goes,” did you?—refine it and reinvent it and revise it so that your writing is the best possible proof that your POV approach is right.

No, you won’t get it right the first time. Yes, you still must revise to make sure that your reader will experience what you want her to experience. But making your story and voice work well is plenty hard enough without adding in the pain of trying to write in a way that doesn’t feel right to you.

B) Deep POV is not right for every genre.

Most genres and sub-genres have their own preferred POV approach. Private-eye stories are usually in first-person. Mysteries are usually in some form of omniscient. Romances are usually in single-third POV. General (mainstream) fiction is often in either multiple or first person. The preferred POV reflects something about how the genre works—the mystery is about the mystery, not particularly about the character of the sleuth, so omniscient works well (as it does in many plot-driven stories).

Private-eye novels, on the other hand, are indeed about the character of the detective (and the detective’s voice), so that snarky first-person narration allows that. The genres evolved a preferred POV approach because that approach usually (never say always :) ) allows writers to create the experience for the reader which is desired in that genre (chills and fear in the thriller, thoughtfulness in the mystery, etc.).

You are likely to be drawn to the POV approach and/or the genre which feel right to you, which explore the themes and issues that are most important to you. So trust tradition. You can innovate if you understand WHY the horror novel is usually in single POV or sf/f is often in omniscient. The preferred POV approach usually helps create the desired experiences of that genre. So that’s a good place to start. And for most genres, deep POV is not the default (third person, at least—first-person can be pretty deep too).

C) Deep POV is not right for many stories.

Many stories would be pretty much unwriteable in deep POV. Plot-driven books, where information must be conveyed which the main character doesn’t have and action must be shown that the main character doesn’t witness, are usually told in a form of omniscient POV. Sweeping epics where worldbuilding or setting description are essential are better from omniscient too. Books where you are using an unreliable narrator are better from first-person.

Even tightly-focused character books can often be better-handled in a single-third person where your voice dominates. Dialogue-heavy books often benefit from the contrast of the conversational quality of the dialogue and the more formal quality of an omniscient or third-person narration. Stories with several major characters and a fast pace will often sound more coherent with multiple point of view. Comedy, which relies so much on the author voice, is usually in an omniscient ironic viewpoint.

That is, never feel pressured to write deep POV. It is not the only or best viewpoint approach. It’s only best if it’s right for you, the genre, and the story. Otherwise, try out the more traditional approaches and find the one that fits best.

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great blog! Very informative, and easy to follow. Best wishes with this project! Jeanne Nelson (a friend of Deb's)

Shelby said...

"Let me start by saying that there are no absolutes in fiction-writing."

Are you absolutely sure? :)

Eva Gale said...

This is me, grawring with frustration. I neededthis post, really, and I love it and understand it---and it's just further confused me. BUT the good news is that you posted it, and I needed it and that means I'm on the right track.

I have this book, you see. Something I've percolated for years and I'm thinking my craft finally caught up with my idea and I've written a bit of it. About a hundred pages in first-which is what the story came to me in. I also wrote a hundred pages in deep third, and everyone loves both and I can't make up my mind which way to write it. One is definately more commerically appealing I think, but then everyone who reads both says that the first person is The One. I think the romance reader is going to want that hero's POV-I know I would with this character. I'd want inside his head. And, in all honestly, I don't think the story is going to lose the spark that way, either. But if I write it in first, I'll appeal to a broader market-romance readers cross over.

What's a writer to do when BOTH POVs are nipping at her heels? Is there a test?

Lisa Katzenberger said...

I've only recently been experimenting with POV and this gives me a lot more to think about.

And I'm on board with your idea that what POV we choose to write in says something about our worldview.

Thanks for sharing!

Deb Salisbury said...

This is the best explanation of deep POV I've seen!

Fragments make sense in deep POV, but I've read that editors will 'repair' them, killing the voice. Is that still true?

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

I think I'd seen this from your website as well as Jordan's blog, but you're right - it belonged here too. :)

So what do you see as the most defining difference between single-third POV and deep POV? Is it the character voice vs. author/narrative voice? Are there any things we need to watch out for when we have a story that goes back-and-forth between the two? For example, my WIP is in single-third interspersed with paragraphs of deep POV (usually depending on if it's an action/dialogue/narrative scene vs. a internal sequel-type scene). I don't do anything special to indicate switching from one to the other (and I think it works and flows smoothly), but I figured I should check with the master. :) (I received your POV book as an early Christmas present, so I'll be reading up on this more, but this question popped into my head now.)

Thanks!
Jami G.

Anonymous said...

I stopped by for the comedy blog that a friend recommended. I'm glad that I did. This is very good infomation.

Anonymous said...

Jsmi, I think there is no defining difference between single third and deep third. It's just a matter of degree of penetration. And at any one moment, in the same book, same scene, the POV might be really deep or not so deep, and then be more or less. I think it does matter whose POV you're in, but within that, you know, good POV might kind of follow the character. Let's say he's not being very introspective now because someone is trying to kill him. He's focused in the action/perception part of his mind, and the narration goes with that, little thought or feeling.

That is, being IN the character might mean not being in all that deep sometimes. What's right for that moment? I used to think that this was a book choice (you choose the approach for the book), then I thought maybe scene... but sometimes, you know, the depth changes with the moment.

No rules. Just present the scenes to create the best experience of what is important. Sometimes that means not being all that deep. It's not a this-and-only-this choice, I mean.
A

Anonymous said...

Eva, consider this--
Dual first-person. Really.

Let's say you want her to narrate Ch 1. So

Chapter One

(her name in italics)

It was dawn before I left his room...

But you want Ch 2 in his POV:

Ch 2

(his name in italics)

So what if she left me? Didn't mean she wasn't coming back.

ETC.

You don't have to alternate even, as long as you put the narrator's name at the top of the chapter, and don't mix them in a chapter. Try it. I wrote a whole book of "sequential first-person" -- 5 different first persons. It hasn't sold, but not for that reason. No editor even mentioned that as a problem.

So give it a try. You get that first-person voice for both of them, and that's fun.

Alicia

Jami G. said...

Alicia said: POV might kind of follow the character. Let's say he's not being very introspective now because someone is trying to kill him. He's focused in the action/perception part of his mind, and the narration goes with that, little thought or feeling.

Thanks, this is pretty much how I was approaching it, and it felt right, but I wanted to make sure. :) Sometimes the narrative is observant and sometimes it isn't, as it follows my MC's state of mind. Same with how much "voice" is in the narrative - sometimes it's more matter of fact, and sometimes it's much more cynical, etc.

Thanks!
Jami G.
(or is it Jsmi? :) I suppose that could give me ideas for other pen names...Jasi, etc. LOL!)

Edittorrent said...

Deb, for this editor at least, I'm not prone to defragmenting a sentence unless it's necessary for clarity. Or there may be some other problem. But as long as tone and voice support it, a fragment is fine.

Theresa

Jordan said...

[Are we not allowed to use my whole name here anymore?]

I'll take on that part JG just highlighted: POV might kind of follow the character. Let's say he's not being very introspective now because someone is trying to kill him. He's focused in the action/perception part of his mind, and the narration goes with that, little thought or feeling.

I totally agree—but does that make it any less deep? Less narrative, certainly, but if that's what the character's feeling/thinking, then isn't that still pretty far inside his head?

Jami G. said...

Jordan,

I know! I saw that and thought - Okay, that's not *me* "J" she's talking about. :) But I gave you full credit in my comment just in case there was any question. LOL! (But then you had to go and use the JG thing... *sigh* No respect around here, I tell you... LOL! It's a good thing I don't take offense. :) )

Anyway, yes, I agree with you, that if it's the mindset of the character, then whether it's labeled deep or not is besides the point.

Jami G.

Murphy said...

Wow Alicia! This is awesome! I have read your book (totally kick ass btw) and JORDAN'S BLOG but I still have a tendency to slip between the heroine and hero's POV in a scene. My CP is great at going - hey, wait a minute here...thank god! I just wish I could figure out why I do it. I kind of feel like it's because I want the reader to know what his or her interior reaction is because I want it to be different from the reader's expectation of what it is without having to play out the physical justifications. Does that make sense, or am I making up excuses for a bad habit here? *Shrug* wouldn’t be the first time :D I’d just really like to know if I’m thick or something because it’s a pain when I’m constantly inclined to do it this way and sometimes it isn’t easy to correct. Sometimes I feel like I’m losing something good. Any ideas, oh sage one?

Hi Jordan!

Deb, great question about fragments! And Theresa? An even better answer. We've all seen my fragments, right?

Murphy

Eva Gale said...

"Eva, consider this--
Dual first-person. Really."

Get OUT. Really? You know I never even went there-- I thought I would be laughed out of the query box.

But now my eyes are bright and shiny and there's a pitter patter in my heart of excitement-I think I can do that.

Thank you!!

Eva Gale said...

Wait! What if the idea supports a series? It's a huge idea and can go on until I pull the plug on it--I want to start as I plan to go on (right?), can each book have dual first for each Hero/Heroine?

Jordan said...

Eva—why not?

Oh dear, Jami, I'm silently thanking with one hand and slapping upside the head with the other. (Do you prefer not to be called JG in general, or do you just like teasing me?)

Hey Murphy! Um . . . I don't know how to tell you this but . . . I killed my character named Murphy. (That's actually a major plot twist in book 3 of the series. Who knows if it'll ever see the light of day.)

ummmmm awwwkward ;)

Eva Gale said...

Hey Jordan, You're right, why not. I guess I'm looking for someone to give me permission... O_0 Cattywompus, iniit?

Murphy said...

Jordan! Be still my heart...Gee, I guess it is still. You killed me! :( How did I, er...I mean - (gulp) - how did Murphy, die? Bludgeoning? Shooting? Arsenic? Or, my personal favorite, an injected air bubble to the heart? No, don't tell me... OKAY, you gotta tell me. No! Yes...No, I mean it this time. Really, don't tell me...well, unless he hanged himself. That I'd want to know because I've come close to doing that a couple of times this week. Hell, at least twice yesterday. :) And truthfully? Yesterday? If I’d thought the palm trees were sturdy enough, there might have been a News Action Seven moment in my backyard a one point. Talk about awkward! You see, yesterday was windy and that's all the old bat next door (I hope she's not reading this blog :) ) needs, is to see me up there flapping in the wind... Hmmm, come to think of it, with me up there swinging, she wouldn't have to get up on tip-toe and hang onto the patio railing, while she stood and peered with those beady eyes - over the fence at me. I’m interesting...but um, not THAT interesting!

Jordan, Murphy, and your story, will see the light of day. That’s all there is to it. Got it?

Murphy :D

Iapetus999 said...

Now I'm more confused than ever because I'm always struggling to get my POV "deep" enough.
Someone told me that deep POV is "showing" whereas single POV is "telling".
But try as I might, I never really achieve deep POV. My mind just doesn't work that way.

Jami G. said...

Jordan,

Nah... I don't get offended. :) Having a nickname just proves I'm a regular, right? :)

I need to get to your blog again. I've been too busy to visit for the last 2 weeks, but I heard you had another good series.

Jami G.

Edittorrent said...

Iapetus, maybe examine some books in the sub-genre you're writing in. Most sub-genres' books are actually NOT in deep POV all the time.

Notice the judgmentalism in the idea that deep POV is "showing" and the other is "telling." Does this really mean that books before 1920 were all "telling"? I don't think so. In any POV approach, we can write actively and concretely or we can write passively and abstractly. In fact, many writers who see themselves as deep POV writers do very little showing, because they are confining themselves to the character's mind, which is more into telling and thinking.

Anyway, deep POV isn't right for every story or every genre or every writer. And you can give good story in different POV approaches. There's some odd notion that deep POV is the only one, but you know, really, most people who SAY that they're writing in deep POV really aren't. They just don't really know what it means.

There is in truth very little deep POV in contemporary popular fiction books, in my view. It's just not as common as writers think, especially across entire books.
Alicia

Edittorrent said...

Jordan, as you can see with Jsmi, when I spell a name all the way out, I get into trouble. :)
Alicia

Dave Shaw said...

Should we be organizing a wake for Murphy? O:-)

Eva Gale said...

"There is in truth very little deep POV in contemporary popular fiction books, in my view. It's just not as common as writers think, especially across entire books.
Alicia"

What about Suzanne Brockman's books? She has this paper out on her site (Linnea Sinclair gave a workshop on Romance Divas about deep 3rd and used Suzanne's paper)-lemme see if I can find it.

http://www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/PDF/ForceOfNature_Sampler.pdf

(In it she says that if a scene is truly written in deep 3rd you can swap pronouns with I, me, mine. She also gives anchoring words that )

Is that what you are talking about, Alicia?

And Jordan I see your links up at Divas too! I'm sorry I missed them, I'll have to check them out.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, I don't know what you're talking about. I hope Murphy is fine. I haven't heard anything.

Eva, I think most writers sometimes engage in deep POV, but it's difficult to sustain for a whole book, especially when you have more than one narrator. Suz might do it-- I haven't studied her books.

But I will say first-person POV is different, and more interesting actually, because the first-person narrator can lie. I mean, to us. Not just to herself. :)
Alicia

Wes said...

Alicia,
I'm reading THE 19TH WIFE which has the wildest range of POVs I've encountered. It flips from characters in different centuries, correspondence, newspaper reports, documents, men, women, straight, gay, even Wikipedia, and it weaves them into a coherent story. The author has done a masterful job.

Murphy said...

Hi Alicia:

I think Dave meant Murray. ;) At least I hope that's it, because, gee, I haven't heard anything either. (insert me looking over my shoulder for the heavily cloaked figure brandishing a scythe). :D

Murphy

Jami G. said...

Murphy and Alicia,

Nope, I think Dave was referring to Jordan killing off her character named Murphy. :) So, Murphy, I think you're safe for the moment.

Jami G.

Murphy said...

@JG: Thanks! That's a relief. (insert me swiping a hand across my brow).

Alicia said...

Wes, I think that stories that make use of what we have experienced in new media will be a fascinating feature in the near future. I would actually suggest that we should start talking about how these can be shaped, and what in a standard narrative will have to be adapted.

I have been thinking of a "webnovel" that is kind of like a novel done as the heroine's business website-- a blog, a website, a catalog, email, facebook. The thing I haven't figured it is how to have a linear/chronological narrative without breaking the web platform idea. Links, okay, but that seems sort of intrusive, you know, "If you want to know what happens with Natalie's booksigning, click on this to go to her email describing it." :(

But anyway, it might be fun.
Alicia

Eva Gale said...

"Links, okay, but that seems sort of intrusive, you know, "If you want to know what happens with Natalie's booksigning, click on this to go to her email describing it." :("

What if you did it like a screen shot, but big so the person could read the text? So the next blog post would be a screen shot of her facebook entry? A thumbnail facebook screenshot, maybe?

I'm not the most tech savy person out there-sorry if that's a sucky idea.

sylvia said...

"Many stories would be pretty much unwriteable in deep POV"

The examples you give are also all reasons why the story would not work in first person. Are the reasons always the same?

Or more specifically, is there any valuable difference between deep PoV and first person?

Edittorrent said...

Sylvia, here's the advantage of first-person: The first-person narrator can lie straight out to the reader. In third-person, the character might lie to himself, but there isn't that deliberate deception that is possible with first-person.

Example, going way back- I wrote my master's thesis on this. Poe's first-person narrators often lied in their narration. "No, I didn't kill that cat." "Really! My wife was dead when I buried her! She must have come back to life since then!"

A very, very valuable distinction.

But another is that there are readers who don't like first-person but are okay with deep-third.

What matters most is what works for the story. What matters second is what's conventional in the sub-genre. Well, second, I think, is what is more comfortable and creative to you the author.
Alicia

sylvia said...

Wow, of course. That makes perfect sense but I hadn't seen it.

Thanks.

Jami G. said...

Alicia,

You'd mentioned this lying in first-person thing up above as well, but I guess it didn't sink in the first time. :) I think I just haven't seen it before (that I can remember). Do you have other examples you can share with us so we can get a better understanding of this important distinction?

Thanks!
Jami G.

Eva Gale said...

I started reading SHIVER by Maggie Stiefvater last night (werewolf YA and BOTH povs are in first. It's my sign. ;-)

And the story is brilliant.

Anonymous said...

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