Saturday, January 17, 2009

Jennifer is right... deep POV and "head words"

Jennifer said...

Okay admittedly I am not a tech guru, but I don't see a place to ask a new question,

In comments are fine-- we read them! Just ask in a current topic, because we won't be reading old posts.

so here it is:

Back to the discussion of deep POV...

There is a difference between saying, "He realized he wanted to stay" and "He wanted to stay." I get the feeling the preference is for the latter because it is closer/deeper POV. But what if I want to put the emphasis on the fact that he realized it? Would you, as an editor, get that, or would you think I made a POV misstep?


Jennifer, You are right. They ("the rulemakers") are wrong. :)

I am not one who thinks "she thought" or "she realized" or any "head word" is a break in POV. That's one of those supposed rules that baffle me-- that "rule" seems to say that humans are not thinking creatures, that we don't consider or muse, that these thoughts just happen to us, that we have nothing to say or do with it, that mental processes or intentionality don't count. It feels to me like writing "his foot moved" rather than "he stepped".

As you point out, the problem is that "he wanted to stay" does not allow for any suggestion of how he came to know that. "He wanted to stay" is just a statement of fact, a statement of what he wanted. It does not indicate that he "realized" he wanted to stay, that there was a process of realization, that it wasn't immediately knowable. As you said, "he realized" is subtly different as it says there was a realization involved.

In fact, I'll go so far as to say that those who say that "he thought" is a deep POV break haven't thought as much as you have about how minds actually work. You just can't do deep POV by following bogus "rules" about deep POV-- you can only do it by getting into the mind of the character and narrating the way that mind works. Yes, some minds don't have much in the way of thought or realization, but those that do will, in deep POV, show the process that led to that. (And that will contrast interestingly with the more impulsive character's sudden appearance of a thought. I visualize Character A's thought process as a Rube Goldberg contraption, while Character B's mental process is more like a lightbulb going off.)

These statements below all suggest something more than just "he wanted to stay":
He decided he wanted to stay.
He thought he wanted to stay.
He realized he wanted to stay.
He imagined he wanted to stay.
He believed he wanted to stay.
He reflected he wanted to stay. (Why do I want to put a "that" in there-- He reflected THAT he wanted to stay?)
He sensed he wanted to stay.
He judged he wanted to stay.
He reasoned he wanted to stay.
He knew he wanted to stay.

Choosing the right "head word" adds a layer of subtlety and often intentionality that to me is REALLY deep, even subtextual, and I'd hate to give up that facility because someone might (mistakenly) say that's not deep POV. (I will say one more time, btw, and I know everyone's tired of it, that deep POV is not the only or even necessarily the best POV approach.) For example, look at that last one: He KNEW he wanted to stay. Don't you just hear a "but" after that? He knew he wanted to stay, but he could hardly resist a competing desire to run for the hills. And "realizing" that he wants to stay results from a very different process than "deciding" that he wants to stay.

I don't know how to say it any better than this (and you know it anyway, so this is aimed at those others), but you cannot create deep POV by following a list of rules like "Never use the POV character's name" or "never have the narrator report that she saw something; just say what she saw." You can only do a good job with deep POV if you know your character so well you know how she thinks, and she will not think the same way another character does, and she might not think the same way in every situation! You can just about bet that Albert Einstein thought differently (not just better :) than I do. But I suspect (you know, I had "I think" there, and edited it to "I suspect", because I intuited that HOW I think made some difference) that Albert Einstein when he was thinking through a quantum mechanics issue thought differently than he thought when he looked up from his musing and realized he was about to walk off a cliff. The author has to get into the character in each situation, and narrate with that knowledge in mind. That's the only rule that really counts-- give your reader the deep experience of what it's like to be in this person (in a coherent way, I hope, but I'm not even going to "rule" that). How would this character think in this situation?

A better example-- consider that pilot who yesterday calmly brought his crippled plane down on the river rather than in a populous area. His mental processes-- not just WHAT he thought but HOW he thought-- would be fascinating, don't you think? I just don't think it would be enough to report his thoughts ("Oh, shit. Damned geese. Must save plane. Where are we? Oh, yeah, New York City. OMG, we're going to crash!"). We also want to know that "he took a deep breath and spent just a single moment considering his options: Try to limp into Teterboro Airport. Ditch right here in the Bronx. Aim for the river. He glanced at the altimeter and saw they were up just three hundred feet. Hmm. He calculated this quickly-- air speed and height and how long they could stay aloft. He decided to aim for the river. What the hell. They were all going to die anyway. Might as well try hard not to destroy a couple city blocks on the way. He tightened his hands on the wheel and made his voice calm as he explained all this-- in terse half-sentences-- to his first officer." Someone trained as he was will simply think differently at moments like this, will calculate and consider and decide. He'll think quick, but thoughts won't just appear. (The thoughts that would just appear would probably be in the "Oh, shit" category.)

The reader will feel the difference between deep POV you "invent" using some set of rules, and deep POV you channel because you know the character well. The readers don't know the "rules" (neither do I :), but do know when a character feels real to them, feels different and distinct and unique. Any "rule" that applies to every or most characters will not help create a unique character.

So, Jennifer, shorter answer: You are right. The fact of realization matters! HOW matters as much or more than WHAT.


Laura K. Curtis said...

(Why do I want to put a "that" in there-- He reflected THAT he wanted to stay?)

Assuming that's not a purely rhetorical question, my guess is this: "reflect" can function as either a transitive or intransitive verb. Because your first reading might be confusing if you thought of "he" as the object of "reflect," your tendency is to put a "that" in there to clarify.

Just a thought.

Julie Harrington said...

I often will tuck a "he thought" or a "he realized" type comment in my writing when, without it, the flow isn't right or the rhythm is off to my "writer's ear." But beyond that (and on Jennifer's question directly) of course you're going to add that in. It doesn't affect deep POV when you're inserting it for those reasons. We realize and suddenly comprehend all the time as we go through the day, seeing an issue or finally grasping they why of something and we do stop and think, well holy cow. I really do want to stay.

Edittorrent said...

JT, that "writer's ear" is so interesting. Do you think all writers have it? Or all good writers?

Laura, I see what you mean. "Reflected" is in so many ways sort of an odd word anyway.

Anonymous said...

As you pointed out, there is a big difference between *he thought* and *he realized*--the latter I deep POV. Also realize is much more specific and yet suggestive.

Anonymous said...

Where did that I come from? Laughing. I am on the notebook. Need glasses.

Kathleen MacIver said...

I don't know how to say it any better than this.

You explained it beautifully!

Edittorrent said...

Morpho, I think both can be in deep POV. WORDS aren't the definer of POV, but rather it's being inside the character. If the character has to THINK about something, what's wrong with conveying that with the word "thought"? Of course, it has to be used in service of the characterization, not just because we need some filler.

If the approach is right, if it's from inside and not outside, the words will come right. Might need some revision, but the inside-ness is what makes POV.

Someone at the Portland workshop I just did asked about how to "get into" the character, and we both confessed that we are most able to do that when we're semiconscious, like when we just wake up and are still kind of caught up in the dreaming state. The subconscious is still in control then-- the conscious isn't awake yet to assert our ego or edit our thoughts. Then we can become someone else, if only for a moment-- but it's a moment that lasts forever. We never forget what it felt like to "be" this character.
I'm really not at all mystical, but I really believe in the "waking dream" state for character-creation.

jaz said...


Thank you so much! I am editing a piece right now and you should know that your blog is one of the voices in my head as I go through it. :) And I can't tell you how nice it is to be able to actually "talk" to one of those voices!

I know this character so well, and he is pretty flatlined for part of the story, and so his realizing something is actually more important that what he realized. If that makes sense.

Thank you, as always, for your response!

Julie Harrington said...

JT, that "writer's ear" is so interesting. Do you think all writers have it? Or all good writers?

Well, I'd like to think I'm a good writer. LOL. Though I noticed my typo above *G* But hm. I don't know if all people can do it. For me the written word is like music. It has beats and measures. And I can often tell, as I'm reading through my word or through my critique parteners' manuscripts, when a sentence or a passage doesn't flow right, kind of stumbles, because it's missing that beat(s). I know one of my partner's is surprised by it but when she tweaks it, she does think it flows better. She just doesn't understand how the heck I know. LOL. I don't either to be honest. I just "hear it."


Edittorrent said...

That's the way it feels to me too-- I just "hear" it. Kind of strange because I'm not at all musical.

Julie Harrington said...

I'm totally not musical. I can't carry a tune and never even learned to play the piano. :)


Wes said...

Can you list a few novels with deep POV? The deeper the better.


Edittorrent said...

Wes, I made a blog entry out of my answer, so look for it on the front page. I also asked the commenters to suggest other books, so do read the comments. My brain sort of froze (it's very cold in the Midwest!) when you asked! Maybe others will have more nimble minds.

Riley Murphy said...

Now that I’m finished sulking over first quarter tax time (insert cringe here, and top it off with a HUGE shudder) - I got the chance to read this post. POV - deep or otherwise, has always been a constant source of worry for me. I mean, I make the decision about whose POV will be more beneficial to the scene for whatever reason but, if I think too much about this when I am writing it - I actual screw up the rhythm - if that makes sense. It’s almost like it isn’t working - I’m not feeling it or something. So, your comment about it coming from inside out, really hit home for me.
In high school I was enrolled in an art program and one of the classes dealt with free form drawing - where you had to sit and stare at an object and draw it without looking down at your paper or taking the pencil off the page. You had to learn to trust the visual picture you were seeing and translate it, without editing, before you were done. Truthfully, most of the time your drawings would look like a Picasso - but sometimes, when you relaxed and stayed connected and completely focused - your picture was nearly a perfect representation of the object. This is what I liken a good deep POV scene to be. Where the writer has managed to stay close and connected to her characters while allowing the reader to live in the moment with them - uninterrupted by the editing process.
On the flip side, have you ever had a person stand in front of you and talk at you - not to you? Like what they had to say, was more important to them, than it should have been to you? That’s how shallow POV feels to me. It’s like the description of that particular passage was written to please the writer - not a true representation of the characters visuals or thoughts and certainly not mindful of the reader’s ultimate experience.
Heck, I probably shouldn’t admit that I’ve been known to shift POV in the same scene - which I’m sure is a real no -no, yet I feel there are those very rare times that it seems to somehow me crazy all you want -but, I’m blaming it on my writer’s ear!:)

Edittorrent said...

Multiple POV (shifting within a scene FOR A GOOD REASON!) I think might be "the" POV of the 21st C. First person was dominant along with omniscient through the 18th and 19th, and single-third through the 20th, but multiple might be more suited to a multi-tasking, multimedia world. We'll see! Do it well (as Susan Elizabeth Phillips, for example, does), and no one will or should object.

Julie Harrington said...

Alicia, the topic of switching POVs in the same scene is a touchy one and I would love to hear your thoughts on the difference between shifting those POVs for "a good reason" in a scene vs. head hopping and and those "good reasons" are. I get into arguments about this all the time with my fellow writing friends. I tend to be a one POV per scene kind of girl, but I've been known to shift halfway through and slide into another (say from hero to heroine) for the rest of the scene. Some argue such "hopping" is their style. So how do you try to distinguish between a shift for a reason/doing it well vs. rampant shifting?

Riley Murphy said...

You hit the nail on the head! But, what qualifies good reason? After going over what I would term important or necessary to make the shift without starting a new scene in my writing, here’s my ‘good reason’ example:
I have the two main characters in the scene - waiting for a secondary character (who is integral to the plot - ready to enter and give them information) - I start the scene in the heroine’s POV - I let her process this information, as it comes to her (the reader is comfortable and expecting this, as her POV has, so far, pushed this part of the story forward). She asks the secondary character what she feels are pertinent questions and deals with the answers she is given - as only her personality allows her to. The hero, who has let all this unfold, and up until this point in the story, has patiently listened to the various facts without comment, is drawn into the conversation by the absolute despair of the heroine. He proceeds to ask a series of questions - directed to the secondary character. Nothing that would ever have occurred to the heroine, to ask. I don’t qualify it with a: ‘he said’ - or even use the secondary character’s name because the rhythm has been established - the hero is now dominating the conversation but, it remains just a natural conversation that evolves (without any character thought interruptions) until at the end of this dialogue block, I shift into the hero’s POV (the heroine, through her actions, has moved and stayed present in the scene - yet, verbally she has relinquished her role in the dialogue, creating a distance. And now that the hero has asked the tough questions, the heroine is faced to deal with the horrible answers and is slumped over in a chair, head in her hands and silently crying). It’s almost like the hero has to take over for her.
So, the reason I felt that this scene needed to be done this way - was to enlighten-both the characters and the reader. Up until this point in the book - the reader has been looking through the eyes and heart of the heroine, who was too emotionally connected to the problem to be real when dealing with it. The scene (that could have been split with a line break or a separate scene) now becomes an ‘ah-ha’ moment, that both the hero and heroine can experience together with the reader ( I kind of felt that if I did a line break or new scene to do this, it would only shorten the experience for the reader - as in, dealing first, with the heroine, her personality and subsequent reactions and then, moving onto the hero -and, I felt that to do this, it was like they were working apart somehow, if you get what I mean? And the object for me was to bring them closer together). I think constructing the scene this way also worked to give me the platform I needed to highlight, to the reader, just how different these two characters are - and how greatly, these vast differences, make them a perfect match for one another. Important information has been furnished. The reader now trusts the intentions and thoughts of the hero - and best of all? It only took me one scene to do it:). Am I crazy? Or can a scene constructed this way, work? I’m wondering...?

em said...

I think switching POV in the same scene is a tough sell. Murphy, I do like the idea of dialogue separation. However, as JT points out, it is a *touchy one* and I don't think I'd be able to pull it off.

Edittorrent said...

Em, you're probably naturally a single-POV writer, so why fight it? Go with what works for you-- just make it work. :)

Murph, I think sometimes that sort of POV shift is helpful in showing something about a relationship. For example, in your case, after the shift, the hero could be disgusted with the heroine's actions or energized. When he sees her slumped in the chair, he could feel triumphant or guilty. That's a great opportunity to show some transition to a new sort of feeling, because what if he feels sympathetic to her and doesn't WANT to? What if he thinks feeling for/with her makes him weak? Well, that would be really hard to show from her POV.

Good example!

em said...

I'm trying to make it work. The idea of using dialogue to transition the pov is something that I might try in a scene in my next book. I really liked what you said about it being a good opportunity. First, I have to finish my single pov historical:).